Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Christian Believer: Week Twenty Two {Sacraments}

Let us break bread together on our knees, (on our knees)
Let us break bread together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.
"Let Us Break Bread Together" 

Lesson twenty two was "Sacraments" (Signs of Sacred Things). Before I start, I think this was definitely one of the more "controversial" lessons.  This is just something that a lot of denominations disagree on.  It was really neat because in our group we had a couple of people who had grown up Baptist as well as Peyton, who grew up Catholic.  Pretty much the total opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to sacraments! I have read (and reread) over this post because I don't want it to offend. That spectrum I just mentioned? we have dearly loved friends and family on both ends and I hope there is nothing in here that stings or makes those people feel like I am not portraying their believes correctly.  I feel like in this lesson in particular, I got a lot of insight into what other denominations understand the sacraments to be.

We discussed baptism and communion and what other denominations practice (we practice infant baptism and have an open table for communion).  We discussed how if you marry someone in a denomination that doesn't baptize infants they often want to "rebatize" you.  I know some people this really offends, but to me it's really no different that Catholics saying no one but Catholics can take communion.  In both cases, the act has a completely different meaning to those denominations than it does in the Methodist tradition- I would expect for one of our children to have to be baptized again if they joined another denomination that understands baptism as something that follows salvation, just as I would expect to be told I couldn't take communion at a Catholic church because my understanding of communion doesn't involve the elements literally changing into the body and blood of Christ. I guess what I'm saying is that if a faith community has a different understanding of a sacrament then they are entailed to "guard" that the way they feel is appropriate. 

We also discussed the process of confirmation at our church, which is not a sacrament, but is a time when young people join the church, provided they have an understanding of their faith.  In all honesty, I think there can be an aspect of peer pressure and while it's VERY positive for some families, I think it would be better if kids just joined on an individual basis when they felt ready.

We hit on communion, as well, and several people mentioned that at their old churches you had to be a member of that denomination (it was a Protestant one) and in some cases, even a member of that church.  Finally, we talked about the practice of going to our Christian brothers and sisters and asking for forgiveness before communion if we have wronged them.  This is something I'd never really thought much about, but I definitely think it's Biblical. 

We watched the video first, as usual.  The presenter was Susan J. White, who is a professor at Brite School of Divinity.  It was interesting but there were definitely chunks I didn't agree with.  First, White defined a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  I thought that was an excellent definition.  She went on to say that long before there was a doctrine of the sacraments, there was an experience.  When the early Christians did things together, they experienced "the power of God, the presence of Christ, and deep sense of what it means to be the church".  Even today, it is "the experience of life renewed through and in particular events that give these events their authority".  The video pointed out that God can and does use ordinary "stuff" of daily life to convey his self giving love, or Grace.  For example, we see this in the manna from heaven and the burning bush in the Old Testament.  Additionally, for the pious Jew, every meal was a holy occasion and the food pointed the all of God's life giving actions.  We also seen this in circumcision which marked the inclusion into the covenant community and in ritual baths which symbolized a repentance and cleansing from sin.  During these activities God renewed His promise to be faithful and the people renewed their pledge to be faithful to God and one another.

White then said that the "Christian meal" now is the Lord's Supper and the "Christian bath" is baptism and these have been known as sacraments since the third century.  The video then touched on controversies- first how many sacraments are there and then who can participate in them? In the 12th century, Peter Lambart defined a sacrament as "an action of the church that was instituded by CHrist and conveys the grace it signifies".  He thought there were seven of them.

As far as who can participate, it mainly focused on baptism.  I really didn't like the way it portrayed it.  White said that those who practice infant baptism see it as "primarily an act of God by which we are brought into the church family and receive a pledge of God's perpetual promise to forgive sin" while those who practice a "believer's baptism" see it as a human act where they begin their faith journey and they argue that to "receive the promises of God you must claim them".  I think this logic falls apart of SO many levels:
1.  It seems exclusive to say that only those who practice infant baptism see it as "primarily an act of God" and others see it as a human act
2.  I guess since baptism is usually right after a person gives his/her life to Christ, in that tradition, it is sort of the beginning of the faith journey.  But I would think the true journey started long before in many people's lives before they made a commitment.
3. I personally ARDENTLY believe that to receive the promises [of salvation] of God, you must claim them for yourself.  We DO NOT believe that baptizing our infants saves them.

