Friday, February 20, 2015

2 Things to Do, and 2 to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

2 Things to Do in Maundy Thursday Services
File:Christ washes apostles' feet (Monreale).jpg
Jesus washes his disciples' feet. The Latin inscription
above is "Mandatum" meaning "Commandment." Public Domain.

1. Do wash feet... or hands

The heart of Maundy Thursday, as the church has kept it for centuries, is about following the example and obeying the new commandment of Jesus when he washed his disciples' feet. The "new commandment" is to "love one another as I have loved you." And Jesus says he has set the example of washing his disciples' feet with the expectation we will wash one another's feet.

Washing feet regularly was a  necessary in the time of Jesus. The basic shoe was a sandal, and nearly all roads and even many floors in homes were dust. It became a basic act of hospitality to make sure that guests in homes received a footwashing, typically from a child or a servant, as part of their welcome into the home. 

In modern US and European culture, shoes generally protect from dirt and dust, and roads and floors are relatively dust-free. Many use their hands far more than their feet. For those who work on their feet all day, or lack protective shoes, footwashing remains a powerful sign-act because it is also needed. For others, perhaps hand-washing may be the more needful basic act of physical care.

2. Do celebrate Holy Communion.
Though Holy Communion appears nowhere in the text Christians read from John's gospel this night, Maundy Thursday is an occasion to celebrate around the Lord's table. The one who washes us, also invites us to dine with him.

There is long Christian practice of fasting beginning after receiving from the Lord's table on this night until receiving again from the table at the Great Vigil of Easter (Saturday night after sundown) or Easter Sunday morning. As we watch and pray with Jesus during these three days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday), we allow ourselves to be sustained by this meal of bread and cup, remembering the night of his commandment and betrayal until we receive the bread and cup anew in celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

2 Things to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

1. Re-Schedule Re-enactments of the Last Supper

The Church observes Maundy Thursday not primarily to recall the last supper, but instead,  to hear and obey the new commandment of Jesus. We may easily miss this as the focal point if we overload a service primarily about the new commandment and footwashing with a re-enactment of the Last Supper as well. Worse, there is a temptation to substitute re-enactments for the actual Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, turning the prayer of the church into a play.

For several centuries, the Church in the West tried to sustain a focus on both events on this night-- both the founding of Holy Communion and the giving of the new commandment. Ultimately, it became clear this was too unwieldy. Neither was getting the focused attention both deserved. So the Western Church established the separate observance of "Corpus Christi" in the 13th century (set for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday), and this is still observed by Roman (and other) Catholics, as well as some Lutherans and Anglicans to this day. By having two different services at different times, the new commandment and footwashing on the one hand, and the commemoration of the founding of Holy Communion on the other, could each have its own service without either focus getting in the way or threatening to upstage the other.  

All fine and good, but United Methodists don't celebrate Corpus Christi. And we have, in many places, developed a tradition of re-enacting the last supper, often on Maundy Thursday. So how do we honor our own tradition in this matter without that getting in the way of what we're supposed to be doing in the Maundy Thursday service?

It's a matter of scheduling.

There may be other occasions during Holy Week when re-enactment of the Last Supper may make much better sense. A service of Tenebrae, either immediately following the Maundy Thursday service or on Friday night, may be one of them. A simple re-enactment could be offered immediately before the beginning of the reading from the passion narrative as background before the reading. Or you might have a Holy Thursday program that includes re-enactment along with a simple meal, all set in a fellowship hall, prior to the actual Maundy Thursday service in your worship space.

2. Quit Doing Christian-Hosted Seders

The United Methodist Book of Worship has this to say about United Methodists and Seder practices:

"United Methodists are encouraged to celebrate the Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of the Jewish community, thus respecting the integrity of what is a Jewish tradition and continuing the worthy practice of Jews and Christians sharing at table together. Celebrating the modern meal without a Jewish family as host is an affront to Jewish tradition and sometimes creates misunderstanding about the meaning of the Lord's Supper" (p. 351, emphasis added).

Why is our General Conference-approved official guidance on this matter so strong?

The answer is because it is simply true. Christians
hosting a Seder is offensive to many Jewish people, and does nothing to promote deeper understanding either of Judaism or of the Jewish roots of Christianity. 
And historically, there are important historical and biblical reasons that Christians today should not be presuming to celebrate this festival as if we had some reason to do so.
First, any specific connections between the Last Supper and Passover ritual in the time of Jesus are
impossible to establish. There are no reliable texts describing Jewish Passover practices until the third century, and there is no way to demonstrate that these texts, which are themselves rather sketchy on some points, reflect what first century practice would have been. Thus, trying to recreate a first-century Seder or imagine what it may have been is just that—an act of imaginative speculation, not an act of responsible historical or liturgical interpretation.

