Dear United Methodist friends in Christ,
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ.
Thank you for your leadership in this season of our lives. During this pandemic, we have been led to think again about the way we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For many of us, this season has been a time of fasting from the Holy Meal.
As the pandemic continues, I invite you to embrace the means of grace offered expansively in our Wesleyan heritage and more specifically to fast from Holy Communion in a spirit of lament and reflection.
I am a lover of the Holy Meal, and until the pandemic, a frequent guest and presider at the Table. I have led congregations and leadership teams toward regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I was summoned by God to ordained ministry through the rhythmic beauty of the Great Thanksgiving. Early on, I anticipated using often these powerful words. I chose to write them upon my heart. An open hymnal was nearby so I could rehearse the words and the flow, committing the Great Thanksgiving to memory. The Great Thanksgiving is the great prayer of my life.
In this season of constraint, properly so in order to do no harm, I would like to share the way in which I would engage the means of grace if I were a pastor in a local church. I offer these thoughts with conviction and humility, not claiming perfect wisdom of the mysteries of God and confessing my own onward journey as a Christ-follower and clergy leader.
First, our life in Christ is deeply centered in the Holy Meal. The Lord’s Supper is a gift. We cherish the Holy Feast. As we take, bless, break and eat in our homes, even a solitary meal has a sacramental character because we experience Christ in the breaking of the bread. Fasting from the Lord’s Supper in this season is a sacrifice, a loss, a grief. Might that sense of sacrifice, loss and grief connect us in profound ways to the people around us in the world at this time? Political prisoners gave thanks for the life and love of Jesus Christ with them through the cup and the loaf they could not see or hold. Lay missionaries crossing boundaries and cultures drew strength from communion memory and spiritual imagination. How might you and your community cultivate a deeper sense of oneness with the world in this moment of social distancing?
Second, we Wesleyans have the rich theology of the “means of grace.” Plural. More than one. The means of grace are the ways that God loves us, summons us, strengthens us, and perfects us in love. The means of grace include baptism, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, study of scripture, spiritual reading, prayer, gathering in community, holy conversation, engagement with the poor. We all witness to other ways we have experienced God, for as Wesley noted, God can summon us any way God chooses. Now is a good time to talk about the expansiveness of the means of grace. What means of grace might you and your community have opportunity to explore in this moment?
Third, we Wesleyans intertwine community and communion in a deep theological way. The cup and the loaf are beautiful to behold, to hold and to share. Those in community approach the table and in doing so confess, seek, give testimony and ask for accountability. The constraints of this season lead us to a season of fasting and longing in anticipation of the day when we can again gather face to face and share in the Holy Meal. How might God be stirring up a desire for deeper community during this time, and how might those stirrings be woven together into a shared prayer?
Fourth, we recognize the tension between the commitment to “do no harm” and the corporal beauty of the sacrament. Several years ago, a German friend commented that in the United States, the third element of communion was hand sanitizer. We laughed a bit, but his point is well taken. How do we do no harm while honoring the tangible glory of the Holy Meal?
Fifth, the Love Feast comes to us with a rich history in scripture, the early church and the founding days of the Methodist movement. Eating together with prayer, witness, conversation and singing is powerfully sacramental. Sharing simple food with these actions is a beautiful pathway of grace. How can your community share common table practices from house to house?
Sixth, there is a great desire for stability and comfort in this difficult time. This desire resonates with the pastoral sensibility of clergy and laity. Yet the call of Christ is into the present circumstance and into the future. Fasting from the Holy Meal in this season can be a counter-intuitive way to lead our churches to deep mourning and robust hope as we move into a future not like the past. What do you hope will be different for you and your community when this season of social distancing ends?
I offer you these wonderings and convictions as I share that I will not preside or feast at the Lord’s Table in the continuing pandemic. I ponder the cup and the loaf regularly, gazing upon the chalice and paten with a grateful heart, while engaging the other means of grace available to us all. You are invited to join me in these practices in this season.
We give thanks for the Holy Meal and the Eucharistic dimension of all our meals as we regularly take, bless, break and share bread in order to live and love and serve. In this time of constraint, make us brave and wise to embrace mystery, to receive God’s latest gifts and to grow in grace. Through the Triune God, we pray. Amen.
With gratitude for the ministry of Christ we share,
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward