Sacraments Introduction

June 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is the manuscript from the sermon I gave at Emmaus Road Church on Saturday, June  23.

  1. Introduction – Series on Sacraments – This week, we’ll begin a series on sacraments. Here at Emmaus Road, we’re somewhat familiar with the sacraments: we partake in communion every night and we have also dedicated several children over the years, as well as conducting baptisms. However, I would like to take a closer look at sacraments. What are they? What purpose do they serve? How do we participate in them? What happens when we do? We’re going to be looking at the sacraments closely and discovering more about them. This series will cover individual sacraments and it is my hope to even pull in some guests to address particular ones. However, tonight, we will begin with sacraments in general.
  2. First Things 
    1. Definition – In our culture, we like things defined. We like to understand things; we like to sum them up. We like to be able to read a few lines out of a dictionary or do a quick Google search and suddenly become an authority on a particular topic. Since information has become so readily accessed in our culture, we’ve gotten somewhat spoiled. However, the topic of sacraments resists all that boiling down, summarizing, and defining that we like to do so much. This hasn’t stopped people from trying; however, we will find that the definitions differ, and the summaries don’t always agree. It’s a huge topic, and we can’t stuff it into a status update or a Twitter post. Rather than attempting to define the issue, I want instead to cover some ways of thinking; ways we think about the world we live in, ways we think about Jesus Christ, and ways we think about the church. We will find that the idea of sacraments is greatly tied into all of these things. If you are absolutely dying for a definition to at least carry you through the service, then we’ll work with this: “Sacraments are ways by which we as the church, both individually and corporately, participate in the mystery of Christ.”
    2. The Two and the Five
      1. Protestants – Protestants celebrate two sacraments. We, here at Emmaus Road, would fall into this category if we could follow our family tree.
        1. Baptism – When a person enters the kingdom of God, we celebrate that event. We celebrate their soul and their life being made new with the symbolism of water washing and cleansing. When parents bring a newborn, we celebrate a service of dedication where the church and the parents give the child to God and vow to bring that child up in the ways of the Christian life.
        2. Eucharist – We do this every week. We remember the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and drank wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” So this is what we do. We stand in a tradition that recreates this meal in a way, and we remember Christ through it; but we also remember much more. We remember his death and resurrection, and we proclaim his coming in the future.
        3. Why These Two? Protestants observe these two because we observe Christ participating in them; and so, in a manner of speaking, he instituted them. Jesus commanded us to remember him at the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26, and commanded us to baptize disciples in Matthew 28. Since these were instituted by Christ, the Protestant church recognizes these only.
      2. Tradition – The Catholic church and some other branches recognize five more sacraments in addition to the other two. They are:
        1. Confirmation – An initiation into the fullness of the Christian life. Often seen in conjunction with Baptism, confirmation is a welcoming of one into the church and an equipping of them to live the Christian life. Different traditions have varying understandings of this and this can be seen in different ways; some churches have classes and waiting periods from the time that one expresses interest in joining the church before they can become complete members.
        2. Penance – This is also tied in with Confession and Reconciliation.  One would come to the priest and confess his or her sins, and then the priest would give the penitent some particular tasks to perform before the sins could be completely forgiven. They may have been spiritual exercises or perhaps making amends to those who were wronged by the sin.
        3. Extreme Unction – This is also known as Anointing of the Sick. Those who are ill can call for a priest, and the priest will come and anoint them with oil. In the early church, recovery was fully expected after the anointing. This is not limited to those who are terminally ill or at death’s door, and so it is not to be confused with last rites. Children can receive this sacrament, so long as they are able to understand what is taking place; and people who are even suffering from a malady such as general weakness or the common cold can call for it.
        4. Holy Orders – This refers to those who have specifically received a call to function within the ministry. The Catholic Church has established distinctions as to various levels of orders, but it may be broadly defined as those who have been ordained for ministry within the church.
        5. Marriage – I don’t think I need to define this one very much. Marriage is seen as a way for the married couple to minister grace to one another. Marriage was also viewed with the purpose of procreation and keeping one another from sexual sin.
        6. The Breakdown – These may sound rather foreign or odd to us. From our perspective, they seem to function better within the context of the institutional church; yet it is still beneficial for us to look at them, see the intent behind them, and recognize how God can move through them.
      3. More? – Some schools of thought have tried to introduce other things to the realm of sacraments (speaking in tongues, footwashing, etc.), but these seven are ones that the traditional church recognizes. However, this does not mean that we only look to find God within the things I just mentioned. The things we just talked about are officially recognized and agreed upon; however, other encounters and experiences may prove to  act in our lives in sacramental ways. The bottom line: Don’t put God in a box. But now we will go from what the church recognizes to how we think about sacraments.
