Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality

27 10 2010

I recently finished reading Lorna Khoo’s doctoral thesis, which is now published in book form under the title Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality (published by Australian Theological Forum).

 

First I should note that the topic of discussion in the book is the theology and practice of Holy Communion by John and Charles Wesley and not the Wesleyan Church in particular.  In fact, Lorna Khoo is ordained in the Methodist Church in Singapore where she has carried out pastoral ministry over the last 26 plus years.  Also, she was the director of the Charles Wesley Heritage Centre in Bristol, England.

 

The first half of the dissertation is spent discussing: the historical background of Eucharistic practice before, during and after the time of the Wesleys; the Wesleys’ Eucharistic theology and practice as seen in their Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, their personal journals and letters, and their respective ministries; and finally the sources for the Wesleys’ thought and practice (Anglican, Moravian, Catholic, Patristic, Medieval, etc.).  The second half works to flesh out a Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality that could be put to good use for the spiritual children of the Wesleys in the 21st century (especially those now growing strong in places like Singapore).  Khoo’s emphasis is more on practical issues of spiritual growth than on abstract theology, hence the use of “spirituality” in the title rather than “theology.”  Overall I found Khoo’s study to be full of things I was ignorant of and a solid contribution to a much under-discussed topic for those who bear Wesley’s name but tend to downplay, be ignorant of, or reject his impassioned call to a Eucharistically centered spiritual life.  Other, more specific comments follow.

 

The Lord’s Supper as it is a Sacrifice.

This aspect of the Wesleys’ understanding of Salvation and Communion surprised me the most, despite my training in church history.  John and Charles believed that at each service of the Lord’s Supper the church is lifting up a holy reminder to God of the all-atoning sacrifice of His Son on our behalf.  Jesus took into himself on the cross the full wrath of the one true and holy God aimed at a sinful humanity.  This is substitutionary atonement through and through.  Today we say, “Christ took my place on the cross, receiving the punishment I deserved.”  The Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (HLS) are replete with such themes.  I bring this up first because it the one area of major disagreement I have with the Wesleys in the area of salvation theology.  I am much persuaded by Orthodoxy which sees penal substitutionary atonement as a spurious and inaccurate description of what happened on the cross.  I wholeheartedly believe in the reality of God’s righteous wrath– after all, the Bible is clear that it is so.  Now, to be honest, I have a good deal more thinking and researching to do on this topic, but to this point I fail to see where Scripture clearly indicates that it is God’s wrath that Jesus is enduring on the cross.  Yes, he is suffering for our sins, he is receiving our just punishment.   But, is he doing this at the hands of God the Father?  If we say that Jesus did just that, then we have a serious mess to figure out in relation to Trinitarian theology.  The eternal Father unleashing His holy wrath upon His eternal Son?  Is that the only way God’s wrath can be assuaged?  Isn’t God able to “repent” of his decision to visit wrath on His people as we see in the Old Testament?  At the end of the day, notions of Jesus somehow absorbing or deflecting God’s wrath on our behalf do not fly with me.  It all feels a bit too pagan, where the placating of the gods’ anger is the primary preoccupation of life.   Rather, Jesus is taking our place because we had given ourselves over to Satan, sin and death.  In fact, Satan owned us as a result of our sin– our blood belonged to him, we were his property.  Our only hope is to be ransomed– but only one person, the God-Man, can accomplish such a task.  Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world because he was sinless, holy and perfect, and Satan could make no claim on him (and neither could death).  But Jesus willingly handed himself over to evil and death when he did not have to do any such thing.  He offers himself on our behalf thereby breaking Satan’s claim on anyone who is in Christ.  Satan and death are the Enemy that Christ must deal with on the cross– not God’s wrath.  Therefore, when we take the consecrated bread and drink the holy wine, we enter into the spiritual reality that Christ is in us and we in him– we are no longer under the dominion of Satan, sin or death.  The Wesley’s would certainly agree with that.  And who knows, at the end of the day, I might be wrong about God’s wrath and the Atonement!  (I feel better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest!)

