Thursday, February 17, 2011

Basic Christian Stuff: Sacraments

The sacraments are very tricky in the church. Some denominations celebrate, or recognize different sacraments than others do. There are some groups that do not refer to them as sacraments at all. They prefer to call them “ordinances.” This somehow provides some distance between the current celebration of the acts and the traditional approach to them. My personal feeling is that this is a way to provide some emotional distance from the Catholic aspects of the sacraments.

Since I am a United Methodist, and I serve in a thoroughly United Methodist context, my comments should not be construed as normative for all people, groups or times. I am sharing my thoughts on the sacraments, nothing more.

United Methodists recognize only two sacraments, baptism and Holy Communion. There are groups that would include as many as seven sacraments. Those churches also recognize things like “last rites,” matrimony and confirmation. All of these are valid representations of elements of worship, but for me they do not meet the criteria for sacrament. There are two specific requirements for a sacrament:

  1. Its observance is commanded by Jesus. As far as I can tell, baptism and communion are the only ones that meet this requirement.
  2. It is an outward sign of the inward work of the grace of God.

When we celebrate baptism, we are not just symbolically getting wet and remembering what Jesus did. We are experiencing the grace of God. God is at work in the act of baptism. Our obedience to his Word activates the miracle power of God. When we eat and drink in communion, we are not receiving elements to remind us of God’s work, we are experiencing the work of God itself.

Remember that receiving the sacraments is not optional. Jesus instructed us to do these things. When we are baptized, we are obeying God (Matthew 28.19). When we eat the Lord’s Supper we are fulfilling God’s will (Luke 22.19).

One more thing: There is some controversy surrounding the frequency of celebrating the sacraments. People want to have communion less often than they do, and be baptized more often than they are. John Wesley believed that every time believers are together they should have communion. I see no reason to think that this is not a good and workable arrangement. It is not necessarily true that increased frequency of communion would diminish the significance of its meaning. We should eat at the Lord’s Table often.

As to baptism, we would do well to consider the words of Scripture. Ephesians 4.5 makes it clear that there is only one baptism. This essentially means that we receive God’s grace when we are baptized and that being “re-baptized” would be a questioning of God’s power. It is completely possible, however, that a person may desire to renew commitments that were made at her/his baptism. This could even be done with water, either in a sprinkling or immersion experience. This is not a repudiation of the grace of God, but rather a celebration of it.

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