ordinance

Why We Do What We Do: Baptism and Communion

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Listen to the audio here. Watch the Facebook Live stream here

NOTE: Scott Smith filled in for Anthony Weber this Sunday at the last minute. The audio and FB stream feature Scott; the notes posted here are Anthony's. They take a slightly different focus, so the two resources together offer bonus material this week :)

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There are at least two things that Christians do that can be confusing: baptism and communion.

In Bible times, everyone understood the role of baptism. It was a known way of showing one’s initiation and allegiance of a god. If Christians ran into the marketplace and told followers of Zeus that they had been baptized, they wouldn’t respond, “What are you talking about?” They got it; they had been baptized too.

As for communion, the Jewish people already practiced a form of it during Passover, where they drank wine and ate unleavened bread every year.

Living in the United States in the 21stcentury, both of these acts are…different. They are not only not normal, they can be so disconnected from our religious past that they seem unimportant or insignificant.

So, let’s talk about that :)

WHAT IS A SACRAMENT?

Baptism and communion are two things that are often referred to as sacraments. The English word sacrament is from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. A sacrament is meant to be something that sets us apart, that consecrates or dedicates us to God in some fashion.  If I combine a whole bunch of definitions,

“A sacrament is avisible sign, rite or ceremony ordained of God, instituted by Jesus, confirmed by the command or practice of the apostles, and observed by the church that is the means of or a form of God’s grace.”

In the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments:

  • Baptism
  • Confirmation
  • Eucharist (or Communion)
  • Matrimony
  • Holy Orders (Ordination)
  • Penance, Confession, and/or Reconciliation
  • Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction, Last Rites)

When the Protestant Reformation began, Protestants pared the sacraments down to two: baptism and communion. As stated in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

"The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace… Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are."

To the early Reformers like Calvin and Luther, only Baptism and Eucharist were sacraments; they were the only two in which God actively communicated his grace to us as a result of our obedience.

Eventually, Arminians[1](named after Jacob Arminius, a student of John Calvin’s successor) made a difference between an ordinance(something commanded or ordained by God in observance of a spiritual reality) and a sacrament.

In the sacramental view, the rite is done so that God can give something promised to us. In the ordinance view, the rite is done so that God and others can see our actions, or possibly see something God has previously done in us.

HOW DOES A SACRAMENT WORK?

To sacramentalists like the Roman Catholics, there is power in the physical element. So communion is the taking of the actual body and blood of Christ; “the host” hosts the real presence of God.  The waters of baptism are the vehicle of saving grace. If baptism is an instrument of grace, as Catholics believe, we should baptize babies so they are under grace. They don’t need to understand or even make a choice to benefit from baptism, because the act itself carries God’s grace to them.  We receive grace through the physical object.

The sacramental view held by Martin Luther and John Calvinbroke away from the Catholic perspective. They said that God gives spiritual blessings to us when we participate in the sacraments.God conveys grace through our act of obedience, not through the object.For example, Martin Luther said that the elements of communion don’t literally become the body and blood of Jesus, but that God is  truly present “in, with, and under” the elements in a spiritual way. The grace we receive is because of our obedient participation, not because the symbol itself  (water, bread, wine) has power..

Other Protestants, such as Zwingli, were memorialists.They viewed the sacraments as an ongoing profession of faith, a reminder of the grace that has already been given but not an actual vehicle of grace. In contrast with both Rome and Luther, Zwingli did not believe that the Lord’s Supper was the literal presence of God or that obedience brought fresh grace. The rite is done so that God and others can see our actions, or possibly see something God has previously done in us, not because God is imparting something to us. Baptism is a memorial for those who consciously surrender their lives to Christ. Communion is a memorial to what Christ did for us. [2]We remember what we have already fully received. 

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We are a church in the memorialist tradition. We have always taken the approach that we are reminded of what God has done in us through our participation in communion and baptism.

