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On Honouring A Foreparent In Faith: John Wesley and ‘The Duty Of Constant Communion’


This paper first appeared in Theological Digest & Outlook (Burlington) in January of 1995.

                                               On Honouring A Foreparent In Faith:

John Wesley And “The Duty Of Constant Communion”

Luke 22: 19                   1 Corinthians 11:27 -29


The fifth of the Ten Commandments tells us that we are to honour our father and mother in order that our days may be long in the land that the Lord our God gives us. Most immediately we are to honour our biological father and mother, those who begat us and bore us and gave us life, and whose wisdom, faithfulness and encouragement helped us past pitfallswhen we were less than mature.

Lutheran Christians ever since Martin himself have believed that God intends a wider application of the fifth commandment.         Lutherans have always believed that “Honour your father and mother” also means “Honour all — however long dead — whose wisdom, faithfulness and encouragement now assist you, inspire you, make you wise; in short, honour all whose wisdom, faithfulness and encouragement continue to help you past pitfalls in your discipleship since your faith isn’t yet mature.” If our Lutheran friends are correct, then we obey the fifth commandment as we honour our foreparents in faith.

One such foreparent of all Christians is John Wesley.         He can help us past many pitfalls that surround us and concerning which we need help, since our faith is less than mature.         Today we are going to honour him by taking to heart his convictions concerning Holy Communion.


In 1787, when Wesley was 84 years old, he wrote a tract called, “The Duty of Constant Communion”.         His 1787 tract was a re-write of the tract he had penned 55 years earlier in 1732. “Five and fifty years ago”, he tells us in that English style which is archaic in the 21st Century, “Five and fifty years ago the following discourse was written for the use of my pupils at Oxford … I then used more words than I do now.         But I thank God I have not yet seen cause to alter my sentiments in any point which is therein delivered.”         (He means that what he believed in 1732 he still believed in 1787.)

Immediately Wesley says that while he isn’t surprised at people who don’t fear God being indifferent to Holy Communion, he finds it incomprehensible that many who do fear God are infrequently found at the Lord’s table.         When he asked these people why they shied away from Holy Communion they quoted Paul’s word in 1st Corinthians 11:27: “Whoever…eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”         In Wesley’s era God-fearing people were absenting themselves from Holy Communion inasmuch as they regarded themselves unworthy and didn’t want to bring the judgement of God upon them.

It still happens. On the first communion Sunday of my first pastoral charge I stepped into the sanctuary to begin worship only to find that the congregation had segregated itself, some worshippers sitting on one side of the sanctuary, other worshippers on the other side.         I asked what this meant and was told that on communion Sundays the congregation divided itself into those deeming themselves worthy and those unworthy. I was appalled, and immediately had everyone sit together.         Whatever Paul meant by “eating and drinking unworthily” he didn’t mean that.

Let us be sure we understand something crucial.         God is free; God is sovereign; therefore God can meet us anywhere at any time in any manner through any means.         Nevertheless, he has promised that he will invariably meet – unfailingly meet us – through scripture, sermon and sacrament.         In other words, while we may be overtaken by God at any time by any means (surprised by God, that is) we know that we shall find God for sure, every time, at scripture, sermon and sacrament.         Therefore we must never absent ourselves from these.         When well-intentioned yet misguided people told Wesley they absented themselves from Holy Communion lest they endanger themselves through partaking “unworthily”, he told them they were endangering themselves far more by not partaking at all.         And then he told them why they were at spiritual risk for not partaking at all.


I: — In the first place, Wesley reminded them, it is the Lord’s command that we come to his table.         “Do this in remembrance of me.         Do it.”         It’s an imperative, not a suggestion.         Jesus Christ commands us to come to his table.         It is therefore the obligation of everyone who believes in him to obey him and come. Not to come is simply to defy and disdain the one we call “Lord”.         But to call Christ “Lord” is to obey him, at least to want to obey him, to be eager to obey him. How can we call upon him as Lord, admit that he who is Lord is also our Justifier, yet continue to regard ourselves as unworthy?         More to the point, he hasn’t commanded us to come if first we deem ourselves worthy; he has simply commanded us to come.

