Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

From what are we saved? Scriptural, Liturgical, and Patristic Answers

In my post against the Prosperity Gospel (and in favour of St. Clement of Alexandria), I made it clear that neither Scripture nor the Great Tradition affirms the idea that Jesus Christ saves people from poverty, illness, small houses, small cars, bad jobs, mean people, etc, and that all we need for such “victory living” is faith.

However, Christianity does affirm that Jesus saves. The salvation offered by Jesus is not just the sort of thing dc Talk sings about involving “a man with a tat on his big, fat belly,” or an invention of revivalistic evangelicalism in the Welseyan era.

According to Scripture, Jesus saves; here are a few quotations (all NIV):

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Mt 10:22)

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mk 8:35)

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3:16-17)

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (Jn 10:9)

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

But from what are we saved? Many people have given answers to this, and I believe that many of them catch different aspects of the same reality of Christ’s saving work in the life of those who put their trust in him.

Traditionally, the sacrament of baptism has been the moment of entry into Christ’s church; let us not forget St. Peter in Acts telling people to “repent and be baptised” as the way of salvation. We shall be highly Anglican at this point, and turn to liturgy to consider salvation.

We start with the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Anglicans practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents make the baptismal vows in the child’s place:

Question. What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?
Answer.They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?
Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.

Later in the Catechism we read that baptism is “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.”

From these two moments in the Catechism, we learn that salvation, as symbolised/enacted/recapitulated in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is a renunciation of the devil and all his works, the empty things of the world, and of sin — indeed, it is “a death unto sin.”

Having died to sin and made this renunciation, the baptised Christian is in the “state of salvation” already.

This point is an important one, for many would tell us that salvation is merely a “Get out of Hell Free” card, a ticket to Heaven when we die. According to the Anglican tradition, such is not the case. Rather, salvation is a state in which we dwell here on earth. We are saved in this earthly existence from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The world, in this instance, is not the entire universe or the globe of the earth but, rather, those aspects of the world around us that are evil or tend towards evil. Such is the traditional Christian understanding of “the world” in moments as this (see the ever-popular Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way on this).

The flesh is not your body. It that inner part of you that tends towards evil. As quoted before, Sergei Bulgakov (quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way) says, “Kill the flesh, in order to acquire a body.”

The devil is not a red guy with goat legs and a pitch-fork. He is also, however, not simply the psychological world of the subconscious that swirls around tempting us in various ways — that would be the flesh. As Robertson Davies says in Happy Alchemy, “People don’t believe in the devil nowadays; that is one of the devil’s favourite jokes.”

The devil is a personal force of evil with minions, just as angels are personal forces of good. The power of the devil is primarily in his ability to tempt us towards evil. His temptations are those that don’t seem to come exclusively from within ourselves nor really from the world around us. They are diabolical; but our flesh is always the deciding factor when we sin. As agents with freewill, we choose sin all by ourselves. The devil just helps us along.

According to Pope St. Leo the Great, the devil has had another role in human history. After the Fall, according to Leo, the devil received the souls of the dead humans and took them to Hades. This was his … em … job. We read:

the Son of God took on Him the nature of mankind in order to reconcile it to its Maker, that the devil, the inventor of death, might be conquered through that very nature which had been conquered by him. (Sermon 21.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

For if Godhead by itself were to stand forth in behalf of sinners, the devil would be overcome rather by power than with reason. And again, if the mortal nature by itself were to undertake the cause of the fallen, it would not be released from its condition, because it would be free from its stock. Therefore it was necessary that both the Divine and human substances should meet in our Lord Jesus Christ, that our mortal nature might, through the Word made flesh, receive aid alike from the birth and passion of a new Man. (Sermon 56.1; trans. W Bright, my emphasis)

Leo is a master rhetorician who uses evocative language and series of balances and antitheses to make his points about who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us. In these two passages, Leo speaks of Jesus’ action towards the devil (something not lacking in other of his sermons or the Tome). The devil has been beaten by Jesus; he has been beaten through Our Lord’s incarnation and passion. Jesus’ death on the Cross destroyed the power of the devil.

Jesus, perfect God and perfect man, died as a criminal. Having lived a sinless life, his soul was not the property of the devil. As God, death was not part of his nature. Thus, the Crucified God “trampled down death with death.”* He defeated the devil and served as a ransom for our souls — none of us, as a result, need have his’er soul taken by the devil.

This brings us to what else Jesus saves us from — death. This part of salvation is the bit that most people tend to think of when they hear, “Jesus saves.” We have been trained to think thus, “Ask Jesus into your heart, say sorry for the bad things you have done, and you will not go to Hell when you die.” Sometimes, the Hell bit is skirted and we are told, “And you will live forever with Him in heaven.”

This salvation from death is present from the days of the Apostles, of course — “Death, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55) — and is not to be played down, as the BCP ensures it is not, as in Publick Baptism of Infants:

Almighty and everlasting God … We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Nonetheless, our salvation, even here where an important part of the prayer is that the child may have “everlasting life” — ie. not die — a great concern is present for this life being lived with Christ.

To take all these swirling bits of things, Scriptural, liturgical, patristic, we see that Jesus does not save us from poverty or illness. Not as a general rule, anyway. He saves us from death — this is both the current notion of Heaven vs. Hell and the older, traditional notion of “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (see my trans of the Apostle’s Creed).

He saves us from the world, the flesh, the devil.

By his grace (favour), he gives us the strength we need to resist temptations and fight evil (we fight evil by waging peace).  When Jesus saves us, we have the ability to do good things. We are released from the stranglehold sin has over us. As time goes on, sin should become more and more infrequent as we rely on his grace and his power. (This is why my wrangling with Pelagians counts, by the way.) Part of salvation is trusting in Him for this strength rather than ourselves.

These 1776 words leave us with another question, and that one is important: How are we saved? Someday I’ll tell you. 😉

If I’m not making sense, tell me and I’ll be more coherent.

*Paschal Troparion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.