A Sacrament Primer (and some questions I still have)


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For my worship and liturgy class, we had to write up a little thing explaining how we would explain the Sacraments to an everyday person. We were also supposed to throw up some questions that we might still have about them. Here are is mine.

In the beginning of the Bible, we see God create what amounts to a “temple-world”. He wants to dwell in this temple, with his people, and make it his home. He ordains priests to care for it but they fail. So God puts in motion a plan and story to rebuild this world and re-prepare it for his dwelling.

The focal point of this story and our entire faith is Jesus Christ. He is God among us having come dressed in humanity. The Gospel of John says he literally “templed” among us, using our created humanity as something he was pleased to dwell in.

This is the Gospel; it is our life and strength as Christians.

But it also shows us that God has not only made the created world in such a way that he can live in it, dwell in it, and communicate himself by it; but also that he is pleased to do this! Whenever God makes himself known through his created world, it is a holy thing.

A sacred thing.

A Sacred instrument.

A Sacra-ment.

Depending on how each of us is wired, God meets us in profound and myriad ways, but he is loving enough to not leave us alone in searching for those Sacred things. Though he has said that he can meet us in any number of material things in this world, in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper he has promised to meet us and be there every single time—even when we ourselves are not very engaged in the moment on our end.

I was reading in Genesis this past week and ran across this beautiful line when God is describing how circumcision will be the sign of his special covenant relationship with Abraham: “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

How beautiful is that?

The New Testament seems to say that Baptism has now replaced circumcision as this sign of being part of the family of God. It is now that mark of God’s promise in our flesh. It gives you the “family name” of the People of God, apart from anything you had to perform, “get right”, or do.

Those baptized may still rebel, walk away, or disbelieve as time goes by, but this covenant is no less in their flesh. It is no less imminently available to them and theirs. Because they have been marked. This is our sign to the world that we are God’s People, his chosen family.

Having been baptized and made part of that family, you now get to enjoy the “family meal”: the Lord’s Supper. And what better food is there for our souls than to feast on the Grace and Presence of the One for Whom our souls were made—Christ and his Promise. But this was a costly promise—one also embedded in his flesh on the cross. And so we eat a broken flesh and spilt blood.

The supper is one where great material and physical cost, and giving of oneself, mysteriously translates itself into a restoration of right relationships and deep abiding joy. The tangible is transformed (“metabolized”, if you will) into deep storehouses of spiritual and emotional sustenance.

Both of these sacraments are all about joining us all the more closely into Christ and his People. To embed this covenant relationship into our flesh by taking in his spiritual flesh in which the covenant was fulfilled.

And he chooses to do it through the most basic, mundane, organic, and foundational of created things: bread, wine, and water. God meets us in the mundane and makes it profound. This is the Beauty of the Sacraments.

And yet, I’ve still got some lingering questions, both theological and practical:

  • If baptized children are “part of the family”, why hasn’t the Church historically given Communion to kids that have been baptized?
  • What is a more plain account and straightforward answer to the tension between how baptism “purifies us” but doesn’t “save” us? The Bible clearly says that it “cleanses us of our sins”. What language can we use to explain what Baptism does and does not do, without minimizing its profundity, mysticism, and importance?
  • Relatedly, I grew up thinking that Baptism was something that only came after a clear profession of faith. I now (clearly) don’t think that, but those that do get so passionate about it, thinking that infant baptism is tantamount to paganism and “works righteousness”. This level of vitriol was not around in the early church, even though there were many varied opinions on this issue. How can we talk about this in a way where there is charity, common ground, and love among those of us that disagree about this?
  • Lastly, what’s the essential theological connection between ordination and consecration? I’ve been around groups of passionate lay-people who have a time of prayer with other Christians and then “have communion” with one another? How are we to think of that? Is it any less “Communion”? How? Why has the Church historically held that the Sacraments are only truly consecrated by ordained leaders of the Church?

What questions might you have? How might you answer any of the questions above? How would you explain sacraments to others?

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8 thoughts on “A Sacrament Primer (and some questions I still have)

  1. If baptized children are “part of the family”, why hasn’t the Church historically given Communion to kids that have been baptized?

    The Orthodox Church does and always has. Infants, upon baptism and chrismation receive communion too – all in the same service.

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    • Mmmm. I love that. This is what a Catholic friend of mine on Facebook said:

      “Because the Church has taken seriously St. Paul’s warning to not eat/drink the Lord in an unworthy manner, so the Church has almost always (prior to the last hundred years) required some sort of catechesis.”

      My response was/is this:

      “My thought on paedo-communion, though, is that whereas Baptism is the “New Circumcision”, the Eucharist is the “New Passover”. And at Passover (just as with Communion) it was commanded that the children take and eat of it as well. “

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  2. I don’t know how far this goes to answer your questions, but when we affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then our partaking is (at least) an encounter with the real, powerful, present, risen Jesus. I don’t know if any of the Reformation theologians developed a view of the real presence of Christ in our baptisms, but it seems to me a reasonable conclusion to make, especially considering his promise to be wherever two or three are gathered in his name. That said, then baptism is also a real encounter with Jesus in a way similar to the Eucharist. Given this and the place of baptism as the New Circumcision, what kind and extent of effect must baptism consequently have on the child? Neither circumcision in the OT nor encounter with Jesus in the NT necessarily converted the person, but it certainly had an effect.

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