Jesus gave his disciples two practices that we call "sacraments" - Baptism and Holy Communion. Apart from his reference in the Commission of Mt.28.18-20 to "baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" and in the Last Supper to "do this in memory of me", he did not give a compelling and definitive doctrine of what these two practices mean. Major Biblical scholars such as Leon Morris argue very persuasively against seeing primary references to baptism in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 or to Holy Communion in John 6.
Further, we recognise as Christian brothers and sisters in good standing in the Kingdom of God the members of the Salvation Army who see only spiritual significance in the sacraments and do not practise them in a manner recognised by other parts of the Christian Church.
G.C. Berkouwer, the Dutch theologian, makes some important comments here.
The Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines of the sacraments are one in this, that they wish to honour the biblical insight that the earthly element receives its sacramental character only and exclusively from the act and the speaking of God, which does not change the character of the earthly element but which does make it a sacrament. Rome as well as the Reformation has emphasised that the sacraments are neither 'natural' nor humanly constructed 'artificial' signs, but rather they exist because of a divine 'signifying.' It is precisely that divine revelatory act which invests the simplest sign with power, and places tremendous responsibility upon him who receives the sign. Herein lies the only, but sufficient, defence against sacramentalism, which cannot help losing this power of the signs because of its broadening of the sacraments and its emphasis upon the sacramental 'Fähigkeit' (faculty) of nature in general.
"It is clear then, that Word and sacrament cannot simplistically be juxtaposed as equals. That does not imply a devaluation of the sacraments, but simply means that we fully maintain their truth and power. We are interested in their institution because this determines their essence. It is the crisis of sacramentalism in our time that it introduces a vagueness that ultimately must lead to serious devaluation of the sacraments. Insofar as sacramentalism reacts to an actual devaluation of the sacraments in Protestant churches, we may not simply reject it. To lack interest in the sacraments and regard them as external and empty signs is to render poor service to the Reformation." (Studies in Dogmatics. The Sacraments, Eerdmans, 1969, p.25).
It is impossible to teach about the sacraments without revealing one's own perspective on them. I freely acknowledge that I am not exempt from that! I have, however, endeavoured to keep to simple Biblical interpretations. It is, after all, from these that the various other divergent views have developed.
□ Spend a few minutes reviewing the main discoveries of the week's readings.
□ The Basis of Union speaks about "two visible acts" or "sacraments". What is your understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper? Allow time for personal recording of answers and a short time for sharing understanding of these two sacraments.
□ What is a Sacrament?
The word "sacrament" in the sense in which we use it is found nowhere in the Scriptures - though it is found in the Latin Vulgate translating the Greek word musthrion in such places as Eph.3.3,9. More significant is the use of the term for the Roman soldier's oath of allegiance to the Emperor. However, while this may be powerfully suggestive for those who receive Baptism and the Lord's Supper, it is not in itself the foundation for our understanding of these two actions.
The old catechism definition "A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" is still helpful. The fact that the Reformed and Roman Churches differ in the number of sacraments is given for information. The Uniting Church, as noted in the introduction, acknowledges that "Christ has commanded his Church to proclaim the Gospel both in words and in the two visible acts of Baptism and the Lord's Supper" (Basis, para.6).
The Gospel - coming to us by the sovereign act and word of God - still calls for our response in faith, love and obedience. The words of the Basis need to be viewed in Biblical terms which give no ground for a hope in "universal salvation."
The phrase that God "acts in and through everything that the Church does in obedience to his commandment" is potentially ambiguous. The whole question is about what God has in fact commanded his Church to do. The central focus, therefore, needs to be on the promised inward work of the Holy Spirit to "confer... the forgiveness, the fellowship, the new life and the freedom which the proclamation and actions promise." In this sense, we strongly affirm that the sacraments are rightly called "means of grace."
We find the roots of the Christian practice of baptism in the provisions of the old "covenant" in the Old Testament. Part of the basis for this is in Col.2.10-12 where Paul saw baptism in water as "the circumcision of Christ." The sign of the Old Covenant was that baby boys were circumcised on the eighth day. The personal acceptance of what this entailed took place in stages throughout life. An ancient rabbinic tractate, Aboth, describes the following stages of life, "At five years one is fit for the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah at thirteen for the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bridechamber, at twenty for pursuing a calling, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for grey hairs, at eighty for special strength, at ninety for bowed back and at a hundred a man is as one that has already died and passed away and ceased from this world." (J.A. Thompson, Handbook of Life in Bible Times, InterVarsity, 1986, pp.84-85).
A key ceremony (now known as Bar Mitzvah) took place at the age of thirteen which was when a boy became a "son of the law" and a member of the synagogue. He was also legally responsible.
The result of the Jewish resistance to the Hellenisation process begun under Alexander the Great and the persecution of Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes was that there were people from other races who were impressed by these people who had a religion for which they were willing to die. Jewish morality and monotheism appealed to them and they wanted, as far as they were able, to "become Jews." Such proselytes underwent instruction, circumcision and baptism, and were then permitted to offer sacrifice in the Temple.
The action of John the Baptist was radical - he was calling for Jews to repent of their sins and be baptised! We reflect on the words of Jeremiah in 6.10 and 9.26 where the prophet insists that the physical sign of circumcision is not enough in itself - they have uncircumcised ears and hearts!
John, of course, though a forerunner of the new covenant, was still a representative of the old. The Christian lives under the new covenant established in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Our view of baptism is against this historical background but flows from this new covenant in Jesus Christ.
The sign of the New Covenant is water-baptism for both males and females.
The words of the Basis of Union need to be understood in terms of the Biblical record rather than in terms of sacramental theology. Jesus taught that people were to be baptised in/into the threefold Name and that they were to obey his commands (Mt.28.19-20). Peter links repentance with baptism for the forgiveness of sins and reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38; cf. 1 Pet.3.21). Paul writes of baptism as union with Christ in death and resurrection (Rom.6.1-4).
It is important for those seeking membership in the Uniting Church to understand that we baptise both "those who confess the Christian faith, and children who are presented for baptism and for whose instruction and nourishment in the faith the Church takes responsibility. " We respect that there are churches who only practise believer's baptism, but affirm that our own practice of infant baptism has strong Biblical foundations. We accept that baptism, once conferred on adult or child, does not need to be repeated.
□ Lord's Supper - Holy Communion
The Biblical records of the Last Supper are to be found in Mt.26.26-30, Mk. 14.22-26, Lk.22.15-20 and 1 Cor. 11.23-26. The last of these is regarded as the earliest written record. This passage highlights a number of elements: thanksgiving (the Greek word for giving thanks is preserved in the term "Eucharist" used in some churches), the bread and cup represent Jesus' body and blood given for us, the Supper is both memorial of what happened and proclamation of its benefits, it sets forth God's new covenant, it looks forward to the Second Coming.
The historical fact of the Last Supper taking place at the time of the Passover - and as an addition to the Passover - was no accident, but part of the divine plan. It is helpful to compare the two celebrations.
The Basis of Union (para.8) states, "The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ signifies and seals his continuing presence with his people in the Lord's Supper or the Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church. In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood, the risen Lord feeds his baptised people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom. Thus the people of God, through faith and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, have communion with their Saviour, make their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, proclaim their Lord's death, grow together into Christ, are strengthened for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world, and rejoice in the foretaste of the Kingdom which he will bring to consummation."
□ Thinking Further..
In the Bible readings for the coming week we look further at John's and Christian baptism and at the Passover and the Lord's Supper. Next week we will be looking together at the Uniting Church in Australia and the three Churches that came together to form it in 1977.
© Peter J Blackburn 1995, 1999