Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Exploring the Sacraments: Water, New Life, Thanksgiving

We are going to talk about sacraments as we understand them in the Episcopal Church and in most mainline churches. I start with a disclaimer – it is this passage from Paul:

1 Corinthians 13: 12-13
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The disclaimer is this: We understand this, at best, only dimly. All of the arguments over the centuries about the meaning and efficacy of sacraments really should start there: We see this only dimly. We get it, but only partially. Notice though, Paul says this has something to do with love. We are called to see all this through that lens. So let’s get started:

The basic definition of a sacrament:
An outward sign of an inward grace.

We are physical, material beings. We understand things physically. We need to touch things. God gets that, and shows his actions physically for us. The church word is incarnational. We pray incarnationally, with all our senses: words, sight, symbols, music, taste, smell. The ultimate act of incarnation is God come to earth as fully human in the person of Jesus. God continues to be with us incarnationally through the sacraments.

Again, to keep this simple: The sacraments should be thought of as windows to the Holy, as tangible, physical places to touch God. The sacraments can get very complicated, but really that is their purpose – as gifts from God allowing us to touch God.The sacraments are not magic acts; they are ways for us to live fully into the life of grace.

So let’s start with the basics:

The seven sacraments, as they have been long recognized by the Church are:

Holy orders, or ordination
Reconciliation, or confession
Unction, or anointing the healing
Eucharist, or Holy Communion

The Episcopal Church has its roots in the English Reformation. And from our roots, we consider two sacraments to be the most important, to be the sacraments from which all else flows, and it is those two sacraments I am going to focus on: Baptism and Eucharist.

The other sacraments are optional for leading a Christian life. Baptism and Eucharist are not optional to live into the fullness of being a Christian. You can be a Christian without partaking of these sacraments, but to live fully into being a Christian is to experience the two most important sacraments. So it is about Baptism and Eucharist that I want to spend some time with you.


1 Corinthians 12: 12-14
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Before we go to far, start think first about something very basic: water. Water is the stuff of all life. Humans are mostly water. In the deepest distant eons, all life on this planet came out of the seas. Our blood has the chemical composition of seawater.

Water is the stuff of food. Nothing we eat can grow without water. Water represents not only a metaphor for life, water is life itself.

Water is also death. We can drown in water. Too much water will flood the land and kill everything in its path.

Water is both death and life.

And so it is the perfect incarnational symbol of baptism. The baptismal font at right is the oldest known font in the English-speaking world, at the entrance of St. Martin's Church, Canterbury.

In baptism, we represent with water, both death and life. Our old selves die in water and our new selves are born in water.

So how do we get it? What does baptism mean for us? What is going on here?

Baptism has its roots in the Jewish rites for purification. The temple priests would wash in a special basin and the ritual became more and more involved.

The Hebrew prophets made a great deal out of this ritual washing, and then made it into something broader and bigger that was no longer just about Temple priests. Ezekiel stood in a river in the valley of death, and he told of how new life would soon spring forth – trees and fish and food.

When John the Baptist stood in the river baptizing, those who came would have thought of Ezekiel standing in the river. They got it – they knew exactly what he was doing. When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be Baptized, Jesus signaled that this baptism in water included even him. And it became even bigger – the spirit descended like a dove, and God said “this is my beloved son, listen to him.”

Water and Spirit become intermingled in baptism; the outward sign – water – becomes completely intermingled with the Spirit.

And so there are at least two things going on with baptism: outward water and inner spirit.

Baptism is an outward physical recognition with water that God is already at work in someone, that the Holy Spirit is moving and bringing this person new life. In baptism, we recognize with water what is already an on-going fact, that God is bringing new life to a person.Baptism is not an intellectual thing, although a lot of words get used. Baptism is not a magic act that someone zaps someone into heaven.

Baptism is a spirit thing and that is why we can baptize infants or people with severe mental disabilities. It doesn’t matter if they – or we – really know what is going on with this. We use this symbol of water to recognize that the Spirit is in this person, and that they get it somewhere in their being.

The second thing that is going on: Baptism is an initiation into the Church. As Paul puts it, we are “baptized into one body.” Once you are in, you are in, and nothing can take that away from you. The reason we baptize you in church on Sunday is so that the body of the faithful can welcome you into the community. This is not a private deal – that is why we don’t do private baptisms anymore – so that the baptized can be welcomed into the Body of Christ.

You are now in the Body of Christ, welcome, and you are a vital part of the Body of Christ. The body of Christ needs you, and that is another reason we baptize the very young – why would we wait to bring you into the body of Christ? Infants and children are as much a valuable member of the Body of Christ as anyone else. That is one reason why we baptize someone only once – when you are in, you are in. 