Second, what is typically done by Christians in "recreating" a first century Seder with Jesus
at the table is to read the more or less current Seder texts back into the first century, with Jesus as host. However, Jewish Seder practice today is not based even on the third century texts that might have been closer to the practice at the time of Jesus. Instead, Jewish Seder ritual today, as it has for centuries, consciously embraces the later history of the development of this rite beginning in the late middle ages and into current times. 

Third, Jesus chose perhaps the most non-distinctive elements of the Passover meal -- bread and wine, common to all meals -- as the signs and bearers of his body and blood in all the biblical accounts of the last supper in the gospels and I Corinthians. Given conflicting accounts between Luke and the others about which cup of wine Jesus used to designate his blood, there is no way to conclude decisively, on biblical grounds, what the meaning of that cup would have been related to a first century Seder, even if we had access to a definitive text.

And that's if we think the last Supper was a Seder. Or that the Christian Eucharist was modeled on the Seder in any meaningful way.

Which brings us to the fourth and fifth historical problems. The earliest forms of Christian Eucharistic prayers we have bear almost no resemblance to
anything we see from the third century, much less late medieval  or modern Jewish Seder texts. They actually bear far more resemblance to first or third century Jewish thanksgivings for meals in general or for Sabbath meals (Q'iddush).

Fifth and finally, John's Gospel, which we read on Maundy Thursday, describes the events of this night as occurring before the festival of the Passover (John 13:1), while the synoptics (including Luke, which we have read on Palm/Passion Sunday) place the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Passover themes are certainly present in all the gospel accounts and provide some kind of context for the story of the last meal the disciples shared with Jesus. However, these differing accounts in the gospels should make it clear that trying to press any specific actions into any particulars of Jewish Passover ritual of that or any time is problematic at best. 

So, if you want to celebrate a Seder, you can do that
in one of two ways. You can ask a Jewish family or congregation if you might join as a guest. Or your congregation can partner with a rabbi or a Jewish congregation and they can host you at a Seder. If you want to celebrate Maundy Thursday, trust and use our official liturgy or the alternatives on your Discipleship Ministries website. These reflect the wisdom and scholarship of centuries of Christian faith and practice. Christian-hosted Seders do not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Lent Begins Cold with Ice and Snow

After the Ice Storm: Public Domain
And so Lent begins.

But for many in the United States, maybe not quite yet.

Icy roads, impassable snow drifts, bone-chilling cold in places unaccustomed to such feats of winter have rightly led many congregations in the US to cancel Ash Wednesday services today. And even where they're not cancelled, there may be fewer who venture out to join those who do gather.

What do you do when Lent begins with such intense cold, ice and snow when your area lacks the resources to manage it? 

Wait for it... wait for it...

If we take our cue from the first reading for Ash Wednesday, we simply wait. We wait until we can safely gather. For Joel, the act of gathering is essential to the season of penitence the Lord calls him to proclaim:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
                                                                     (Joel 2:15-16 NRSV, emphasis added).

Assembly, gather, congregation, assemble, gather, leave-- six words in 2 short verses all point to the same thing. If we are serious about repentance, we can't do this alone. We have to be together, gathered together in one. Not even being part of a wedding is excuse to stay behind when the trumpet sounds in Zion.
The repentance we must enact is corporate. We can't do it individually in our homes or on our schedules. We have to be together to do this.

Note the context of this call to togetherness, no matter what. Israel's climate is temperate. And the season of the year when Joel calls for this fast appears to be near the time of planting or harvest, not a time known for dangerous cold, ice or snow. Joel does ask people to stop what they're doing and come. He doesn't ask them to risk their lives to do it.

So for many in the US today, there will not be a gathering for Ash Wednesday. That doesn't call for us to supplant our gathering together and use ashes at home or on a street corner or with a few friends and family nearby. What matters most as we begin Lent together isn't ashes or how we get them. It's the people of the church-- as many as possible-- gathering together as one, people of all ages and stages in life-- to embrace our mortality, confess our sin, and seek God's mercy and power to enable us truly to repent and walk in all the ways of God's kingdom as we vowed to do and to help each other do at our baptisms.

So the most important question isn't how will you get ashes today. The most important question is when can you safely gather next?

