Back in the 1700s the reformers in the Church of England had to be careful about how they went about proclaiming their message. John Wesley, the founding father of Methodism, was probably among the loudest and most troublesome for the Church of England and its Bishops. He preached in the fields to the common people of his day, to the unchurched and to those who had fallen away from the faith. In so doing, he severely limited the impact he could have on the Church bureaucracy. While loved and admired by the common folk, he was often ignored or vilified by Church officials. John Wesleys brother, on the other hand, was far more quiet about his reformist attitudes.
Charles Wesley, like his brother, was a priest of the Anglican Church; he was also a well noted church musician and composer of sacred music. Charles wrote hundreds of hymns, some of which are still sung in English speaking churches around the world. And, like most hymn writers of his day, Charles musical compositions contained some very powerful teachings on many theological topics. One of these topics was the Lords Supper.
In the 1700s, Holy Communion was offered in most Anglican Churches around once a quarter--thats once every 3 months! John and Charles Wesley both taught through practice, sermon, and hymn, that the Eucharist should be received at least weekly. Additionally, while the average lay person in the Church of England considered the Sacrament to be a boring, ritualistic, unimportant event in the life of the Church, the Wesley brothers taught that Holy Communion was of extreme importance for the spiritual health and well-being of the Body of Christ, and that while it should be treated with reverence, it is also a time of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Charles Wesley hymn Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast proclaims this belief better than almost any other song in our Hymnal while, at the same time, revealing the radical way in which Christ makes himself present to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
let every soul be Jesus guest
Ye need not one be left behind
for God hath bid all humankind.
The first stanza tells us that sinners are called to come to the table! You dont have to be perfect to come. Indeed, its exactly because we are imperfect that we need to come to the table!
Do not begin to make excuse;
ah! do not you his grace refuse;
Your worldly cares and pleasures leave,
and take what Jesus hath to give.
The second stanza tells us that no one has an excuse for not coming to the table or for refusing to receive the Grace of Jesus Christ. If it is being offere, don't pretend that you don't need to come! We all need the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! No sin can keep us away from the Love of God! If it is offered, and you feel called to come to the table, then COME!
Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God,
and eat his flesh and drink his blood.
The third stanza is the most difficult. It proclaims that Christs presence is known through the elements of bread and wine and is real, and that when we eat and drink the elements we are receiving the Divine Grace which is able to save us from our sin. Of all the stanzas of this hymn, this one bothers many protestants the most. The idea that we are to eat his flesh and drink his blood makes many nervous; and yet, if we dump the idea we must dump John 6:53 --
Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
I'm often asked "does this mean that we United Methodists are supposed to believe that the elements of bread and wine actually change into Jesus' Body and Blood?" My response is simple, and two-fold: NO, the elements don't change, but they DO communicate to us, they DO transmit to us, the REAL, Divine, Saving Presence of Jesus Christ -- which is what we mean when we talk about Grace! And, as for a real change ... YES, coming to the table of the Lord with faith and eating and drinking the consecrated elements of the sacrament DO effect an ACTUAL change! WE are transformed into the Body of Christ!
© 1994, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved