The Sacraments are Boring and Irrelevant
The sacraments for us Protestants number two: Baptism and Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In all honesty, these rituals hold little purchase on our hearts and minds these days. Baptism, for those churches that baptism infants, is often little more than pious baby worship, and hence, idolatrous. And most of us have little idea of what the Eucharist is about. And often the little we do know is that it’s somber and sorrowful, with little scraps or cubes or wafers of bread and a thimble full of juice or wine passing for a “feast,” supposedly re-enacting the Last Supper, and it makes us late to the restaurant after worship for Sunday lunch.
There’s got to be more to them than that, though. Isn’t there? What happens when we celebrate them. Are they mere symbols of something else? That’s a common misconception needs to be debunked. They are indeed symbolic but through them God also communicates the reality to which they point. Flannery O’Connor, in her usual direct and frank way, cut through flowery talk about the wonderful “symbolism” of the Eucharist among some of her social circle in New York. “If it is just a symbol, to hell with it,” she said.
What is a Sacrament?
God Word comes to us in aural, liquid, and edible forms. We have tried for the most part to live off the aural Word (sermon, Bible study) without integrating then liquid Word and the edible Word into our lives. But it is just these forms of the Word that offer help for a dehydrated and emaciated church.
The sacraments, according the PC(U.S.A.)’s “Directory for Worship,” “are God’s acts of sealing the promises of faith within the community of faith as the congregation worships and include the responses of the faithful to the Word proclaimed and enacted in the Sacraments.” (Book of Order, W.3.3600). Through these actions of washing and sharing a meal God through the Spirit communicates the reality of Christ’s presence in and among us.
While this is all formally correct, it leaves open the very matters that need concretization: what promises?, which community?, what does God do here, and how do we respond? These are the things I want to reframe for us in light of the nature of the church as God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement (see last post).
A Fresh Image
If we consider the church as GSCRM, I propose we can and should see the sacraments, the font and the table, as “Boot Camp” for induction and training for the task we are called to undertake. Before you laugh and blow this off, read on and let me unpack this proposal a bit.
What happens in Boot Camp?
1. You get a new “Father” (actually in the U.S. military you get a new “Uncle”!)
2. Your old civilian identity is broken down
3. Your new identity is inculcated
4. You become part of a new family
5. You have a new inheritance (or goal)
6. You receive new resources and learn new skills
7. You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world
Living wet under the liquid Word of the font of baptism delivers to us an identical set of realities and thus, I would argue, serves admirably as an induction and boot camp training for those baptized/inducted into GSCRM.
This statement on baptism from the Presbyterian A Declaration of Faith (ch.6, par.5, ll.111-120) summarizes the biblical material very well.
“We believe that in baptism
the Spirit demonstrates and confirms God's promise
to include us and our children in his gracious covenant,
cleansing us from sin,
and giving us newness of life,
as participants in Christ's death and resurrection.
Baptism sets us in the visible community of Christ's people
and joins us to all other believers by a powerful bond.
In baptism we give ourselves up in faith and repentance
to be the Lord's.”
It is not difficult to see the seven items listed and illustrated above from Boot Camp. Let’s look at them.
1. You have a new “Father”
2. You old identity and way of life is done away with
3. You are given a new identity
4. You are part of a new family
5. You receive a new inheritance
6. You get new resources and new skills
7. You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Jesus, Matthew 6:33)
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” The Lord’s Prayer (Jesus, Matt.6:7-13)
Like induction into the military, baptism is a decisive change in a person’s life. This change is profound and follows one throughout their lives. If we do not continually refresh ourselves by memory and reaffirmation of our baptisms, we rapidly dehydrate and grow useless. Let us, then, call baptism the “beginning that never ends.” We can illustrate it like this:
Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends . . .
The first verse of the hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey” captures this well:
At the font we start our journey
in the Easter faith baptized;
doubts and fears no longer blind us,
by the light of Christ surprised.
Baptism (both experienced and remembered) slakes our thirst for a whole new way of being. It inducts us into a new community, GSCRM, intent on journeying toward God’s new creation and setting up signposts of and toward it on the way. While on the way it the Eucharist that are our “rations,” our nourishment and sustenance.
This edible Word and the community which shares it together experience the various graces of the table.
1. At this table celebrating this meal we experience and provide a preview of the great banquet Jesus promised when he told his followers:
“. . . many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God's kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Jesus (Matthew 8:11)
2. At this table celebrating this meal we experience provision for present need:
“But Jesus didn't give an inch. ‘Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you.’” (John 6:53-56, The Message)
3. At this table celebrating this meal we practice the skills needed for carrying out the subversive counter-revolution for which God has called us. I note four here:
-In a world of alienated and lonely people, we learn the grace of undeserved welcome and friendship at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world wounded and terrorized by violence, we learn to make peace at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world discouraged and haunted by futility, we learn hope at the table of the Eucharist.
-In a world reckless and wasteful of creation’s resources, we learn stewardship at the table of the Eucharist.
“The Eucharist,” writes Peter Leithart, “is not merely a ‘sign’ to be examined, dissected, and analyzed but a rite whose enactment disciplines the church in the virtues of Christian living and forms the church and thereby molds the world into something more like the kingdom it signifies.” This is, as he puts it, “how the Eucharist makes the church.” Harold Daniels summarizes the impact of sharing the Eucharist regularly with a striking image: “It transforms us into icons of Jesus’ compassion in the world seeking to heal it of its brokenness. This is the mark of living in the reign of God into which we are called, and which is yet to be in its fullness.”