For some, this may be this coming Sunday. For others, it may be later yet, perhaps the following Sunday, since it's increasingly difficult to for many of our churches to gather in any critical mass during the week.

What then about ashes, if Lent has already begun and we missed Ash Wednesday?

You can still use them. But now use them as part of an opening rite of confession and penitence, while using the texts for the Sunday when you actually gather as the basis for the rest of the worship design and preaching that day.

If you think about it, it's not unlike what we do on Passion/Palm Sunday. We begin with the liturgy of the Palms, perhaps starting outside the worship space and processing in. Then we continue with the liturgy of the Passion.

In this case, simply begin the service with the Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline (The United Methodist Book of Worship 322) and proceed through the Confession and Pardon (323), then offer a Lenten hymn (Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days UMH 269, or Dust and Ashes W&S 3098) and proceed with the readings, sermon, and celebration of Holy Communion for that Sunday as usual. Assuming you are celebrating Holy Communion, give the full Invitation to the Table as usual, and then proceed directly to the Peace of Christ, since you will have already offered the confession and pardon as part of the opening of the service.

Be safe out there.

And whenever you can, as soon as you can, be gathered.

The work of repentance with which this season of baptismal formation begins is something we cannot do individually or in isolated pockets of family and friends. "There is no holiness but social holiness," John Wesley reminds. The holiness we seek only happens as God sanctifies us-- together.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Top 5 Reasons Ashes2Go is a Really Bad Idea

Ashes2Go is an initiative begun a few years ago, largely among Episcopal churches, though some Lutheran, Presbyterians, United Methodists and others whose denominations observe Ash Wednesday have joined the bandwagon as well.

The idea is to station pastors (usually) at strategic outdoor places with a supply of ashes to offer to passersby who may not, for whatever reason, get to an Ash Wednesday service that day. Usually there is some brief interaction of confession, prayer, and then imposition of ashes and perhaps a word of pardon. Exactly what happens can vary widely.

I don't typically use this forum to argue against a practice, but I'm making an exception in this case. My title is not intended as clickbait. I believe those who engage in this practice and promote it mean well. I do not in any way wish to impugn their motives, sincerity, or the quality of their Christian or pastoral commitment.

At the same time, I genuinely see Ashes2Go (or whatever it might be called where you are) as a really bad idea.

Here are my top 5 reasons for concluding that.

5. It focuses on the wrong thing.
Ash Wednesday, despite its name, isn't about ashes, though the rite of the gathered community that day most often includes them.  It's about gathering as a community of the baptized and seekers to acknowledge our mortality and seek God's mercy, pardon and cleansing power for our sin.

4. It replaces one part for the whole. The imposition of the ashes in the service of Ash Wednesday is only one part of the whole of the service of the gathered community, which is a complete service of Word and Table. We enter, we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we are invited to take on the whole of the disciplines of Lent as a community and as individual members of it, we receive ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, we hear the word of pardon, we offer one another the peace of Christ, we celebrate at the Lord's table, and we are sent forth to live what we have pledged and prayed.

3. Administering the ashes on the street may feel "meaningful," but it is not what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday.
People who receive ashes "randomly" through Ashes2Go, as well as those who impose the ashes, may find these actions personally "meaningful" in some way. But feeling something to be meaningful is not the same thing as participating in what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday. We gather together to start our Lenten journey together. From the earliest days, as the introduction to Ash Wednesday reminds, that journey is one in which the baptized accompany those preparing for baptism and those who had become estranged from the way of Christ and from the Christian community in the final days of their preparation to receive baptism (at Easter) or be restored to full fellowship in the life of the Christian community through reconciliation (typically at Maundy Thursday).

2. It means well, but performs poorly. Appeals for doing Ashes2Go typically involve calling the church to offer itself in ministry "outside its walls." That's a fine and admirable thing. Surely, we should be in ministry outside the walls of our worship spaces. The problem is the notion that offering ashes to random passersby who may or may not be part of a gathered community that day is a concrete and unambiguous way of sharing grace with all.

Ashes2Go may indeed get a few people "outside the walls" (mostly pastors). But that second part-- that the typical passerby would read the offering of ashes as a sign of grace, much less something they'd want-- may be more than a bit of a stretch these days. And worse, by offering ashes and "on the spot" individualized acts of pardon, we might (if unintentionally) be sending and reinforcing a message that says you don't really need to be part of a gathered community to receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday. You can get them when and where it's convenient for you, and you don't need to be part of a gathered community ritual to do it. After all, religious goods and services should be available when, where and as we wish to consume them, right?

