What is a sacrament? Basic etymology might suggest a sacred thing, a holy thing, which isn’t a bad guess at all. The catechism defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward an spiritual grace”, again a simple enough definition – something which is physical, tangible, but which is more than that, which is a means of grace. That’s important, it’s not a symbol, a representation, a figurative thing, but an actual means of receiving grace. So in a sacrament, we receive the outward sign, but in some way the sign is changed to become different, powerful, transformative – it is changed by the presence of God and the consecration of the Church.
The catechism talks to us of seven sacraments – two dominical sacraments, sacraments of the gospel, sacraments instituted at the command of Christ, baptism and the eucharist, and five sacramental ministries of grace, sacraments of the church – confirmation, marriage, anointing, confession and ordination. The two gospel or dominical sacraments are described as “generally necessary for salvation”, in other words they are necessary for all people without exception. Baptism is the sacrament by which we become a member of the Church, a child of our heavenly father, an inheritor of the kingdom of God. The Eucharist is the sacrament in which we feed on Christ, being nourished by his very presence in us. The other five are not generally necessary in the sense that they are appropriate to various people and various contexts, and at various times in life – not everyone needs to be married, not everyone needs to be ordained, and so on.
As many of our young people prepare for confirmation next month, it does us all well to reflect on some of the things we believe and teach, so this morning I want to think a little about these two dominical sacraments.
Baptism is the beginning of a journey, the Prayer Book tells us. It is the first step on our journey of faith, and our entry into the church as a member of the church. The outward and visible sign is the water, which signifies cleansing, washing, purification – we are literally washed of or sins. It is more than just a symbol, it is a sacrament, a means of grace, and so the inward and spiritual grace we receive at the font is that cleansing from sin and incorporation into the body of Christ. Some churches view baptism as a covenant, an agreement, between the parents and God or the church, to bring the child up in the Christian faith. That is part of what we believe, but not the fullness of it at all. Yes parents do make those vows and promises – and sometimes they have no intention of keeping them. If they did, this church would be packed with children every Sunday. A sacrament is much more than a covenant, it is a way God touches a life, and it is never dependent either on the priest who administers it, or the person receiving it, but on the grace and the power of God.
The Eucharist is our great thanksgiving, and the only other action commanded of his followers by Jesus. Only twice in the gospels do we read a direct command from Jesus to do something – at the end of Matthew’s gospel he commands us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit”, and in the upper room he commands them to “do this in remembrance of me”.
In this sacrament we take the outward and visible sign, the bread and the wine, and we consecrate them that they may be to us Christ’s body and Christ’s blood. After their consecration, they are no longer bread and wine, they are Christ, and when we receive them, we receive Christ. That is why at the end of the service we don’t just pour the wine back into the bottle, and throw the bread to the birds – either we reserve them to bring them to the sick and housebound, or they are reverently consumed. They have changed, and through the working of God in the sacrament become holy.
In 1st Corinthians St Paul talks to us about Communion, and he is very challenging. He talks of the problems in Corinth, and about coming unworthily to communion and eating and drinking damnation. As with every scripture, we need to read the context of the passage, and not just cherry-pick at verses. Paul is writing to a church where communion is part of a wider fellowship meal, an agape, if you like. There were those who were rich, and who had plenty of food, and there were those who were poor, and who had nothing. Paul is concerned not about the “communion” part of what they were doing, but about their unwillingness to share what they had with those less fortunate – by their selfishness they were eating and drinking damnation.
If we were only to come to communion when we were worthy to receive, then we would never celebrate communion at all. What we are doing is not a reward for the righteous, it is food for the journey. Jesus commanded us to share in communion not to prove to the world that we are good enough, but to nourish and sustain us in our Christian life. The act of physically sharing in one bread and drinking of one cup is more than just symbolic, it unites us all as Christ’s followers. There is no greater privilege, no greater joy, than to unite ourselves with Christ, to be in him and he in us.
All the way through the New Testament, and right up to the medieval period, it was the Eucharist which distinguished Christ’s followers on Christ’s day – the Lord’s meal in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day. It is saddening to think that so much superstition built up around it that people became afraid to come to communion, and it became such a rare event that it actually served to heighten the superstition. If we are to take Christ’s words seriously, communion should be at the heart of our worship every Sunday. Christ chose bread and wine – the ordinary, normal, everyday food – no fatted calf or young lamb, no exotic champagne – this was “bread and butter” stuff, the regular, the normal, the ordinary, emphasising to us that we need it regularly, normally, and ordinarily. In the last half century or so we have begun to re-discover this great truth, and to celebrate it – but we still have a long way to go. Too often in Church we do what we have always done, because we have always done it, rather than looking to scripture to hear what God has to say to us. The words on the east wall / altar say it all, “This do in remembrance of me”. We don’t do it because I say so, or because someone thinks it’s a nice thing to do, or a good thing to do. We do it because Jesus commands us to, and we want to be faithful to his command. When we obey his command, we find the fullness of joy, and the peace of God. When we intentionally separate ourselves from him, we find only coldness and hardness of heart.
As we celebrate each Eucharist, we not only remember, and enter again into the upper room with Christ, but we proclaim afresh both his death and his resurrection, and we look forward to his coming in glory – in a sense time and eternity collide, we enter into the past, re-present it in the present, and face the future. What greater act of worship is possible?
Sermon sourced from http://revpetert.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/sermon-the-sacraments/