A somewhat whimsical (though no less true) way to illustrate this is to take the four actions of the Eucharist as Kingdom or Communion Calisthenics. Jesus institutes this meal with four actions: receiving, thanking, breaking, and giving. Let’s imagine them as a patterned set of calisthenics.
-We begin by lifting our empty hands out over our heads with our palms up. By this we embody the emptiness, openness, and receptivity that begins everything Christian.
-Our next move is to lower our arms and bring our hands together in front of us in a posture of prayer. Thanksgiving is first response a Christian makes to the gifts and graces received from God.
-Next we move our hands apart as if tearing a loaf of bread. We signal with this action our commitment to be broken, to die both figuratively and, if necessary, even physically in following Jesus Christ and serving God’s mission in the world.
-Finally, we spread open out to our sides, a gesture of the giving which constitutes the lives of witness. Sharing, and caring we offer to others in and for the sake of Jesus.
Next, imagine going through these gestures repeatedly in sequence and at an ever faster pace. With enough practice and time such actions will be inscribed into our muscle memory and become more and more second nature to us.
And that’s just the point, isn’t it? Eating these “rations” of the Eucharist with the rest of GSCRM is a necessary part of the equipping/training for faithful service. Leithart sees this clearly when he describes how this meal witnesses to Christ’s death: “. . . there is no reason to assume that the proclamation takes place by the minister’s manipulation of the elements. Since the Supper is the communal meal as a whole, the fact that we eat together and the way we do it, that is what “proclaims the Lord’s death.” Without these rations we will quickly become famished, emaciated, and unable to act!
Regular (weekly?) celebration of this feast, then, is a non-negotiable for God’s people. The most frequent argument against weekly observance of the Eucharist is that if celebrated too often the Supper will no longer be “special.” This is specious, of course. First, who ever said it was to be “special” in the sense that frequency of celebration ruins its effect? It is “special” in the sense that God has given us this gracious and remarkable provision that enables just what asks us to do! I would think we would be eager to eat this “special” meal as often as possible! And secondly, the Eucharist is a meal of communion and intimacy with the triune God. I don’t want to be indelicate here, but I wonder what we would make of a couple who only shared marital intimacy once a month in order to keep it “special”? Since it prefigures and provides a foretaste of the great banquet, when God’s kingdom is fully come, let’s call the Eucharist “the end that has already begun.”
. . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun
The hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey” sings the Eucharist this way:
“At the altar we are nourished
with the Easter gift of bread;
in our breaking it to pieces
see the love of Christ outspread.
Life embraced yet freely shed.”
Living Between the Font and the Table
All this, then, bring us to the final stage of my proposal. Imagine you worship space. The pulpit, the place where God’s Word is heard (the aural Word) is the first and primary “space” where GSCRM gets its “marching orders.” Next, imagine the space between the font and the table as a kind of “force field.” The graces of the font (as outlined above), our “beginning which never ends,” interpenetrate us from one direction. Those of the Table (as outlined above) do the same from the other direction. This is the “space” from which we receive, learn, practice the graces to align our priorities, passions, and practices with God’s and engage the struggle with the principalities and powers for which God called us and which constitutes our subversive, counter-revolutionary action on God’s behalf.
Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends. . . Church . . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun
Between the Font and the Table is the place where the Church is made and kept the Church; the place we know we will meet the Risen Christ and receive his life for us and for the world. In other words, it is between the Font and the Table, where in baptism, Christ’s life becomes ours, and at the table, our lives become Christ’s, that we are formed into Christians and learn how to live faithfully in the world.
The final verse of “At the Font We Start Our Journey” follows us from the font and table into the world:
“At the door we are commissioned,
Now the Easter victory’s won,
To restore a world divided
To the peace of Christ as one.
Easter’s work must still be done.”
Our lack of a vital sacramental life in North American Christianity (even for many in “high” churches that practice weekly Eucharist) has several roots. Our (mis)understanding of the church is the one of the primary ones. If we envision the church as a settled institution to which we seek to attract others with the larger goal of extending the expanding the institution’s life, the sacraments can be little more than opportunities for private devotion, rites of passages, or meaningless relics we observe to satisfy some antiquarian rule or principle.
Until we see the church in its biblical profile as at least something like what I have called GSCRM, the sacraments cannot attain their full importance or vital function. A richer sacramental life will not happen simply by instituting weekly Eucharist celebration or calling more attention to baptism. Those are things that need to arise out of a new vision of who and what the church is and what it is called to do. The agonistic vision I have sketched is something like a view of the church in which such rituals have a large and critical role to play.
This brief essay cannot deal with all the questions, observations, or criticisms it is likely to occasion. But there is one further question I want to leave you with. Is it not possible, even likely, that if you cannot envision the sacraments functioning as I have sketched here in your church, if, in other words, there is not a “fit” between the sacraments (as outline here) and ethos and life of your church, that something is fundamentally wrong with the vision of church at work in your congregation? And if so, might not the sacraments be a catalyst to a rethinking of the way you are and do church? It is in this sense that I think only the sacraments can save us now!