Is that a message we want to send, really?

1. Any of these, and any number of others you might think of, are MUCH better ideas for outdoor outreach on Ash Wednesday.  If we really want to embody ministry "outside the walls" and do so in ways many of us can participate in (not just pastors), here are a nearly a half dozen ideas that, to me, at least, send that signal in an unambiguous, compassionate, and maybe even fun way:

a) Set up prayer stations on sidewalks or by train stations or bus stops. All it takes is a sign that says, "Want prayer?" and someone, lay or clergy, posted there to pray with folks who do. Well, and some training for those doing the praying so they can offer this ministry well.

b) Consider adding two more words to your sign-- "Seek healing?"-- and bring some olive oil along for anointing those who seek prayer for healing for themselves or others." If your congregation already has a healing prayer team, send them out to these stations after they've attended your Ash Wednesday service!

c) Go to strategic places where folks are liable to be thirsty and give away bottles of water, or cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, or coffee, or iced or hot tea  (not food-- it's a fast day, right?)

d) Sing, play, or gather a group to sing or play or a troupe to put on a brief performance, put out a hat, and then share any proceeds you might collect equally with all street performers in a one block radius. If there aren't street performers around, donate all proceeds to a reliable charity operating in the local area-- NOT your church-- and announce or put on your sign where the funds will go. Oh-- and record this and put it up on YouTube-- NOT to toot your own horn, but to inspire others to consider ways they can offer a few moments of joy and hope to others around them.

e) Hand out children's books and Lenten devotional booklets that include your church's contact information 

f) any combination or all of the above

What other good Ash Wednesday outreach ideas might you add?

HT Drew McIntyre

Thursday, October 9, 2014

5 Ways to Address Ebola in Worship

The 2014 outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa and in remote villages of Province Equateur in The Democratic Republic of Congo have rightly grabbed headlines across the globe. Thousands have died in West Africa, and given conditions on the ground, it is likely that thousands more will be infected and die before the crisis is brought under control.

At the right is an infographic from the Centers for Disease Control, the world's go-to entity for accurate information about infections diseases. You can download the original (.pdf) here.

So what is a worshiping community to do about Ebola?

Here are 5 things for starters.

1. Pray. Take time to pray during worship for all who are involved with this crisis, those who are its victims, those who are working to contain and treat it, and those who are caring for and losing loved ones. If your congregation is not already engaging in fervent prayer for the world during worship as well as during daily devotional life, consider this your wake-up call.

2. Support organizations that are making a difference on the ground. United Methodists have UMCOR, that not only provides direct assistance, but also coordinates with others to make sure the financial support we provide can do the most good for the long haul. You can donate here.

But don't limit your support to donation. Stay up to date with how UMCOR and other UMC organizations are helping, and talk it up to folks in your social networks, your website, your social media pages or groups, as well as at offering times during worship. 

3. Speak truth and stop rumors. In countries where Ebola is spreading, one of the key strategies United Methodists and other Christians are using to prevent further spread is to talk frankly about what the disease is, how it spreads, and what to do to prevent it spreading further... during Sunday School or worship. This is critical work for churches to be doing. Many of the practices that make the spread of Ebola more likely come from spiritual beliefs, some of which may have been supported, if at least not opposed, by the churches. United Methodist Communications is helping provide a significant Twitter campaign to root out harmful superstitions while offering both encouragement and straight talk. They've also launched a video and television campaign with this animated video. United Methodist and other pastors are trying to get accurate word out, including calling for the end of millennia-long customs and practices of handling the dead that make spread more likely, since the infection can survive the death of its victim for 72 hours or more.

In the United States, we have other false rumors to counter. We need to know and be talking openly and actively about how Ebola is and is not spread. Use and distribute the CDC materials to worshipers, put some Ebola education into Sunday Schools at every level, and make sure your congregation knows and is ready to speak out about the difference between facts and unfounded fears and rumors.

4. Implement good and reasonable sanitation practices in your worship space. Thoroughly clean your pews or other seating, hymnals, pew Bibles, or other materials more than one person is likely to touch at least quarterly, and if persons in your congregation or more immediate community become infected, at least once between services.

Have hand sanitizer available at all entrances and encourage folks to use it if there is any infectious disease widely spreading where you are.