 

Before I offer a list a summary points of Wesleyan Eucharistic Spirituality, I think it important to give this captivatingly powerful summary statement from Khoo:

The Wesleyan eucharistic spirituality’s view of life creates a very secure person, grounded in the assurance that one is deeply and truly loved.  There is a freedom of healthy detachment in one’s life.  There is no need to grab at things or people for security.  Life has meaning.  The meaning is not tied to mere self-centered understanding of fulfilment.  Instead, meaning comes as one gives one’s life away to God and others in response to the love one has experienced.  There is a great deal of joy there– for the world is a place of promise and life.  Time is not an enemy but a space for God’s surprising work and for love to mature. Eternity is tasted and the feast awaits beyond the door of death.  The person walks thus in the world with a sense of spaciousness, utilizing its gifts, enjoying them with the five senses as well as with imagination, always conscious of the fact that the one who loves him/her is always with him/her, never leaving him/her nor forsaking him/her.  (pg. 212)

 

Now here are the summary points of Khoo’s study that lead her to make such a statement (which come form the 7th section of her 4th chapter):

 

  1. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is unflaggingly Christocentric.  Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is radiating with intimacy, immediacy, and expectancy with and for and because of Christ
  2. The Wesleys give primacy of place to God’s grace at the Eucharist rather than on the preparedness of the recipient.  Christ’s unique and unrepeatable act on the cross makes this necessary.  Additionally, the Holy Spirit is an active “companion-sanctifier” who works this grace into the recipient through participation in the sacrament.
  3. “Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality has Christian perfection as the goal of the Christian life firmly in view.  The Eucharist is the main formational instrument towards that goal.”
  4. “Growth towards that goal of Christian perfection is seen in a therapeutic manner.  From the sickness of sin the believer grows towards healing and wholeness.”  This is a key aspect of formation.  (I find it highly significant that the Wesleys saw salvation as more than just a legal transaction related to guilt– something many Evangelical Christians mistakenly do.  We are not just guilty we are soul-sick, which makes sin and selfishness the default behaviors.)
  5. “It is a hymnic spirituality.  The HLS not only informs the Christian’s faith:  the hymns form the Christian’s outlook in life.  Hymns deepen the Eucharistic experience” [in a way that only music can accomplish].
  6. Key to a lived-out Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality is the support and persistence of the faith community.  Both strong clergy and lay leadership are crucial to the “mentoring and monitoring of one’s spiritual life and discipline.”  The preaching, teaching, and accountability groups (Wesley’s “classes” and “bands”) of early Methodism helped lead believers deeper into the divine reality experienced at the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality provides a comprehensive world-view– a particular way of looking at God, self, others, time, eternity and the temporal things of this world.  For example, one can enjoy temporal things with an appropriate sense of detachment.  Just as the Lord’s Supper, as wonderful as it is, is only a foretaste of the feast to come; so also are the good gifts of our earthly life now.
  8. Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality “is a spirituality of joy.”  Early Methodists celebrated the Lord’s Supper with “reverential joy” in contrast to the always somber seriousness of most Anglican and Catholic services.

 

Lastly, Khoo discusses the future of Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality in the context of global Christianity (specifically, global Methodism).  She catalogs the reason for the rapid decline of Eucharistic fervency after the death of the Wesleys and then offers some things that may help to bring about such a revival in our own day.

 

First, the liturgy used for the Lord’ Supper needs to match what Wesleyans actually believe about it (she notes that the current United Methodist liturgy is a good step in the right direction).

Second, the Hymns on the Lord’s Supper must be re-appropriated and used often in our Communion services.  She points out that there is a translation problem– how to translate 18th century English poetry into modern English and other languages without losing the theological and spiritual impact of the original?  Khoo, I believe, is correct to encourage a fresh effort of creative hymn writing that re-works Charles Wesley’s original themes, and theological emphases into new works– lyrically and musically.  I admit some things may be lost in this effort, but some things are going to be lost regardless.  In truth, such efforts will not be perfectly true to the Wesleys, but their hymns themselves are not perfect either (not theologically or poetically).  So it is time to get over these fears and strongly encourage a fresh outbreak of creativity to come forth that is inspired by Charles Wesley’s own creativity!

