The importance of the Lord’s Supper for early Methodists can hardly be understated. Not only did the spiritual discipline of the Wesleyan societies commit them to receive it and Wesley’s teaching urged them to do so as often as possible, but they were eager to participate in the sacrament. They found in this meal the transforming presence of God. The Wesleyan awakening was as marked by a resurgence of eucharistic piety as it was by evangelistic preaching.
In considering the Lord’s Supper, we must consider both Wesleys—John and Charles—because so much of their rich eucharistic theology is found in Charles’ hymns. Indeed, the 166 Hymns on the Lord’s Supper are, in D. Stevick’s words, possibly “the most spiritually profound and stylistically vigorous manual of eucharistic devotion ever written in English” (The Altar’s Fire [Epworth, 2004] l).
What is Wesley’s theology of the Lord’s Supper? Most answer this question by plotting Wesley’s views among the various positions that emerged at the time of the Protestant reformation. But in some ways this may be the wrong focus. The sixteenth century was focused on issues of metaphysics: what, if anything, happens to the bread and wine, and how does it occur? The focus of Wesley’s interest lies elsewhere: what is God doing in the sacrament?
The difference is subtle but important. Roman Catholics believed, with Aquinas, in transubstantiation; that is, that the “substance” of the elements had become the body and blood of Christ while the “accidents”—taste, color, feel—remained the same. For Lutherans Christ was present in, with, and under the elements, which were themselves unchanged. For the Calvinists, the elements were unchanged but Christ was present by “virtue” of (through the power of) the Holy Spirit.
Wesley agreed with the Calvinists. Yet this says too little. For Wesley, when one comes to the Lord’s table one not only receives the elements, one is met by the living God. The picture is both dynamic and relational: we meet a God who both seeks and enables our response, and in the process transforms our lives.
Much of this is seen in a remarkable hymn by Charles Wesley (#627 in The United Methodist Hymnal). He begins with his favorite term for God, “love divine”: “O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace! Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys! How the bread his flesh imparts, how the wine transmits his blood, fills his faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God!”
While not answering the metaphysical question of how the sacrament works, what it does can only be expressed with exclamation points: conveys God into us, fills our hearts with the life of God! “Let the wisest mortals show how we the grace receive; feeble elements bestow a power not theirs to give. Who explains the wondrous way, how through these the virtue came? These the virtue did convey yet still remain the same.”
The elements are unchanged and have no power in themselves, yet nonetheless the power (virtue) of God is conveyed through them. “How can spirits heavenward rise, by earthly matter fed, drink here with divine supplies and eat immortal bread? Ask the Father’s wisdom how: Christ who did the means ordain; angels round our altars bow to search it out in vain.”
Having established that the elements are unchanged, he now calls the wine divine and the bread immortal—strong language to express that the power of God is present in this meal.
“Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown; only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one. Let us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more. Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours to wonder and adore.”
This is what the Wesleys affirm again and again: how God is present is not important; that God is present is crucial. What matters is that God meets us in this sacrament, and in that encounter lives are transformed. We indeed ask for nothing more, and God offers us nothing less!