Take care with "touch points" in worship during flu season or other times when disease spreadable by contact with bodily fluids may be in play. Avoid shaking hands-- in worship or anywhere. Make sure communion servers have washed hands, and break off and serve the bread themselves (perhaps even dipping the bread for others) and place it into the opened hands of those receiving, careful not to touch their hands. Then sanitize or thoroughly clean all implements used for communion-- cups, plates, and napkins. For baptism or reaffirmation, pour the water over the hands/heads of persons from a pitcher, rather than encouraging multiple persons to use the same water from the font. For the peace, encourage folks to bow to one another rather than shake hands or embrace.

Note that almost none of these "extraordinary" measures around touch points are necessary at all if Ebola or other infectious diseases are not spreading. Normally, we can (and should!) encourage human contact as part of worship. These are not ways to avoid human contact, but rather measures to ensure such contact is as safe as possible when infectious diseases reach epidemic levels or when an infections disease as dangerous as Ebola is actually known to be present where you are. And for now, as far as we know, it is not, anywhere in The United States.

5. Confess and repent. Ebola can be contained when proper health care systems and sanitation practices are in place. It spreads rapidly when proper health care and sanitation are not available or are only scarcely available and soon become completely overwhelmed. That such systems are not in place or not sufficiently in place lies at the root of the current Ebola crisis. And at the root of the lack of those systems is a world-system that continues to be satisfied to keep Africans impoverished rather than making sure that access to safe health care is treated as a basic human right and made available to all persons, everywhere.

In short, this outbreak of Ebola reveals the reality of this continuing human sin at both a personal but especially a systemic level.  We Christians know what do to with sin. We do not make excuses for it. We do not try to hide it. We openly confess it. And we seek God's pardon and power to help us heal and put right what we in our sin have broken and mangled.

So in addition to praying for those dealing with Ebola on the ground, take time in worship, for some time to come, to confess our complicity in the sin which makes diseases such as this the capacity to spread and destroy far more than they need to. And seek God's power, vision, and wisdom to be part of setting it right.


Monday, September 22, 2014

World Communion Sunday: When Christ Makes Us Know We Are His Own

Text: Philippians 3:4b-14
Dr. Dawn Chesser
Director of Preaching Ministries
Discipleship Ministries of
The United Methodist Church

On this World Communion Sunday it might be good to reflect on Paul’s encouragement to the Christian community in Philippi to know for themselves the peace that comes from knowing Christ has “made me his own.”

Paul begins by talking about his worldly accomplishments. He’s a great success story on paper. He is Jewish, a blood member of God’s chosen people, born into tribe of Benjamin. Further, he is a Pharisee and has spent most of his life zealously defending the law. He was even a persecutor of Christians, completely righteous and blameless under the law.

But, he says, all of that means nothing when he compares it to what he has found in Christ. It is all considered rubbish to him now, because knowing Christ, being found in Christ, is all that matters. It is the only prize he seeks or wants or desires. He is willing, even eager, to bear these worldly losses “in order that [he] may gain Christ and be found in him, ” he writes in verse 9.” Knowing Christ” and “being found in him” are claims of personal knowledge, personal experience, with in Christ.
And of course, we who follow Christ can understand what Paul is talking about here because we’ve all experienced it, too. Probably most of us have personally known what it means to "be Christ's own" at some point in our lives.
Knowing we are Christ's own refers to those moments when we feel Christ’s presence, feel Christ’s grace, and know Christ’s assurance deep down in our very hearts.

The experience of knowing Christ has made us his own is almost never a sustained thing. It is usually momentary. Still, its effects may be permanent.

John Wesley speaks of his own personal experience of “knowing Christ had made him his own" in an entry from his journal for May 23, 1738. He writes,

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

What a powerful testimony!

Yet, even for John Wesley, that initial moment of assurance was fleeting, even if some of its effects were lasting. As Wesley wrote later in the same journal entry, “After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again.”

Though such moments are fleeting, there are things we can do as disciples to remind us of such moments along the way and continue to drawn strength from them.

In the case of Wesley, the memory of that night on Aldersgate Road burned constantly before him like a beacon in the night. It gave him a newfound sense of his own strength. “I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

Likewise, we too can engage in practices that help us to recall our own individual moments of “knowing Christ has made us his own.” We can be reminded of how good we felt, and the more we are reminded the more we desire that feeling of God’s holiness. Just like Paul, the desire for knowing God’s overwhelming love and grace can become the prize that we seek. And Paul is right: it is a prize more important than any accomplishment the world has to offer. It is a prize more important than power, fame, wealth, or status. When living in the light of Christ becomes our primary goal, the greatest desire of our lives, the things of this world become more and more like rubbish compared to this desire.

