The Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
I am sometimes asked: "What does our Church believe about Holy Communion?" Given the multi-denominational background of most United Methodists, and the plethora of voices we hear on the radio and see on TV these days, this question is excellent and understandable. It's excellent because it gives me a chance to do a little writing on one of my favorite topics, and it is understandable because there is, indeed, much confusion on this, and many other topics, among Christians these day. In fact, this confusion is a large part of the reason why I have written a book on the subject of the Sacraments.
Throughout the history of the Church Universal there have been, essentially, two different ways of viewing the "manner" of Christ's presence in Holy Communion: Memorial Representation and Real Presence.
Our brothers and sisters in the Baptist Churches, as well as in several other denominations, believe that Communion is not a Sacrament but an Ordinance: they believe that it is something that humans do because Jesus has commanded that we do it, rather than something that God does for and within us. Memorial Representation teaches that if the presence of Jesus is to be found anywhere in the Lord's Supper, it is only in the congregation of the faithful. The Grace of God is not believed to fall upon the elements of bread and wine, and then from the elements to the people; rather, they believe that the Grace of God only falls directly upon the people as they are gathered around the table. As such, for those who accept this understanding of Holy Communion the elements of bread and wine are, essentially, irrelevant.
According to Memorial Representation, we are called to simply "remember" our Lord's presence with us, and his sacrifice for us on the cross, and express our faith by obeying Jesus' command and partaking of the elements. Nothing more takes place, either on God's part or on our's, in communion. There is no aspect of the eternal, and certainly no offer of Grace, in Memorial Representation.
This is not what United Methodists believe. Yes, I know, this might very well have been what some have been taught to believe at various times in the past, and it's not exactly wrong to believe it, but it's not what the Wesley brothers believed, and it's certainly not what our denomination believes.
United Methodists are part of the catholic tradition in the Church which teaches that the sacraments are means of grace, not just ordinances, and that when one partakes of the elements in Holy Communion we affirm that God's grace is communicated to the believer. In the sacramental approach it is believed that the grace of Jesus Christ falls directly upon the elements of bread and wine, and then from the elements to the believer when the believer eats and drinks them with faith. The grace which is brought with it is the manifestation of the Real Presence of Jesus, dwelling in our hearts by God's grace acting through faith (Ephesians 3:17).
As a means of grace, Holy Communion is not our action but God's action; it is not our act of faith that is in focus here, it is God's act of giving us the divine presence of Jesus. Through the sacrament of Holy Communion we are re-membered to the Body of Christ, we are given the wonderful, life transforming grace of our Savior which makes the Christian life possible.
United Methodists believe that Holy Communion is a Sacrament, a means of grace, where by the Real Presence of Jesus is communicated to us and, by faith, comes to dwell in us. This is what we believe.
© 1994, 2000 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
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As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.