Note to the reader: This article is not meant as a theological argument. I am going to talk about how the practices of some churches differ from other churches. My purpose is to explain how what appears to be different has a similar purpose.
“Have you received Christ?” This is a very important question for Evangelical Christians. A memorable moment in their lives occurs when they recognize what it means to have Jesus offer Himself to be their savior. It is a moment of choice and decision and, for many people, marks a change in their lives.
Evangelical churches usually have an “altar call” at the end of the service. Those who have not accepted Christ or those who want to renew their acceptance can come forward. Many churches have “revival meetings” to encourage people to accept this “call” to come forward and proclaim their acceptance of Jesus.
People who have never been to an evangelical church may have seen the television broadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade. He concluded his powerful sermon with a large scale “altar call.” It was amazing to watch great numbers of people come from all parts of the stadium to accept Jesus.
Christians of all types recognize that God has many ways of calling us. Some are called to be ministers or priests. Others are called to serve in various ministries in the church or to serve the poor, etc.
There is another way Jesus calls people to himself but it is done in such a quiet, even routine, way it is not always recognized as a “call’. This takes place during the Eucharist or Holy Communion as found in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant churches (such as the Episcopal or Anglican).
While it is not always seen as such, the Eucharist is a moment when God calls us to Himself and Jesus offers Himself for us to accept. Most evangelicals have never heard it put that way. Many people who take communion regularly may not always appreciate what is happening.
There are two controlling scriptures for the Eucharistic churches:
John 6:56 (KJV) “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”
Luke (22:19-20) (KJV) “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.’
Eucharistic churches use the term “Real Presence” to describe what is happening. They take these verses literally. Jesus commands us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To make this possible for us, God turns the bread and wine used in the service truly into the body and blood of Christ.
Without debating how or when this happens, I would ask evangelicals reading this to accept the idea long enough to understand what the Eucharist means to those who partake.
In the Eucharistic service, the priest offers his hands and voice to the Lord to say the blessing and handle the bread and wine. After the consecration, those who believe in the “real presence” believe the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus. Then the priest, acting on His behalf calls on the congregation to come forward to physically receive Christ. This is the “altar call” of the Eucharistic service.
The people are invited, or, in some liturgies, commanded, to come forward and literally receive Christ. It is an act of submission to His teachings and His commands.
There is a simple way to know the two altar calls are similar. People play the same games and show the same reactions.
Different churches have different rules about it. In some, most people receive communion every service. In others, people are discouraged from receiving too often. It even stretches to once a year. There are discussions of worthiness and “Do you really mean it?” and “Are you doing it correctly?”
Of course, there are the mind games we play with ourselves. We say we received last time, or we didn’t prepare correctly or we have failed in some other way to be worthy of communion. Like a person in an Evangelical church declining the call, we sit there giving all kinds of reasons why Jesus’ gift to us is not really for me today.
There is a simple alternative to this debate, we can admit we are not worthy and understand that “while we were still in sin, God loved us.” If he could die for us, he can certainly accept us as “unworthy” when we receive communion. In faith and love, we can draw near to Jesus in the Eucharist and receive a divine gift.