John Wesley reinvigorated an Anglican method for helping to keep the Methodists’ eyes on the prize. It was called “using the means of grace.” He wrote a sermon on this topic ("The Means of Grace") that makes clear the relationship between the means of grace (especially the sacraments) and such profound experiences of knowing Christ has made us his own.

Wesley identifies the means of grace this way: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, ed. Frank Baker and Albert C. Outler, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 376-397).  

The chief “ordinary channels” Wesley identifies are prayer (private and public), searching the Scriptures (reading, hearing, and meditating upon), and sharing in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is not the means themselves, but rather the power of God working on a person’s heart through these ordinary means that, over time, brings a person to fullness of faith. It is possible to practice these means and not grow in faith. Wesley suggests that this is precisely what had happened for many in the Church of England in his day. 

For Wesley, participating in the means of grace inattentively puts the person in danger of “abusing the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. By "inattentive" use of the means Wesley meant practicing them with no attention to their meaning at the time, or with a false understanding of their meaning, including notions that the practices themselves had some sort of magical power.  Inattentive practice shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature of grace.

Grace, for Wesley, is a free gift from God, and, as such, there is nothing that God requires in order to bestow it upon God’s children. If, asks Wesley, it is a gift, how do we find assurance that we have received it? Is simply saying we believe enough? And if we do not yet really feel in our hearts that God’s saving grace is for us, what are we to do in the meantime? Should we simply wait quietly for God to send a confirmation?

No, says Wesley. He argues that God has given us, through the Scriptures, clear directions, or a way we are to follow while we await or to recollect those moments of knowing Christ has made us his own. It is a way that not only helps us be patient while we wait, but it also trains our spirits to be ready to receive Christ when he makes himself known to us.

·         First, he says, all who desire assurance of the grace of God are to pray while they are waiting.

·         Second, all who desire assurance of the grace of God are to search the scriptures.
And third, “all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Wesley says the way it generally works is people are going about their business, mostly unaware of God’s presence (pretty much as Paul describes his life prior to his encounter with the living Lord), until suddenly Christ comes to them, is made known to them, and helps them know they are his own.

Perhaps they experience his presence from hearing a sermon, or from a conversation they have had. Maybe Christ comes to them because of a tragedy. However it happens, in that moment God convinces them of the need to “flee from the wrath to come.” This, says Wesley, compels persons to seek out a preacher or teacher who can tell them how to do that.

Upon hearing an explanation from a preacher who “speaks to the heart,” most often there grows a desire to search the Scriptures. The more persons hear and read and search, the more convinced they become, so they cannot help but meditate upon the words day and night. This compels them  to think, read and pray even more, and the conviction sinks deeper into their souls.

Then comes the desire to join with others in prayer and become part of a worship service where they are invited to the Lord's table. They hear Christ said, “Do this,” and enter into an inner struggle: “Does Christ mean the invitation for me? Am I too great a sinner? Am I fit? Am I worthy?” But if they are obedient, they do receive, and “continue in God’s way—in hearing, reading, meditating, praying, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper—till God, in the manner that pleases him, speaks to the heart, ‘thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.’”

That’s it! That’s the moment that Paul is talking about when the person knows that Christ has made us his own. It’s that moment that changes everything. It is that feeling which makes all else seem like rubbish.

The regular celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion is this essential in this process.  One of the places Christ invites us, reaches to us, meets us, and makes know we are us his very own most regularly is at his table. This is why the sacrament is central not only to United Methodist worship, but the majority of Christian denominations and communions around the globe. It is why sharing in Holy Communion (rather than the sermon) is the central act of worship in many traditions. It is, according to Wesley, the primary means through which Christ makes us know we are his own.

What are some ways you have known Christ and experienced him making you his own?

What about the people in your congregation? Might you invite a few people to give a witness of how Christ has come to them and made them his own? Perhaps for one it was on a Walk to Emmaus. For another it may have been when she witnessed the birth of her first child or the death of a beloved grandparent. Someone might speak of knowing the peace of Christ that passes all understanding as he stood on a mountaintop and observed the beauty of God’s creation, or marveled at the way a flower is formed, or the way year after year God brings the harvest, or the moment she was brought into the body of Christ in baptism.  Whatever way or ways Christ has made us know we are his own, it is important to claim them and celebrate them.

On this World Communion Sunday we might consider how sharing in the sacrament is, for many people, the most regular way in which Christ draws people to him and makes them his own.  As we join with our brothers and sisters around the global table of our Lord today, let us join Paul in rejoicing that Christ has come to us and made us his own... even ME!