One minute we’re all just laughing and talking, then a bell goes off and suddenly all of my friends get this glazed look in their eyes and start chanting in unison.
Sounds like a horror film, right? No, that’s just me every time a pastor puts on a robe, changes his tone, and starts leading the church in a ritual.
I could blame my reaction on the church I grew up in. We met in homes. We knew each other well. When we shared communion, we talked about what we were doing, passed the bread and cup around, and thanked God for the cross. When we had baptisms, we all went down to the river, listened to testimonies, and watched people identify themselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. There was nothing ceremonial about giving tithes or reading Scripture. For me, church was just a gathering of friends with a common interest.
I could blame also my personality. I have always been creeped out by things that seem forced or inauthentic, even if they are supposed to be that way. I don’t like it when people switch personalities when they get married or have kids or get a raise or go to a nice restaurant. I can’t handle the professional voices of secretaries or tour guides. I struggle with clowns and lawyers and anything involving jazz hands.
I realize that I may be letting my background and personality intrude on something that many believers find inspiring or transformational. I also realize that rituals and traditions have always been an important part of being God’s people, stretching all the way back to Abraham.
A variety of music and teaching jobs have taken me on a tour of the Protestant galaxy—from Hollywood to Mississippi, from mega churches to living rooms, from the frozen chosen to holy rollers. You can imagine the variety of opinions I have heard about the sacraments.
I’ve arranged the variety into three food-oriented categories:
This is how the Roman Catholics define a sacrament: an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.
The Catholics are not the only people who fall squarely into this ‘main entre’ category. During my seven years working at a Presbyterian Church (PCA) I learned about the Real Presence of Christ in Communion. As John Calvin wrote, “Whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, they will feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present.”
I was taught a similar theology in my Arminian seminary. Whether we are talking about transubstantiation or consubstantiation or receptionism, many faiths and denominations believe that something happens during communion, something that is very spiritual and very real.
Many feel the same way about baptism. Priests bless the water, people come in contact with that water—whether as babies or adults, sprinkled or immersed—and something happens. It may be a promise. It may be a blessing. It may be an actual conversion.
In any case, many believe that the sacraments open the door to the real presence and work of Christ in his people by the Holy Spirit in the world. The rest of the service is just words and music preparing for the main event.
Jesus told his disciples that the Eucharist was meant to memorialize his crucifixion, just as Paul affirms in I Corinthians 11:26. That makes sense, considering the meal that Jesus was adjusting was a meal that memorialized the Exodus.
I doubt the Jews believed that the Passover meal could somehow evoke the spirit of Moses to their feast, though I’m sure it would evoke a sense of continuity between the people and their ancient ancestors, people that shared a common God, and a common sense of purpose and destiny.
Looking at the symbolic nature of the sacraments, one can see how they might serve as stand-ins for their spiritual counterparts, though not exactly as conduits of those counterparts.
Take the bread, for example: Jesus called himself “the Bread of Life,” and the “true bread from heaven.” He was born in a city called “House of Bread,” then set in a food trough. He told the crowds that if they did not eat his flesh or drink his blood, they would have no life in themselves.
Now that’s something the Donner Party could get on board with! Though they would probably be missing the point.
Think about baptism: Ancient Israel thought that the sea could give them direct access to Sheol, their subterranean common grave. Just ask Jonah. Israel passing through the Red Sea to freedom can be seen as a picture of Christ passing from death into life, just like a person being lowered into water and raised back out of it could express our union with his death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6).
From this perspective, the sacraments would not be the main entre, but compliments of the entre, like a side dish, keeping the invisible realities always in sight, and declaring them to the world.
This is not the Dark Ages. We are not Roman Catholics. Things like robes, altars, candles, incense burners and holy water will only chase modern people away.
If we do a baptism or communion, we should explain it first, then do it in a way that does not feel creepy or off-putting. We should also space it out, doing it once a month or once a quarter, so that it doesn’t turn into something that people just do without thinking.
We don’t want people to start believing in magic bread or magic water. We don’t want them to start chanting creeds and Bible verses like magic charms to inspire blessings or chase demons away.
Bottom line? Once we accept Jesus as Savior, we are saved. That’s it. The rituals are helpful to remind us of what Jesus did, or to encourage us to follow him, but they do not directly impact our salvation or our walk with him.
MY VOTE? (B) SIDE DISH
When I was at the PCA Church, the pastor called me a “mere memorialist.” He told me that if I lived during the Reformation I would probably be in the Zwingli camp, which I think was supposed to be a mild insult.
I went home, looked it up, and . . . yeah, he was probably right.
I believe that spirit is spirit and flesh is flesh. I don’t think that God uses icons and rituals to create some kind of conduit between his world and ours. I think he uses them to teach us about the things we cannot see, and to keep those invisible realities always in front of us. Which is why I think they are important enough to be kept on the main plate and not on a dessert plate.
I know that a lot of smart people that would disagree. PhD-type people. But I’m okay with that.
What about you? What’s your vote?