Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sacrament Sequence

As everybody knows, we Protestants have only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those of us who are ordained to the “ministry of Word and Sacrament” are supposed to pay attention not only to what we say in proclaiming the word, but also to what we do in the sacraments.

I’ve been annoyed for some years by the necessity for taking the sacraments in a prescribed sequence: first, one must be baptized; then, and only then, may the person come to the Lord’s Table. It’s never to be the other way around. If it happens by accident or necessity that someone takes communion without having been previously baptized, then we’re supposed to put it in high gear and rush them to the font.

So the two sacraments ride in tandem, one in front and the other behind. I remember saying that in a meeting and getting chewed out by a theologian for suggesting that the two sacraments were unequal in any manner.

I guess if you say they are in tandem, that does mean that one comes first and the other second; therefore, one is primary and the other is secondary, and in that sense they are unequal. But I agree with the theologian, that they should not be unequal. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are on a par in that each one, in a different mode, witnesses to the real presence of our Risen Lord and our unity with him by the Holy Spirit.

The policies and procedures, however, outlined in the Book of Order, require the one-two punch approach to the sacraments. As an antidote to that, I propose a different way of thinking about the sacraments from our current typical approaches.

It is common for us to think about baptism as the “entrance rite” of the church, modeled as we believe, after Jewish circumcision. For a child or adult to become part of the “people of God” we call the church, baptism is required.

It is equally common for us to think of the Lord’s Supper as the “sending rite” of the church, the “bread for the journey,” the nourishment to carry us in strength as we follow our Lord into the world.

Baptism is the “welcoming sacrament”; the Eucharist is the “sending sacrament.” I have no dispute with either of those concepts. Except that, by themselves, they are inadequate to interpret both sacraments and their mutual relationship.

To my way of thinking, baptism is just as much a “sending sacrament” as the Lord’s Supper. Consider baptism, if you will, as the “basic ordination” for Christians. It is our dying to the old life so we may live the new life in Jesus Christ. It is our gift of the Spirit sending us into the world on the mission of Christian service.

In short, to consider baptism only as the means by which we become part of the Christian family, and not that which shoves us out the door into ministry, makes baptism merely an initiation into a self-serving club. In which case, baptism is likely to do not much more than make the church ingrown.

On the other hand, I also think that the Lord’s Supper is every bit as much of a “welcoming sacrament” as baptism. Sharing a meal is fundamental to human society. Hospitality is a central virtue of God’s people. Jesus himself displayed generous hospitality in hosting others at meals, as well as in being a gracious guest. He was indiscriminate about those with whom he would break bread.

In short, to consider the Lord’s Supper as merely something to perk us up as we go back to the real world, is to turn the experience into something akin to the roadside diner at the gas station—a good place to get filled up.

Put the two together as both “welcoming” and “sending” sacraments and the sequence problem evaporates. The baptismal font can be placed at the door as a visual reminder that baptism welcomes us in and sends us out each Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated with radical hospitality that invites the world to the Lord’s Table to receive the body of Christ, and sends us into the world to be the body of Christ.

How do you celebrate baptism as a “sending sacrament?” How do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a “welcoming sacrament?”

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of both sacraments being welcoming and sending. I have always felt communion to be a welcoming to the table rather than a sending sort of thing. And I think we'd do our baptism justice to think of it less of an initiation into the 'club' than to think of it as a charge, or conferrence of purpose. I'm thinking now on how fulfilling it feels to welcome others to the table for communion - that was one of the most moving experiences I've had, helping serve communion. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus wants us to experience when we celebrate communion, the joy of welcoming each other to the table in His name.


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