Pastor Insights

Last month and into this month, our Wednesday night study has focused on what it means to be United Methodist.  Since not everyone is able to take part in this, I wanted to share a small piece of what this four-week study has covered about what makes the United Methodist Church unique.

Like nearly all protestant denominations, we recognize two sacraments: Baptism and Communion.   A sacrament is a sacred ritual where a physical element represents God’s grace.  Partaking in the sacraments is an outward and visible sign of an inward working of grace.  What makes our understanding in the United Methodist church unique is that we believe that sacraments are a means of grace.  This means we believe the actual love of God can be experienced through the elements themselves.   We believe that in the sacrament of communion we recognize and celebrate a free gift given by God.  We believe the table is Christ’s table, and that the invitation from Christ is open to all.   This Holy Mystery is the document that defines the United Methodist sacramental beliefs and that document puts it this way:

“The invitation to the Table comes from the risen and present Christ. Christ invites to his Table those who love him, repent of sin, and seek to live as Christian disciples.  Holy Communion is a gift of God to the church and an act of the community of faith. By responding to this invitation we affirm and deepen our personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and our commitment to membership and mission in the body of Christ.”

One of the things that sets us apart from other denominations is that we keep the table open.  We do not limit who can receive the sacrament, because we believe to do so could limit the way that grace reaches and transforms the life of a person.   This commitment to ensuring that the sacrament of communion is available to more people has long been part of the Methodist identity.

In the second half of the 19th century the Methodist Episcopal Church was concerned with the problems that alcoholism posed in the life of families.  There was also concern that recovering alcoholics could not participate in the sacrament of communion due to the use of fermented wine.   The church began urging the use of unfermented juice, but there was not a dependable way to ensure that juice had not fermented.  This changed in 1869 when a former Methodist pastor, who had transitioned into dentistry, created a process to pasteurize grape juice and ensure it would not ferment.   He was successful in convincing Methodist churches to adopt his juice for use in communion.  The use of non-alcoholic grape juice lowered the bar and made the sacrament open to more people.   Today, many United Methodist churches still use this man’s pasteurized grape juice in communion.  His name was Thomas Bramwell Welch.  He originally called his juice “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” but today we better know it as Welch’s grape juice.

I greatly appreciate that our United Methodist tradition puts a strong emphasis on grace, and on the importance of doing all we can to make sure all people have the ability to experience God’s love for themselves.  Our theology around the sacraments is just one example of this commitment.

 

 

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