  3. The Upshot
    1. Dualism – For a moment, I want to leave the idea of sacraments behind and instead turn to an idea that affects how we think about the sacraments. This idea has been called dualism. The idea basically runs as follows. The universe is made up of two realms: the spiritual and the physical; some call it the supernatural and the natural. These two realms are divided and do not overlap. Some people have applied Biblical language to this and called “Heaven” the supernatural realm and “Earth” the physical realm. The implication is that we, as people, are stuck in the natural realm and that God is in the supernatural realm.  Where did we get this idea?
      1. Allegory of the Cave – A long time ago, there was a Greek philosopher named Plato.  He told the story of a person imprisoned in a cave; this person was bound up in the cave and couldn’t leave. However, in a different part of the cave, there was a fire, and people walking around it. The prisoner couldn’t see the people or the fire, but he could see the shadows made by the people. And this goes on, and on… The prisoner forms a worldview based upon his imprisonment and the shadows that he sees. This is all that he knows of life, and he builds his own ideas about them. Then, one day, the prisoner is set free. He stumbles into the other room, and sees the fire and the people and how the shadows are made. Suddenly, he is confronted with a whole other world, and he has to redefine everything that he knows. After a while, the other people in the cave take pity on the former prisoner, and take him out into the sunlight and the open world… And again, the prisoner has to redefine everything that he knows. Plato was saying essentially that we are prisoners; locked up, theorizing about about shadows. We can’t expect to see the other world, and even if we did, we couldn’t expect people to believe us because our stories would be too unbelievable. This story greatly affected how people saw the world; there was the world of the humans and the world of the gods, and there was a gap in the middle.
      2. Gnosticism – As Christianity came on the scene, a group of people called gnostics got a hold of this idea. They taught that the physical world was a cosmic accident and completely evil; the goal of life was to get into the heavenly world and to gain freedom from this evil, horrible world that we were trapped in. That’s why Christ came to earth; to show us the way to escape.
      3. Effects – This idea even holds on to today. In some ways, it makes a lot of a sense. There’s the world that we live in, and we understand it pretty well. Science tells us about much of our existence in a physical world. We’re also aware of some other kind of world that is pretty good at escaping us; we see shadows of it, but not much more. So there’s a gap that gets created. There is the realm of things that we do understand and the things that we don’t. The physical world often gets put in the category of things that we do, and the spiritual world in the category of things that we don’t.  We can get the idea that these two worlds are incompatible with each other and don’t belong. That our Christian life is spent reaching up into this spiritual world, longing to leave the world that we are in behind.
      4. Dangers – However, there are some dangers with this idea.
        1. Rejection of Creation – This idea can cause us to reject the world into which God created us; indeed, it can cause us to reject the creation that God made and then called “good.” The struggle here is that we are tempted to call the world and the things in it evil, and so we write them off, ignore them, and wait for our chance to get to heaven. Practically, this means that we don’t care about the world in which we live; we don’t take care of it as we should. We don’t live in environmentally cautious ways. We tend to be callous with other people and relationships. We only think of ourselves and how soon we can get off this rock. That’s a problem.
        2. Improper View of the World – This idea of existence can also make us think that the world in which we live is beyond hope. That our world is hopelessly broken and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it. The result of this is that we don’t try to fix it; we bemoan the flawed state in which we live, but think that we are powerless to do anything about it. Or, we live as we shouldn’t, because there’s nothing that we can do and this world really doesn’t count for anything anyway. Also, a problem.
        3. Redemption Becomes Impossible – If this world is broken and has nothing to do with the spiritual world, then there’s no sense in trying to repair the world in which we live. Christ didn’t come to make life better for people on earth; he came to show us how to leave. Somehow, this world in which we live, this world that God made and called good, is broken beyond repair, even for God. A problem.
        4. Limits God’s Power – What good is a God that can’t fix what he made? That’s a BIG problem. The idea that somehow, even God himself, is barred from interacting and engaging with those he created; this idea creates separation between God and his creation, as if we needed more of that. But it also limits God’s ability in our lives. What gives? As we can see, the idea of dualism creates some problems for us. Maybe there’s a better way to think about things.
    2. A Better Way – When we read the Bible, we see anything but a strong division between the natural and the supernatural. If anything, we see those two existing side by side. For a clear picture of this, let’s go back to creation and the kind of relationship creation had with God.
      1. The Garden – When we read the first three chapters of Genesis, we get a picture of God creating the world. God creates the world, everything in it, with humanity as the crowning achievement. God puts them in charge of the Garden of Eden with some instructions, and all is well – until they break some of the instructions. And then – and here’s the part that grabs me – they hear God walking in the garden. And they tried to hide from God. Let’s think about this for just a second. The man and the woman knew what it sounded like when God walked in the garden. Have you been around someone long enough that you can tell who it is just by the sound of their walking? An example: When I go up and down stairs, my ankles pop. This is somewhat common in my family; it happens to my siblings as well. One day, my older brother and his wife were at my parents’ house when I was there as well; my sister-in-law was upstairs. I started to walk up the stairs, and she heard my ankles popping, and she started to speak to me as though I were my brother. That led to a funny moment, and we got it straightened out; I don’t think she’ll make that mistake again, but think about this: she knew what it sounded like when her husband walked, and hearing nothing else, she could recognize him. Adam and Eve knew what it sounded like when God walked through the garden. The picture of God in the garden shows us a special kind of relationship that God had with his creation: He came and walked around in it. There’s no gap, no division of physical and spiritual. That sets the tone for how God desires to be in relationship with his creation.