Baptism is the starting line, so welcome to the starting line.

And you are not just in the body of Christ in one locale – in one small church or parish -- but you are a member of the entire body of Christ, all over the world. All of us are connected through our baptism, whether we live in Charlottesville or New York or Capetown. All of us are entered into the One Body through our baptism. That is also why we baptize you only once – once you are in, you are in, it doesn’t matter whether you change locations or even change
 church brands. You are in.

Christ needs every part of the body – Christ has need of you and of me – that is the point of your baptism. Hear again the words of Paul:

1 Corinthians 12: 12-14
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

I said this is not an intellectual thing, and it is not. But there are words that go with baptism – and those words are our baptismal covenant. They are the words we pledge to live by as we live into the fullness of our baptism.

In the baptismal covenant, we pledge to pray and share in the breaking of the bread. We promise to love our neighbors as ourselves and we promise that when we fall into sin – as surely we will – that will return to the Lord, again and again. And we promise to respect the dignity of every human being.

Think about those items I just listed – loving your neighbor, respecting the dignity of every human being, praying, sharing. That baptismal covenant is really the beginning of ministry – of all of us. It from that covenant that everything we do in the church flows. Each of us has our own gifts from God, and each of us is called by God to do something with our gifts. Everything we do that is good in this world flows from our baptism.

Much debate and blood has been spilled over how and when to do baptisms. And all of that misses the point about baptism: It is not the quantity of water that matters. Some baptisms are done with a few sprinkles, others with full immersion. What counts is that you were baptized. The spirit knows no bounds, and neither does baptism.

Hear again from Paul: 

1 Corinthians 12: 12-14
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

And that brings us to…


Eucharist is an outward extension of our baptism. You will notice in that passage from Paul, one seems to flow from the other; being washed in baptism into drinking from the Spirit. That passage from Paul above is a hinge between baptism and eucharist.  

Our Eucharist flows from our baptism, which is why in classic church architecture the baptismal font stands at the entrance of the church; you must flow through baptism to get to the Table. One has its fullest meaning in the other.

In our baptismal covenant, we pledge to share in the bread and wine of Eucharist.

The word “Eucharist” is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” It is also known as “Communion” or Holy Communion. It is the ritual meal we share remembering the Last Supper.

Some churches use only real bread and real wine, while others use a cracker and grape juice, while others use a combination of those items. 

By whatever words you call it, and by whatever food material you use, that is what we are talking about now. 

And like the argument over how much water makes a baptism, let me suggest that arguments over whether to use wheat bread or grape juice also miss the point of the Eucharist. So let us go a little more deeply into this…

To really understand the Eucharist, we have to get really, really basic again. We start with a meal, but not just any kind of meal.

To get this, I want to start by reaching far, far back to a time before Jesus, to a time before Moses, to a time before the Bible, to a time before the written word. Long ago, tens of thousands of years ago, I think people would sit around the campfire, and share a meal, and they would tell stories.

They would tell the OLD stories of people long ago and how God had saved them despite the odds. They told the old stories and by telling them, the old stories came alive for them, and the old stories became their stories, too. The ancient people didn’t listen for entertainment, they listened to remember the stories because the stories were about them.

Think about it: What are we doing in church. We are sitting around the campfire – the candles – and we are hearing the old stories – the Bible – and we are making those stories our own story. We are remembering in the same way the ancients remembered the stories of salvation of old.

We read the Bible to remember the old stories, to make the stories of Moses and Sarah and Jesus and Mary our own stories. We read the stories to hear again how God’s grace saved our ancestors, and how God’s grace continues to save us. We read the stories because they are our stories.

We don’t read the Bible in church to worship the bible, We read the stories to make the stories of God’s saving grace our story. That is the point of a sermon, by the way – to help illuminate the old stories – to make the stories come alive.

This way of remembering is underneath everything about the Eucharist. This way of remembering, in fact, is a gift weItalic get from the Hebrews. The Jewish way of remembering is not just a mere recitation of old facts to be filed away. Rather, this kind of remembering – this Jewish way of remembering – has everything to do with our Eucharist. 

