I always love the feeling of anticipation I get on Saturday nights, making sure everything’s ready for the next day’s church services, planning how early I need to be there to warmup and get everything ready, and in tonight’s case, finishing the preparations to the lesson plans for Sunday school. Inbetween tomorrow’s services I’ll be talking about some hymns tomorrow morning with one of the Sunday school classes, and my research has made me realize anew how blessed the United Methodist tradition is to have had John and Charles Wesley as its founders.
One of the hymns we’ll be discussing is Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast, which we’ll be singing for Communion Sunday on February 5th.. It’s one by Charles Wesley, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a hymn with more theology crammed in its verses. The invitation it extends to the world mirrors the UMC tradition of having an open communion table, and on top of all of that, it’s simply a joy to sing.
Back in the 1700s, anyone who had ideas of reforming the Church of England had to be careful of what they said and who they said it to. John Wesley was one of the loudest and most troublesome for the Church and its Bishops– he ruffled feathers by doing things like preaching in the fields to the common folks, the “unchurched”, those who had fallen from their faith. He felt he was called as a priest to minister to all, and so he did, and the common people loved and admired him for it. However, his actions had consequences: by not playing the political game of the Church and its bureaucracy, he was either ignored or villified by Church officials. His brother, Charles kept his reformist attitudes quieter and spent his time writing the hymns for which he is known today.
When you combine John’s radical-for-his-day, Bible-based teachings with Charles’ gift for music, you end up with a hymn like this one. During their day, Holy Communion was offered once a quarter (every three months), and the Wesley brothers taught that it should be taken at least weekly. (Currently, the standard UMC tradition is the first Sunday of every month.) They also taught that instead of being a boring, ritualistic, unimportant event in the life of the Church, receiving the Eucharist was of extreme importance for the spiritual health and well-being of the Body of Christ, and that while it should be treated with reverence, it is also a time of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is illustrated through the verses of the hymn.
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
let every soul be Jesus’ guest
Ye need not one be left behind
for God hath bid all humankind.
We are all sinners, and we are all welcomed to the table, every last one of us. In fact, it’s because we are imperfect that we need to receive his grace. We are all human. Not a single one of us could possibly be good enough to receive the gift he has given us through the Holy Sacrament. And he calls us to the table all the same.
Do not begin to make excuse;
ah! do not you his grace refuse;
Your worldly cares and pleasures leave,
and take what Jesus hath to give.
No one has an excuse for not coming, including not being worthy of His body and blood. If you use that excuse because you’ve recognized your sinful nature, that’s the reason itself that you need the grace of Jesus so desperately. Remember, our Lord ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes– if he didn’t buy their excuses, he’s not going to buy ours.
Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God,
and eat his flesh and drink his blood.
This is the verse that bothers Protestants the most, because we don’t usually believe in transubstantiation as Catholics do. The idea that we are to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” makes many of us uncomfortable; and yet, if we dump the idea we must dump John 6:53
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
So what are we to say to that? Well, we know that Christ’s presence is known through the elements of bread and wine and is real, and that when we eat and drink the elements we are receiving the Divine Grace which is able to save us from our sin. The elements don’t change, but they do communicate to us, they do transmit to us, the real, Divine, Saving Presence of Jesus Christ — which is what we mean when we talk about grace, and when Charles Wesley wrote “be saved from sin, in Jesus rest,” he is talking about just that grace.
You can see that Charles covered some critical theology in this one hymn about communion. He wasn’t a loudmouth like his brother John, but in this hymn he wrote of theological ideas that were radical reformist teachings in his day, and that were to become some of the teachings of the Methodist church when it separated from the Church of England. We are invited regardless of who we are, we are welcomed as sinners in need of His love, and we are given His grace that saves us from sin. Alleluia 🙂
I encourage you to look up some of the verses we don’t usually sing. I’ve found at least 16 verses in total so far, and they’re very interesting to read and think about.