Then Wesley adds a footnote.         On the eve of his death Jesus told his followers that he wouldn’t call them servants, since a servant merely obeys without being admitted intimately to the mind and heart of the servant’s master. Rather because he himself, continued Jesus, because he has drawn his followers most intimately into his mind and heart he calls them servants no longer but friends. (John 15:15) “Now”, says Wesley, “if our Lord draws us so intimately into his mind and heart as to call us friends, surely we can’t turn down his final request. What friend turns down his dying friend’s final request?”

There is another point, not made by Wesley, yet too important for us not to mention. In the ancient world the word “friend” was rich with several meanings.         In Israel “friend” had a special meaning; it meant “best man” at a wedding. In Rome “friend” had a special meaning too; it meant “someone intensely loyal to Caesar”. No one can imagine the best man at a wedding failing to do what the bridegroom has asked him to do. No one can imagine a Roman soldier publicly declaring his utmost loyalty to Caesar and then publicly refusing to do what Caesar asks of him.

“Absent ourselves from Holy Communion, for any reason?” Wesley asks; “Don’t we know what the word ‘friend’ means?”


II: — In the second place, says Wesley, Holy Communion is more than just God’s command; it is also God’s provision for our spiritual need.         To be sure, Christians are sinners who have come to faith and repentance through the incursion of God’s Spirit.         Yes, we have passed from death to life, from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom, from guilt to acquittal, from shame to glory.         Nevertheless, sin still dogs us.         Our glory isn’t without some tarnish; our freedom isn’t without niggling habituation. Yes, we live in the light of him who is light; still, that darkness which our Lord has overcome hasn’t yet been wholly overcome in us.         Or as Martin Luther used to say, “In putting on Christ in faith we have also put on the new man (woman); the old man is therefore put to death; but the stinker doesn’t die quietly.”         In other words, however strong our faith, in fact it is weak.         However mature our discipleship, we have not yet graduated.         However resilient we think we are in the company of our Lord, we are yet frail and fragile and faltering.         Therefore we can’t afford to pass up any provision God has made for us in our need of greater deliverance.         For this reason Wesley speaks of Holy Communion as “a mercy of God to man.” Quoting Psalm 145:9 (“God’s mercy is over all his works”) Wesley reminds us that however God deals with us — whether gently or roughly, whether starkly or subtly, whether suddenly or slowly — whatever God does to us and with us he does ultimately just because he is for us.         Therefore everything God does to us and with us is finally an expression of God’s mercy. In light of this, who is so foolish as to absent herself from the most dramatic representation of that mercy, Holy Communion?

Wesley never hesitated to be blunt.         Because partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a command of God, he said, to spurn it is to announce that we have no piety; and because partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a mercy of God, to spurn it is to announce that we have no wisdom. Piety, Wesley had learned from John Calvin, is the love of God and the fear of God. To be without piety is therefore ultimately to be insensitive to God.         To be without wisdom is simply to be fools.

Fools? Yes, says Wesley as he develops a theme that runs like a thread through all his writings. The theme is this: none but the holy are finally happy.         He insists tirelessly that God has fashioned us for happiness.         Not for superficial jollity or frivolity or sentimentality, but certainly for deep-down contentment, joy, happiness.         Let’s not forget that the Greek word MAKARIOS, rendered “blessed” in most English translations of the beatitudes (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled”, etc.); the Greek word MAKARIOS also means “happy” (in both ancient Greek and modern Greek).         Of course. How could we ever be blessed — by God himself — and finally be miserable?

To be sure, there is no end to the pleasure we can find in nature; no end to the pleasure we can find in culture; no end to the pleasure we can find in our own bodiliness and our intellectual life.         Nonetheless, there is one delight that all of this can’t give us: our “enjoyment” of God, in Wesley’s words.         Wesley insists there is one throbbing pleasure that God’s children know and unbelievers can’t know: “delight in God”.

Now, says the indefatigable man himself, only as we are holy are we profoundly happy. Yet we can’t render ourselves holy. Holy Communion is one of God’s provisions to render us holy.         To absent ourselves from it is to cut ourselves off from that blessedness which is our greatest happiness.


