Like baptism, Holy Communion is regarded by Protestants as a sacrament. That is, it’s an act of worship ordained by Christ and is a means of grace. This does not mean that we become any more worthy of God’s grace by taking part in Communion. Rather, we open ourselves to the divine love that’s already there; we become more ready to receive that love and to respond to it.
As with baptism, we use common, physical gifts of the earth, bread and wine — though in United Methodist churches we prefer unfermented grape juice. All Christians are welcome at our table, whatever their denomination. Holy Communion is a family meal, and all Christians are members of Christ’s family. Therefore, in each congregation, when we receive the bread and cup, we join with millions of brothers and sisters across the ages and around the world.
Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) is a mystery too deep for words. Its meaning will vary for each of us and from one time to another. But three essential meanings are caught up in this proclamation in our Communion service: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 14).
“Christ has died”
In part, Communion is a time to remember Jesus’ death, his self-giving sacrifice on our behalf. As he said to the disciples at their last meal together, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
In remembering his passion and crucifixion, we remember our own guilt; for we know that in our sin we crucify Christ many times over from day to day. So the Lord’s Supper is a time of confession: “We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart….We have not heard the cry of the needy” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 12).
“Christ is risen”
But Communion is not a memorial service for a dead Jesus. It’s not a time to wallow in our own guilt. It’s a time to celebrate the Resurrection, to recognize and give thanks for the Risen Christ. The bread and wine represent the living presence of Christ among us—though we do not claim, as some denominations do, that they become Christ’s body and blood.
In Luke’s Resurrection story, the Risen Christ broke bread with two of his followers at Emmaus, “then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (24:31). So, as we’re nourished by this meal, our eyes are opened; and we recognize Christ here in our congregation, our community, and our world. What’s our response? Thanksgiving! In fact, another of our words for Communion, the Eucharist, means thanksgiving.
“Christ will come again”
In Communion we also celebrate the final victory of Christ. We anticipate God’s coming reign, God’s future for this world and all creation. As Jesus said, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
We believe that we’re partners with God in creating this future, but the demands of discipleship are rigorous. In the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, in the fellowship of Christian friends gathered at his table, we find the nourishment we need for the tasks of discipleship ahead.
— From The United Methodist Member’s Handbook, Revised and Expanded by George E. Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006).