We meet God at the Lord’s Table. But what is the nature of this encounter? How, in particular, can we be sure it is God we are meeting, and not simply an idol of our own construction? The transforming relationship with God that the Eucharist enables depends not only on God’s presence, but also on our awareness of that presence and recognition of the character of the God who is present.
The God we meet is no generic deity. “The whole creation speaks that there is a God,” says Wesley. “But that is not the point in question. I know there is a God…. But who will show me what that God is?” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” II, iii/21, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 11 [Oxford, 1975] 268]. The God at the Lord’s Table is particular: the one revealed in Jesus Christ, the Triune God.
John and Charles Wesley think of the Lord’s Supper as having three dimensions: to bring to our remembrance the past sufferings of Christ, to convey the benefits of those sufferings in the present, and to serve as a pledge that we will participate in eschatological glory. These three dimensions are not simply recalled or understood. They are experienced. Moreover, that which is past (the cross) or future (glory) is experienced as if it were present now. Given its impact on the Christian life, it is no wonder the Wesleys placed such emphasis on the Lord’s Supper.
The hymns of Charles Wesley convey the experiential power of this sacrament. With regard to the past dimension, Charles wrote, “Christ revives His suffering here, Still exposes them to view; See the Crucified appear, Now believe He died for you” (J.E. Rattenbury, ed., The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley [Epworth, 1948] 197).
The participant finds him or herself at the foot of the cross, in awe at the depth of God’s sacrificial love and filled with gratitude at God’s costly mercy. “Crucified before our eyes, Faith discerns the dying God, Dying that our souls might live, Gasping at His death, Forgive!” (200).
With regard to the present, the Eucharist offers more than forgiveness. It is a means of receiving new life in the Spirit: “Now, Lord, on us Thy flesh bestow, And let us drink Thy blood, Till all our souls are fill’d below, With all the life of God” (205). At the heart of that life is love, the same love that was revealed in Jesus Christ.
With regard to the future, the participant again experientially transcends temporal limits: “By faith and hope already there, Even now the marriage-feast we share, Even now we by the Lamb are fed…. Suffering and curse and death are o’er, And pain afflicts the soul no more, While harbour’d in the Saviour’s breast” (225).
This is not escapism. Rather it is the present experience of eschatological reality, an assurance of the hope to come. To taste that age while being renewed in love leads not to passivity but to active ministry to alleviate pain and suffering now as well as the conditions that cause them.
Our eucharistic liturgies today have deeper historical roots than those of the Church of England in Wesley’s day. The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving is a trinitarianly shaped narrative that invites us to experience God’s work in creation as well as redemption, Israel as well as Christ, and Jesus’ life as well as his death. Above all, it is framed by the joy of resurrection and the transforming power of the Spirit. While the Wesleys would maintain their focus on the cross, I suspect they would welcome this fuller and richer encounter with God.
Although our contemporary liturgy may enable us to experience more of God’s story, it is doubtful that we could experience the eucharistic presence more deeply. For the Wesleys, to meet God at the Table was to encounter a love so beyond our imagination that in the end we can only respond with gratitude, profound joy, and hearts and lives filled with love.