Thoughts on the Sacraments

Some of my old acquaintances know that I’m in a different space now. If you knew me from school, or from seminary, or from ministry pre-2007, I don’t hold all the same theories and beliefs that I once did. That being the case, the praxis (practicing idea) of my ministry has evolved. It’s all about the journey and what you learn along the way. I don’t claim to be right about everything, but this is the place where God has currently led me, and I want to share some of it.

In recent years I have experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of the sacraments. I have moved from serving in and being schooled by the “believer’s baptism” tradition, to serving in and being opened up to the “infant baptism” tradition. I recently read a book by Leonard J. Vander Zee’s called “Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” A chapter entitled “Christ Is the Quintessential Sacrament” (p. 45-51) successfully captures many of the suppositions I have experienced in my sacramental shift.

“Paul calls Christ the visible “icon” of the invisible God (Col 1:15), and analogously, the sacraments are visible and material signs to us of the now invisible Christ.” (p. 45-46) To paraphrase, in the incarnation God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, and now Jesus Christ comes to us in the form of the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist). One of the first steps in my shift was the recognition that Christ is present in the elements of the Eucharist. If Christ is truly present everywhere and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), then the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be more than a private remembrance and personal reflection. It can also be prolepsis – the eager anticipation of the feast to come at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. This quote from Vander Zee about the “invisible Christ” reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory“: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” There is an acknowledgment of the inherently “tov” nature of man, a Hebraic concept. What God has created is good, and the goodness of Christ is always present despite common distortions and diminutions. If Christ is truly “hidden” in our neighbor, Christ is possibly more visible around us than we think.

“It seems to me that the Bible and the early church fathers spoke very differently about how God’s grace in salvation comes to humanity. In the biblical worldview, God decisively acted in Christ so that the whole course of human history has changed. God’s action in Christ places every man and woman’s relationship to God on a whole new basis. God is reconciled to them. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. All humanity, all of Adam’s race, has been regathered into the one new humanity, under the headship of the new Adam.” (p. 48) The next step in my sacramental shift was an awakening to the lack of control we have in God’s relationship with us. As it was in previous covenant-relationships with God’s people, God is both the initiator and fulfiller of the covenant. We basically just have to let it happen.

“Apostolic preaching is not shaped around the announcement of a hypothetical possibility that you will be given salvation if you believe in it. It is based on God’s stupendous act of reconciliation that through his Son involves all humanity and, through his death and resurrection, reconciles all of humanity to himself. ‘You are reconciled, so be reconciled.’” (p. 50) Reconciliation and the sacramental life have less to do with your beliefs about what happens during Eucharist or who is illegible to be baptized and what that baptism means. It is more about the way you live the other six days a week. It is more about seeing and treating other people through the lens of your reconciliation. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), neither the righteous nor the eternally punished ones know what determined their fate. They both ask the question “When did we see you?” Their fate was determined on whether they acted with kindness toward their neighbor. Maybe Lewis was right. Maybe our neighbor is even more sacramental than the meal and the water?

The Symbolism of Baptismal Vestments

From Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 74-75.

“We know already that the unvesting of the catechumen before Baptism signified the rejection by him of the “old man” and the “old life,” that of sin and corruption. It is indeed sin that revealed their nakedness to Adam and Eve and made them conceal it with vestments. But why were they not ashamed of their nakedness before sin?  Because they were vested in divine glory and light, in the “ineffable beauty” which is the true nature of man. It is this first garment that they lost, and they “knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). But then the post-baptismal vesting in the “robe of light” signifies above all the return of man to the integrity and innocence he had in Paradise, the recovery by him of his true nature obscured and mutilated by sin. St. Ambrose compares the baptismal robe to the vestments of Christ on Mount Tabor. The Transfigured Christ reveals perfect and sinless humanity as not “naked” but vested in garments “white like snow,” in the uncreated light of divine glory. It is Paradise, not sin, that reveals the true nature of man; it is to Paradise and to his true nature, to his primordial vestment of glory, that man returns in Baptism.”

Mark Labberton on Baptism

Baptism is a mark of our new identity, based not on the power of tribe or family, education or status, race or gender, but on the power of God’s promises. This is the gift of an identity that bears the marks of God’s saving power. Infant baptism especially conveys this – emphasizing that before we have the power to do anything, God’s power is for us. Similarly, in adult baptism we enter into the death and resurrection of the One who alone has power to triumph over sin and death. God’s power, evident in baptism, is the power both to promise and to be faithful, to create and re-create, to name and rename, to die and to rise.

The Dangerous Act of Worship p. 120