For Christians, the ultimate story is the story of Jesus going to the Cross, dying, and then coming back to life among his disciples – the Resurrection - Easter. We tell that story in our Eucharist and we sit at the table at the Last Supper by our remembering at the Eucharist. It is not just any ole’ meal; it is the meal before the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the meal of Easter:

Luke 22: 14-20

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Jesus uses the word remembering and he means it in this very Jewish way that I’ve been using the word. And by remembering it the way we do, in our Eucharist, the story of Easter becomes our story. By our remembering, the Resurrection of Jesus becomes ours. That is why the Eucharist is the cornerstone and the culmination of our worship on Sunday. Every Sunday is a remembering of Easter, and we become Easter people again and again by remembering Easter every Sunday through our Eucharist of bread and wine, shared again and again.

Think of the Eucharist as a window that opens, if only for a few moments, a way for you to touch these ancient events and make them your own. Remember I said earlier that the sacraments are incarnational? That we pray with our whole being? Well, in the Eucharist we are remembering with our whole being, we are remembering in an incarnational way – through the words of the ancient story, and through the sight and smell and taste of the bread and wine. We remember with our whole physical being. We become part of the story through our remembering.

Remembering – that is the first thing I want you to know about the Eucharist. But there is a good deal more that flows from this way of remembering.

When we come to share the bread and wine of communion, we are not just consuming as individuals, we are also sharing in this remembering meal with each other. We share it with everyone who joins us in church; and we share in the meal with everyone in every church on that particular day. That is the meaning of communion – to be in community with all the faithful.

We are sharing in this meal not just with each other, but with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Let me say that again: It isn’t just a handful of people in this room today, but everyone who ever has been is at the table with us, and everyone who is to come.

The Eucharist is a sign of how profoundly interconnected we are. Everyone we love who is no longer physically with us is at the table in our Eucharist. We are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” every time we come to the Table.

We say that God’s kingdom is here now but not yet fully here. The Eucharist is a sign of that. We get a taste of the Kingdom in our Eucharist, and sure sign of the heavenly banquet yet to come. Some say the Eucharist is an appetizer of the banquet; I think the word “appetizer” sounds a bit trivial, but you get the idea.

Remember that passage from Paul (1 Corinthians 13: 12-13) We see through a mirror dimly, but in a little while we will see God face to face. For now we get the Eucharist, and in the twinkle of an eye, we will have the whole banquet.

And this gets more interesting. Go with me a little further:

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the great Medieval scholar and saint, put it this way: Aquinas said we are not souls inside of a body, but bodies inside of a soul. We are not souls inside of a body, but bodies inside of a soul. Our souls extend beyond ourselves and they are connected to each other and to everything in the universe.

So when we share this Eucharist, we share it with all creation and we share in a tangible way the fact that we are interconnected.

We are remembering not just any meal; we are remembering the Last Supper before the death of Jesus Christ – we are recalling the terrible suffering of Jesus. We are remembering the pain humans inflicted upon God, and we are remembering that we are all connected to each other through that pain.

This is why we have bishops. In the most ancient of our shared tradition as Christians, bishops are a mark that we share Communion together. Bishops are not just district administrators; bishops are visible signs that we share together this meal across time and space. That is why we are called an “Episcopal Church” – Episcopal is Greek for “bishop.” 

So go another step with me. The Eucharist brings not just food for our own journey of life, but a challenge as well. We share in the pain of the world, the hunger of the world, and we are challenged to do something with that. The world’s hunger becomes our hunger through the Eucharist.

As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori puts it, “God’s body is pained and when we get that we might understand how to bless the whole world.”

One more thing goes on in our Eucharist: The priest blesses the bread and wine as the representative of the people. 

Much blood has been spilled over the centuries by Christians fighting other Christians about what happens in the blessing of Eucharist – is the bread chemically changed into Jesus or is it a mere symbol. All of those arguments miss the point. Richard Hooker (1554-1600), the great reformer of the English Church in the 15th Century, said the point of the Eucharist isn’t how the bread and wine is changed; the point is how we are changed by sharing in the bread and wine. And as we are changed, we can be the hands and feet and heart of God blessing the world.

In the early church, the Eucharist was a feast with bread, wine, olives, cheese, milk and fish. By the Middle Ages the Eucharist had become meager, with the priests holding up the host (bread) so that the people only see it, called "ocular communion." Merely seeing it was deemed good enough, the host was held in an ornate monstrance. One of the Lutheran complaints was in reforming the Eucharist back into a meal, and the Roman Catholic church did embrace that reform.

There is one more thing about this Eucharist: We don’t get to hoard it. It is not ours to keep. We are called to share it, to invite others to the banquet, and take our meal into the world and feed the world. We are called to bless the world.

Bishop Katharine has something else to say that I think is helpful: 

“We were created for a feast that insists all people were created for the feast.”

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