So, does God honor these rites by revealing Himself  or imparting grace in some way that he reserves for these moments? Personally, I can’t rule that out.  I have been raised all my life as a memorialist, but I see some biblical wisdom in considering there may be more to it.  After all, God often imparts his grace to us through instruments: friends, evangelists, doctors, family, pastors, etc. Why not through the rituals and symbols he has ordained? So,  even as I reaffirm our memorialist heritage, I find I am taking Luther and Calvin’s stance on sacraments more seriously.

If nothing else, I know that if we take baptism and communion more seriously, they are opportunities to sense the reality and presence of Christ, His sacrifice, and His live in ways that we often overlook in our busy lives. Perhaps that is a conveyance of grace in it’s own way. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Stop. Focus. Remember. Be still. God is here.

As I was studying this, a couple quotes stood out to me the captured the solemnity of these things.

LUTHER, in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), wrote,

According to its substance, therefore, the mass is nothing but the aforesaid words of Christ: “Take and eat, etc” [Matt 26:26], as if he were saying: “Behold, O sinful and condemned man, out of the pure and unmerited love with which I love you, and by the will of the Father of mercies [II Cor. 1:3], apart from any merit or desire of yours, I promise you in these words the forgiveness of all your sins and life everlasting. And that you may be absolutely certain of this irrevocable promise of mine, I shall give my body and pour out my blood, confirming this promise by my very death, and leaving you my body and blood as a sign and memorial of this same promise. As often as you partake of them, remember me, proclaim and praise my love and bounty toward you, and give thanks...

From this you will see that nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of the mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise, believes Christ to be true in these words of his, and does not doubt that these infinite blessings have been bestowed upon it. . . . Who would not shed tears of gladness, indeed, almost faint for joy in Christ, if he believed with unshaken faith that this inestimable promise of Christ belonged to him

CALVIN 

“Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness…

A FEW KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Theologians have noted that together, baptism and communion symbolize the whole of our Christian life.  
  • In baptism, we are reminded that we are entering into God’s covenant. It happens once as a rite of initiation into God’s family.
  • In communion, we are reminded of our ongoing life within that covenant. It happens over and over as an act of covenant renewal.

On the memorialist view,they remind us that in Him we live, move and have our being. Without Him we are nothing and have nothing and can do nothing of lasting, eternal worth.

  1. Baptism and Communion remind us that salvation comes from the outside. Ourhope in Christ does not come from us, our feeling, our experiences; it comes from Christ, who gave Himself for us as an act of grace. Our hope is in that and nothing else. We are part of an ongoing story, and that we have a part in the unfolding of God’s history, but they are not the foundation of our assurance that God, in Christ, gave His life so that we could live.

3.Baptism and Communion are community events. Because salvation comes from the outside, our observance of baptism and communion  involve something outside ourselves. You notice we don’t self-baptize here, or serve communion to ourselves. Someone else initiates it; someone else makes it happen for you; someone else gives that gift to you. Those offering those services are not the instruments of grace; they are the reminders, as is the water, the bread, and the juice, that we are not self-made or self-sufficient. We need others: God first, and God’s people second.

These moments, then, are meant to remind us of the congregation’s unity in Christ, as we are all drawn together. These are not activities meant to do alone. In a smaller congregation, it would be easier to visualize this having one loaf for an entire congregation, and we would tear off a piece for each of us. We would have on pitcher to our juice. We are nourished by a common source. Our salvation is from Christ, and that we have been saved into a community of Christ-followers.

“Through the interchange of his blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one body, one drink, and have all things in common.”(Luther, in his 1519 Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy)

Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity….We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at this same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him. (John Calvin)

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[1]The language of “sacraments” was used by Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed, though they differed on the number. The language of “ordinances,”  was used by denominations leaning in the Anabaptist, Arminian tradition , such as “Methodists, Free Will Baptists, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, General Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, The Salvation Army, Conservative Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, and Amish and charismatics.” (thanks, Wikipedia)

[2]Worth noting: the New Testament never explicitly mentions the baptism of an infant in a way that signifies the infant received salvation as a result. In fact, the New Testament never explicitly mentions the baptism of any person prior to a confession of faith.