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Sacraments: Grace we can touch

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper express in tangible ways God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ

By Paul Galbreath

What Is a Sacrament?

An outward sign instituted by God to convey an inward or spiritual grace. Sacraments are liturgical practices of churches. Roman Catholicism recognizes seven sacraments; Protestants two.
Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Donald K. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)

Heather woke up early Sunday morning. She and her father were going to be baptized! It was the culmination of a process that started a year ago when her best friend invited her to come to church — and Heather discovered a new world. She tried to understand what was going on, but the music, the Bible readings and the recitations sounded strange and foreign. And yet there was something about the people — a sense of hope and a commitment to caring for the community — that caused her to return again and again.

Illustration by Michael Walker

Heather eventually invited her father to come with her. They started discussing their relationship and their hopes for the future. They asked the pastor to come and tell them more about the church. The pastor brought a Bible and a loaf of bread. Together they read Scripture, ate bread and talked about what it means to follow Jesus. The pastor described baptism and communion — sacraments — which she said were signs of Christ’s presence, God’s love and the Spirit’s movement in our lives.

Heather and her father wanted to learn more, so for six months they met weekly with others at the church to explore further what it means to be Jesus’ disciples. And now finally they were going to be baptized. There were still things she didn’t understand, but Heather believed that this was an important day in her life and that something special was happening.

‘Visible words’

The sacraments provide a picture of God’s promises to us. Fourth-century theologian St. Augustine called them “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” Following his lead, 16th-century reformer John Calvin said sacraments are “visible words” that help strengthen faith and nurture discipleship. While the written words of Scripture teach us about God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ, the sacraments express God’s grace in tangible ways.

Calvin recognized only two sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — because they are rooted in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and provide a form of proclamation of the good news. He maintained that other ritual acts considered sacraments by the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., marriage or ordination) lack this central biblical and Christological warrant and witness.

Alongside the Word read and proclaimed, regular communal celebrations of baptism and the Lord’s Supper offer a theological framework for the church’s faith. This framework includes five identifying marks:

Sacraments are grounded in Scripture.
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper draw on multiple New Testament images. Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is part of a call to renew the covenant between God and Israel. Jesus is declared as God’s beloved son in this decisive event that leads to a period of temptation, vocational discernment and the onset of Jesus’ public ministry.

In the early church baptism became a way for Jesus’ followers to identify with Christ. The Apostle Paul portrays baptism as immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, writing that we have been “buried” with Christ in baptism and raised to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Similarly the Lord’s Supper draws from meal images in multiple biblical passages. These include Passover meals, as well as Jesus’ resurrection meals in Emmaus (Luke 24) and with the disciples on a Sea of Galilee beach (John 21). These meals are formulated around communion practices: take, bless, break and give. As part of his public ministry Jesus ate with disciples, sinners and outcasts — a significant broadening of customary table practices that can inform our own communion celebrations.

In Acts 2:44–47 members of the early Christian community are described as praying in the temple, breaking bread at home and caring for one another. The Apostle Paul connects the narrative of the Last Supper with the ethical action of sharing food in order that all people have enough to eat and drink (1 Corinthians 11:17–26).

Sacraments define the church.
Sacraments are one of the identifying marks of the church. As Calvin defines it, the church is where the Word is truly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. Calvin linked the sacraments to the life of the congregation, replacing private baptisms with community baptismal celebrations that included congregational vows. Likewise, he urged frequent gatherings of the faith community around the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Sacraments connect us to Christ.
The role and purpose of the sacraments are grounded in a firm belief that the sacraments connect us to Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. With the Spirit’s blessing, in the baptism waters, we gain a new identity as followers of Jesus Christ. As Jesus was declared God’s beloved Son at his baptism, so too at our baptism we are declared to be God’s beloved children.

At the communion table the Spirit’s presence in the gifts of bread and cup and in our lives brings about a community that follows in the way of Jesus Christ. At the table we are invited to offer our own lives as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

Baptism and communion are connected practices, not independent acts. Baptism begins a lifelong journey of discipleship, and communion sustains us on that journey.

Sacraments create community.
Gathered around the baptismal font or communion table, we are brought together as a community, a family defined by water baptism and not by blood relationship. In participating in the sacraments, we profess that our faith in Jesus Christ transcends political and personal differences. This links us with a global community that shares these practices in diverse congregations around the world. At font and table the gospel takes shape in our lives as a community of faith.

Sacraments celebrate God’s creation.
Sacraments use the “stuff” of the world around us: water that sustains our lives, and bread and wine/juice that we eat and drink regularly. These things are a part of the world that God created and declared “good.”

The water that remains in our baptismal fonts as a sign of God’s covenant also calls us to care for the water around us. Presbyterian emphasis on the use of local elements provides a natural connection to the care of all God’s creation: “The water used for baptism should be common to the location ….” (Directory of Worship, W-3.3605). Common water—which we drink, pour on houseplants, bathe in and use to wash clothes—is also what is used as we are marked and named as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As we struggle with serious environmental issues and drinkable water for all becomes harder to find, our use of water in baptism serves as a wake-up call, reminding Christians of our commitment to work for the protection and conservation of God’s creation.

Similarly, the act of eating and drinking together points us toward the hunger and thirst of those who do not have enough to eat or drink. Our communal use of local bread and common wine or juice prompts us to share our provisions. Feeding orphans, widows and prisoners was a central identifying mark of early Christian faith.

A deep well

Throughout our history Presbyterians have worked to live out this theological vision of the place of sacraments in our congregations. Building on Calvin’s notion of sacraments as visible words, we can examine our sacramental practices: What does it look like when we gather around the baptismal font and the communion table? How do our actions make the gospel visible in our congregations and to our communities? Who is welcome to participate? Do we make room for the Spirit to bring life to our celebrations?

Increasing the frequency, liveliness and visibility of the celebration of sacraments in our congregations provides a primary way for deepening our theological foundation and for allowing the Spirit to bring God’s word to life in our own lives. Sacraments make us visible signs of God’s grace in our world.

And for Heather and her father — as well as for all of us — the sacraments are a deep well from which we can draw nourishment for the rest of our lives.

Invitation to Christ

A call to deepening of sacramental life

Current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) practice upholds the relationship between baptism and communion by asserting that the Lord’s Supper is a sacramental meal to be shared by baptized believers.

Responding to overtures that the denomination adopt an “open table” policy so that the unbaptized may participate in the Lord’s Supper, the Office of Theology and Worship convened a sacraments study group in 2003. The group’s report, “Invitation to Christ,” does not provide a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Instead it calls the church to a deepening of sacramental life over the next several years and recommends five simple practices:

  1. Set the baptismal font in full view of the congregation.
  2. Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
  3. Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
  4. Lead appropriate parts of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
  5. Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.

It is hoped that by entering into these practices and reflecting together on the experience, churches will be renewed and baptismal life and discipleship deepened.

The full report may be read here.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Presbyterians Today.