      2. Living in Contact – And as we read the Old Testament, we see example after example of God living in contact with his creation. God speaking to Moses and the prophets, miracles, and no gap at all between the spiritual world and the physical world. These two worlds are not made distinct to the degree that we have made them today; and if you read the Old Testament through, you get the idea that this is how God wants to live: in contact with his creation.
      3. Jesus Christ – And then Jesus Christ enters the scene. Born of a virgin, God once again comes, kinda like in the garden, and walks among his creation. He gets dust on his feet; he gets hungry, eats, and goes to the bathroom. Yet, he is the Son of God, the one through whom the world was created. He is completely and fully God, wonderfully and totally spiritual; and he is completely and fully human, tangible and physical. And in Jesus Christ, the physical and the spiritual meet in such a way that we can’t even begin to wrap our mind around it – except to say that they get along with each other, and more than that – it’s like they were always meant to be together. And then he ups the ante – he starts going around and talking about this thing called the Kingdom of Heaven, describing what it’s like when God’s power is at work in the world. He runs around healing people and working miracles that have no explanation. And then he begins to speak of his relationship to God the Father – “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Then he says something else – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Then he does the most stunning thing of all – he allows himself to be crucified, executed in the most horrible of ways so that the division between God and his creation could be destroyed forever. And then, AND THEN, in the greatest display of heaven and earth colliding that we’ve seen yet, after three days, the Spirit of God brings Jesus back to life; the breath of creation, the force that wrought the world’s existence, joined with Jesus’ body, that beaten, pierced, bloodied, and buried corpse, and showed the world that even death itself, the end of life, is subject to the power of creation, that which brings life. If we believe there’s any kind of barrier between heaven and earth, Christ lived, died, and lives again to utterly and completely destroy that barrier. Christ, somehow, in the mystery that is the Incarnation, heaven and earth being fully found in this one person, He brought us salvation, spiritual life and resurrection, in visible and tangible ways – that’s what the sacraments are all about. (Remember? We’re talking about sacraments here!) Jesus Christ is the primary sacrament; he is the one who has brought us into life with God. Every other sacrament, the seven that we discussed earlier, are to point us to Christ. They are ways in which we experience the mystery of the Incarnation in physical community with one another. Even though Christ’s body has ascended and is no longer with us, we celebrate his physical life and come to physical life as his church when we engage these sacraments.
    3. Within the Church – And so we see that sacraments are both deeply connected with Jesus Christ and also his church. Colin Gunton, an English Theologian, says this: “[Sacraments] are the means by which the life of a community is oriented to and held within the structure of Jesus’ life in the flesh.” We are that community. Sacraments are present reminders that Jesus physically lived and walked on this earth, and that with God’s Holy Spirit living within us, we do the same. This means that, as the church, we look to the life of Jesus to inform how we think about the world; and sacraments provide us with physical, tangible reminders of Jesus’ physical, tangible life so that we can experience his grace in community with other believers.
      1. Ways for us to experience Christ’s life – Often, it becomes easy to forget that Christ did live a tangible life, just as we are. This is part of the role that sacraments play. They are physical reminders that Christ lived physically, and they are open invitations for us to participate in Christ’s life when we join in them.
      2. Guides for Church Life – These also provide guides for us to live as a church. Ways for us to think about things. Ways for us to handle things. When we celebrate communion, we set aside our faults and grievances to come together as God’s church and to proclaim the coming of his kingdom. When we dedicate a baby, we are welcoming a new life into the world. When we baptize, we are welcoming a soul into God’s kingdom. How does the church live? We live in ways that reflect the natural and the supernatural living in harmony.
      3. Experience of Grace – We can also engage the sacraments and expect grace to meet us there; strength for the Christian journey that we all need so very much. When we eat of the bread and drink of the juice, we are looking to Christ and expecting him to provide our souls with the sustenance that they need to follow him. When we dedicate a baby, we are placing it in God’s hands and in the hands of the community so that it is raised in love. When we baptize a follower of Christ, we are looking for Christ to use the water to wash that person’s existence and make it new and clean.
  4. Conclusion 
    1. Means of Grace – Like we said earlier, the ways that you experience Christ’s presence in the world is not limited to these two, or these seven; God can and will use all kinds of things to break down barriers between him and his creation. This is what living sacramentally is about: looking for God to remove these barriers in your life and in the lives of others, and rejoicing when he does.
    2. Sacramentum – The term “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which was an oath of loyalty that Roman soliders would swear to Caesar. In a similar way, a sacrament is God’s oath of loyalty to us as his children. That he will not leave us, he will not fail us. That he will stand by our side and live in our hearts; sacraments are tangible reminders of his presence in our lives.
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