In one of his sermons, John Wesley described the Lord’s Supper as the “grand channel” through which the grace of God is conveyed to us. For Wesley, continual participation in the Lord’s Supper is central to our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ. In sermons, letters, and especially hymns, both John and his brother, Charles, offered the church a nuanced theology of the sacrament.
There is one particular dimension of the Lord’s Supper in the Wesleys’ theology that we would do well to reclaim, especially during the season of Lent as we journey toward the cross: namely, the Lord’s Supper as sacrifice. There are two senses in which the Wesleys understood the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. First, it presents the sacrifice of Christ to us. For the Wesleys, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is an unrepeatable event and is sufficient ground for our salvation. Even so, each time we share in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s sacrifice is on full display for us to behold.
Consider these lines from “Hymn 124” by the Wesleys, found in Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:
All hail, Redeemer of mankind!
Thy life on Calvary resigned
Did fully once for all atone,
Thy blood hath paid our utmost price,
Thine all-sufficient sacrifice
Remains eternally alone
Yet may we celebrate below,
And daily thus thine offering show
Exposed before thy Father’s eyes;
In this tremendous mystery
Present thee bleeding on the tree
Our everlasting sacrifice;
In the first stanza, there is a clear emphasis that the sacrifice of Christ is the once-for-all sacrifice that provides atonement for humanity. Yet notice in the second stanza that the sacrifice of Christ is made visible once again in the sacrament. In the Lord’s Supper, time collapses, and Christ’s sacrifice in the past is brought forward into the present. The Wesleys write again in “Hymn 126:”
The Lamb as crucified afresh
Is here held out to men,
The tokens of his blood and flesh
Are on this table seen.
The Lord’s Supper displays the crucified Christ for us and thus becomes an occasion for us to discover anew the love of God and experience the saving benefits of Christ’s death. Yet there is another important sense in which the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice. According to the Wesleys, the Lord’s Supper not only shows the sacrifice of Christ to us once again; it also invites us to participate in the sacrifice of Christ. In Romans 12:1, Paul calls believers “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” The sacrament is an occasion for us to join Christ in offering our whole selves to God.
The Lord’s Supper not only shows the sacrifice of Christ to us once again; it also invites us to participate in the sacrifice of Christ.
This notion was so important to the Wesleys that they devoted an entire section to “The Sacrifice of Our Persons” in Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. The hymns in this section call those who partake of the Lord’s Supper to give themselves entirely to the Father, as Christ did on the cross. For example, in “Hymn 128,” we hear:
While faith th’ atoning blood applies,
Ourselves a living sacrifice
We freely offer up to God:
And none but those his glory share
Who crucified with Jesus are,
And follow where their Saviour trod.
Saviour, to thee our lives we give,
Our meanest sacrifice receive,
And to thy own oblation join,
Our suffering and triumphant head,
Through all thy states thy members lead,
And seat us on the throne divine.
There is a sense in which we become like what we eat and drink. By eating the bread and drinking the cup, we become crucified with Jesus. We become participants in his suffering as we give ourselves completely to God. However, this offering of ourselves is not something we do by our own power. Consider the line of thought in “Hymn 141:”
Yet in this ordinance divine [referring to the Lord’s Supper]
We still the sacred load may bear;
And now we in thy offering join,
Thy sacramental Passion share.
Thou art with all thy members here,
In this tremendous mystery
We jointly before God appear
To offer up ourselves with thee.
Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, a notion that is reflected in the ritual section of the 2017–2021 edition of the Manual for the Church of the Nazarene, which states that the “Supper is a means of grace in which Christ is present by the Spirit.” Therefore, the offering of ourselves to God is something we do with the aid of Christ’s grace. Thus, at the same time that the Lord’s Supper challenges us to give ourselves wholly to God, it also empowers us with the grace we need to do so. We become sacrificed people only by virtue of our union with the sacrificed Lord, whose presence is found in the sacrament.
The Lord’s Supper is a great gift to us in our journey of being conformed to Christ. Retrieving the sacrificial dimension of the Lord’s Supper can deepen our appreciation of the sacrament and its effect on our lives. As a remedy for our forgetfulness, the Lord’s Supper presents to us once again the sacrifice of Christ and reminds us that we follow a sacrificed Lord. As a remedy for our comfort and self-will, it invites us to join in the sacrifice of Christ and give all that we are and all that we have to God—not by our own power but by the power of Christ available in the meal.
From “Hymn 148”:
Into the fellowship
Of Jesu’s sufferings take,
Us who desire with him to sleep,
That we with him may wake:
Plant us into his death
That we his life may prove,
Partakers of his cross beneath,
And of his crown above.
This Lenten season, may the Lord’s Supper become for us a means of grace that conforms us to our sacrificed Lord.