 

Third, the theology and practice of spiritual warfare in relation to the Eucharist must be explored much more fully.  The church in Europe and North America may be resistant to engaging in and talking about spiritual warfare, but they are the only ones in the world who are!  If the Eucharist is to be a key element in the believer’s growth towards holiness, we must get our minds and hearts around how it can help in setting the believer free from the chains of Satan, sin and the world.  As we confront demonic powers, persistent sins, and emotional woundedness, what does it mean that at the Lord’s Supper Christ is very present and that the communicant “feeds on Christ in his heart with thanksgiving”– i.e. that Christ is in the one who partakes of his body and blood in the sacrament?  This must be explored to the fullest extent.

 

 

I end with a small caveat.  Khoo advocates a Communion Table that is not only open to believers of other denominations, but a “free” Table that is open to the sincere, seeking unbeliever.  She takes her cues from Wesley’s belief in the primacy of grace at Communion and his belief that it could be a “converting ordinance.” What of the historic truth that only baptized believers have been permitted to the Table?  She recognizes that in Wesely’s day nearly all were baptized even though many did not really believe or trust in Christ.  This, of course, is how Wesley, a strict adherent to all that he understood of the practices of the very Early Church, could speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance”– it converts the baptized unbeliever.  Khoo puts forth the sadly common scenario of a young believer (pre 18 years of age) whose parents are Muslim or Buddhist and will not allow him to be baptized as long as he is under their authority.  While I cannot identify with this, I certainly sympathize.  But I fail to see how making the Table “free” to all is a real help to this problem.  It is a “fix” that will only cause more problems in the long run by making the Eucharist less potent to spiritually form the people who receive it.  The Early Church was unwavering on this point.  And the believers of the first three centuries faced no less difficult circumstances as they lived and moved in lands hostile to the Church.  Often, for a variety of reasons, believers put off baptism for years (sometimes until the very last days before death!!) remaining a Catechumen who could not approach the Lord’s Table and was even dismissed from the building after the sermon.  I’m sure this will sound unduly mean and harsh in our politically correct age, but I would counsel that teenager whose parents would disown him (or worse!!) if he were baptized into Christ and the church, that he trust the Lord.  Trust Him by patiently waiting for the appropriate time to be baptized or trust Him by getting baptized against his parents wishes.  This young person then personifies before the church the real cost of claiming Jesus as Lord, AND the unsurpassed treasure that Jesus and His Kingdom are– worth paying ANY earthly price to obtain.

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4 responses

28 10 2010
Lorna Khoo

Thanks for the review. Found this when I was looking for a copy of my book for someone else…ha.

31 10 2010
Chad

Rich, thanks for this post. I wish I’d had access to a copy of this book about a year ago when I was in the midst of writing a paper for my Ecclesiology course. I’m keenly interested in learning more of the Wesleys’ theology and practices when it comes to the Eucharist.

31 10 2010
Rich Wollan

Chad, the book may not have helped you for the Ecclesiology paper, but it will help you as you labor in the Ecclesia itself. I just wish my theological training had included a course on Ecclesiology– had to study the Fathers on my own time to begin my education on that subject. My interest in Wesley and the Eucharist centers on the intersection between the pursuit of holiness / Union with Christ & the Sacraments. In my upbringing, in Wesleyan and Nazarene churches and training in a Wesleyan college, the sacraments were never mentioned in relation to living a holy life. Which is odd since it was a key element for Wesley’s understanding of “Christian perfection.” In this belief he echoes well the Patristic writers.

Anyway, Christ’s peace and strength to you as you pursue Him and His calling on your life.

10 01 2011
2011 Reading List « A Heart That Burns

[…] Eucharistic Spirituality. I actually picked up a copy of this book last year after reading a post on Rich Wollan’s blog, and simply haven’t gotten around to reading it […]

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