Saturday, October 11, 2008

Disciples Values: The Sacramental Principle

Acts 2:37-42

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Look at a picture of a smiling young man in a tuxedo, standing hand in hand with a young woman dressed in a flowing white gown, and you know what’s been happening. You don’t need any words. The picture tells the story.

You enter the church and you see a table set with a chalice and a loaf of bread, and you probably know what’s going to happen. These ancient symbols bring to mind an ancient story about God’s love for humanity, a love that was most fully expressed on a cross. Words may be shared, but the symbols themselves carry the story.

This picture of the table set, or a picture of a baptistry filled, call to mind a sacred covenant that God has made with us. They’re reminders that we, though flawed human beings, may rest in peace while standing in the midst of God’s grace. We know this to be true, because these symbols continue to speak to us, from one generation to the next.

I. Why Sacraments?

These sacred signs of grace are often called sacraments, and a sacrament is by common definition an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible work of grace.” The word comes from the Latin, and it once referred to a sign of loyalty given to a military or political leader. In time the word took on a broader, deeper meaning. It continued to convey a sense of loyalty, though in this case, the object of this loyalty is God, but it went deeper. The external act became the sign of God’s gracious work of transformation, which happens internally. Over the years Christians have debated over which signs most explicitly carry this witness, and we Disciples follow Protestant practice and claim only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s possible to expand the number, but these two stand out.

Despite the long usage of this word, Disciples haven’t always been comfortable with it. Alexander Campbell, for instance, didn’t think it was biblical enough, so, he chose an equally non-biblical word, “ordinance.” But, even though Campbell didn’t use the word sacrament, he did believe that these two acts of the church were ordained by Jesus to be signs of God’s grace. And thus, today most Disciples are comfortable with claiming these two acts as sacraments of God’s church.

II. BAPTISM AS MEANS OF GRACE

It is Disciple practice to baptize by immersion upon confession of faith. We’ve been doing this ever since Alexander Campbell decided not to baptize his infant daughter and instead asked a Baptist preacher to baptize him, along with his father and their families. Like most of his fellow Christians of that day, Campbell had been baptized as an infant, but after reading the New Testament he decided that believer’s baptism by immersion was the clearest practice of the early church, and therefore it should be our practice.

As important as that example was, even more important was the meaning he found in baptism. Looking to Acts 2:38, he found the key to understanding baptism. In this passage Peter answered the question: What must we do to be saved? His answer was simple and straightforward:

"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Walter Scott, another of our founders, turned this passage into an evangelistic formula that he called the “5 Finger Exercise.” What Campbell heard in these words was a promise – if we repent and are baptized, God will be faithful to forgive our sins. It’s not that the waters of baptism have magical powers. It’s just that Campbell believed that God would faithfully act in response to our repentance and our willingness to enter the waters of baptism with an offer of forgiveness. He took comfort in that promise, because he didn’t have to rely on religious experiences or feelings – which can be fickle – to tell him he was part of God’s family. His baptism was all he needed to remember that he was a forgiven child of God. But not only that, even as God is faithful to forgive, God will also faithfully empower us by the filling of the Holy Spirit so that we might walk boldly the path of faith.

Beyond this witness in Acts we find other passages that deepen the meaning of this sacrament. Paul speaks of baptism being the place where we symbolically share in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. That is, even as we die to our old lives as we’re buried with Jesus in the waters of baptism, we become a new person when we rise with him from the waters of baptism (Rom. 6:1ff). John calls this being born again (Jn 3:1ff).

Baptism can be a life changing experience because it so powerfully symbolizes the transformation that is happening within us when we choose to follow Jesus and receive both forgiveness and the empowerment of the Spirit. It’s true that we may stray from our commitments, but the memory of that event reminds us that God will never stray from us, and in that there is great joy!

I must add something to this statement, however, for while we practice believer’s baptism by immersion, we also affirm the baptisms of all Christians. Therefore, we don’t require people to be rebaptized if they’ve been baptized as infants. That’s because we don’t presume to restrict God’s work in the lives of Christians whose baptismal experience differs from our own.

III. THE LORD'S SUPPER AS SACRAMENT

We refer to the other sacrament, the one we faithfully observe each week, as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. As with baptism, we find this sacrament described in Acts 2. It would appear that when the early Christians gathered for worship, besides listening to the teachings of the Apostles, sharing in community and in prayer, they would also break bread. Disciples have tried to follow this biblical pattern by coming to the Lord’s Table each Sunday. This practice is kind of unique in Protestant circles, which is why we chose a chalice to be our denominational symbol. It reminds us that the Table, more than anything else, defines us as a people. Because we are a people of the Table, Dick Hamm summed up our church’s mission as: "The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) inviting the World to Christ's table." And our new denominational identity statement puts it this way:

We are Disciples of Christ,
a movement for wholeness
in a fragmented world.
As part of the one body of Christ,
we welcome all to the Lord's Table
as God has welcomed us.
But what does this mean?

Just as with baptism the Lord’s Supper has a number of meanings. For instance, as we gather together at the table we remember that Jesus also broke bread with his disciples, with sinners, and with tax collectors. Indeed, Jesus invited everyone to his table. We also gather in remembrance of all that he was and is. We remember his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection. We do this because he called on us to share in the bread and the cup in remembrance of him.

But we don’t simply come to remember, we also come to the table to experience Christ’s spiritual presence. He may not be with us in the flesh, but surely he is with us in Spirit, for as he said to the disciples: “where two or more are gathered in my name, I will be in their midst” (Mt 18:20). But there are also other elements to this witness. We see and hear in this meal a call to unity, for as Paul put it, because there’s one bread and one cup, there’s one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). And just as we are called to remember his earthly life and death, we’re also called to anticipate a final messianic banquet, what John the Revelator calls the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

We have a tendency to approach this meal with great sobriety, and for good reason. It is a sacred meal and a remembrance of a life given for others. As we gather at the table, we remember his sufferings on the cross, and surely that is sobering. But, because of the Resurrection, we should also come to the table with a sense of joy and celebration. Death isn’t the final word, so as we come to the table, we’re able to sing: “I come with Joy, a child of God, forgiven, loved and free, the life of Jesus to recall in love laid down for me, in love laid down for me.” Indeed, as we share in this meal, we become “new community of love in Christ’s communion bread.” (Chalice Hymnal, 420).

Alexander Campbell understood the sacredness of this meal, but he also recognized the need for joy at the table, and so he wrote that “with sacred joy and blissful hope (we) hear the Savior say, ‘This is my body broken -- this my blood shed for you’." It is this joy, and this hope, that moves us to embrace one another in love. Indeed, in this call to the table we hear a call to love the world, even as Christ loves the world.

We are indeed, a sacramental people who celebrate God’s grace by sharing in the waters of baptism and in Christ’s messianic feast. These are visible signs of God’s kingdom that is already in our midst. As Disciples, this is a principle worth embracing.


1. Richard Hamm, "Address to the Assembly", General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (Cincinnati, October 10, 1999).

2. Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptist, 3 (Aug. 1, 1825): 175 [Reprint, College Press, 1983].


Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
October 12, 2008

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