III: — In Wesley’s day (the 1700s) as in our day people put forward a variety of reasons as to why they don’t or even shouldn’t come to the Lord’s Supper. We need not suspect these people of insincerity; the reasons they put forward aren’t excuses offered lamely. Those who absent themselves from the Lord’s Supper are sincere, says Wesley — and they are sincerely wrong.

One reason put forward. “I have sinned, and therefore I am not fit to communicate.”         Wesley said this was nothing short of ridiculous, however well intentioned. While sin is a violation of the command of God, we don’t atone for violating the command of God by violating another command (to communicate).         Nobody atones for the sin of theft by committing the sin of murder. If we have sinned (better, since we sin) there is all the more reason for betaking ourselves to Holy Communion where we shall find — for sure — in the words of Wesley, “the forgiveness of our past sins” and “the present strengthening and refreshing of our souls.”

Another reason put forward for not attending Holy Communion.         “I can’t live up to the promise made in the communion service to remain Christ’s true follower.”         Wesley agrees: none of us can live up to the promise.         At the same time, he tells us, none of us lives up to any of the promises we make anywhere in life. But this is no excuse for not making a promise.         Do we refuse to get married (with the promise marriage entails) on the grounds that we are never going to be the perfect spouse?

Another reason put forward. “Frequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper will diminish our reverence for the sacrament.” “What if it did?” says Wesley; “Would this render null and void the command of God?” Needless to say, it is Wesley’s conviction that frequent communion, so far from diminishing our reverence for the sacrament, will only increase it.

Another reason advanced for not coming to the Lord’s Table.         “I have come so very many times already, and I don’t feel I have benefited in any way.” Here Wesley replies in two instalments. In the first place, the issue that can’t be dodged, he repeats yet again, is the command of God. God insists that we honour him and his will for us by bringing ourselves and whatever faith we have to that table where we can meet him for sure.         In the second place, we have benefited from regular attendance at the Lord’s Supper regardless of how much or how little we may feel.         Even when we feel nothing, says Wesley, we are being “strengthened, made more fit for the service of God, and more constant in it.” What’s more, he continues, not only have we benefited where we feel we haven’t, but also the day comes when feeling catches up to fact; what has been real in our hearts, albeit hidden in our hearts, is now manifested within our hearts so as to leave us without complaint concerning feeling.

The most telling objection to frequent communion came from those who trembled before Paul’s word in 1st Corinthians 11.         “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” What is the unworthiness that Paul has in mind?         It isn’t an extraordinary, inner, personal unworthiness.         Then what is it? The clue to it is given two verses later.         “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body – i.e., the body of Christ, the congregation – eats and drinks judgement upon himself.” We must recall the situation in Corinth . The congregation there was a mess. Party-factions were fragmenting the congregation. One man was involved in open incest and no one seemed to care.         Parishioners preferred religious “glitz” to spiritual profundity. Boasting had supplanted cross-bearing. Within the congregation there flourished bitterness, lovelessness, self-exaltation, superficiality and sleaze.         Paul said it had to end. The Corinthians had lost sight of the fact that the congregation is Christ’s body. Currently the body in Corinth appeared hideous. Anyone who came to the Lord’s Supper without discerning this, said Paul, was in a sorry state herself.

In other words, when we come to Holy Communion we must understand that because the congregation is Christ’s body, we must be determined to ensure that it exhibits itself as Christ’s body, lest the watching world pour contempt upon him who is the head of the body, Christ Jesus himself. To eat and drink worthily is simply to come to the Lord’s Supper determined to live together as a congregation so as to bring honour to the congregation’s Lord. Therefore let all who have resolved to do this never absent themselves from the service.

It is only fitting that we let John Wesley himself have the last word. When he has finished telling us why we must come to Holy Communion, and come constantly; when he has finished replying to the well-intentioned but groundless reasons that people advance for not coming, he then concludes his tract, “If any who have hitherto neglected [Holy Communion] on any of these pretences will lay these things to heart, they will, by the grace of God, come to a better mind, and never more forsake their own mercies.”

 Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                      May 2007