It ended with a statement I really liked- "We hope that the Christ who is present in the sacraments and draws us to commitment through the sacraments will work through the sacraments to bring us to the unity He desires".  I have seen Him, time and time again, bring me to unity with other believers when discussing these issues and I know that pleases Him.

The reading from the workbook was interesting, but again confusing.  It started out by talking about how we seek physical expressions to make the reality of God more accessible and how we refer to the sacraments as a "means of grace" because we often feel God's grace in a new, special way when partaking in them.  The book focused on the two sacraments most widely accepted by "almost all of Christendom"- again baptism and communion.

The book talked about the different "modes" of baptism- sprinkling, pouring or by immersion, but mainly focused again on the purpose.  It gave three viewpoints: 1) The view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and some protestants that the act in and of itself is salvific 2) the view that is acceptance of this idea, but also the idea that a person can experience new birth apart from baptism and 3) the view that  says baptism should not occur until after one has accepted Christ.  None of these really fit with what I believe and I know of at least one other person from another denomination who I think would agree with me on that. [Nnumber two comes the closest, but I think that if you baptize your child as an infant, new birth (if it occurs) *always* occurs separately from the event]. 

Communion is also called the Eucharist from the Greek work meaning "to give thanks".  There are several different views on this as well:
1. transubstantiation- the view held by Catholics that when the elements are consecrated they become the literal body and blood of Christ
2. cosubstantiation- a view held by Lutherans that the bread and wine coexist with the actual body and blood of Christ
3. The view that Christ is present in Spirit in a special way for those who receive the sacrament in faith (this is the view that Methodist traditionally hold)
4. The view that it's simply a honoring of Christ and remembering of his sacrifice, but in which He is not present in a distinctive way. 

It also talked about "open" and "closed" communion and as I said at the beginning, I really understand why the Catholics have a closed table.  Honestly, I have never met any Protestant that endorsed the doctrine of transubstantiation and if they did they'd probably be Catholic ;)

Finally the book touched on several other sacraments:
1. Confirmation- the personal affirmation of the vows taken for one at baptism (again, we do practice confirmation at our church, but don't consider it a sacrament)
2. Anointing of the sick
3. Marriage (we did discuss why we would or would not consider marriage a sacrament and it's hard for me to say why it shouldn't be)
4. Ordination of priests in Catholic or Orthodox communities

It wrapped up by saying there are really three necessary parts of a sacrament:
- a form of words
- the material thing (bread and wine, for example)
- the intention to do what the church does in celebrating the sacrament.

Here are my favorite excerpts from the Scripture and textbook readings:

"Then Jesus declared 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.'" -John 6:35

"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the break we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we partake of the one loaf." -I Corinthians 10:16-17

"For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." -I Corinthians 11:26

"However, they are not merely empty signs, but consist of both the sign and substance...In the Lord's Supper the bread and wine are the signs, but the spiritual substance is the communion of the body and blood of Christ, the salvation acquired on the cross, and the forgiveness of sins.  As the signs are physically received, so these substantial, invisible and spiritual things are received in faith. -First Helvetic Confession

"[B]efore you use any means [of grace], let it be deeply impressed on your soul: There is no power in this.  It is in itself a poor, dead, empty thing: separate from God, it is a dry leaf, a shadow...Remember also to use all means as means, as ordained, nor for their own sake, but in order to the renewal of your soul in right eousness and true holiness.  If therefore they actually tend to this, well; but, ifn not, they are dung and dross." -John Wesley

"The sacraments presuppose that God has met us in history and that this meeting calls us to regular recollection and re-enactment in order to experience God's real presence in our midst...Water, bread, and wine express promises, not that we make to God but that God makes to us, to which we may respond in obedient faith.  They are signs of God's mercy to us and of God's immediate presence in our midst." -Thomas C. Oden

Because we the church believe Christ has ordained special means of conveying grace, I will faithfully observe these ordinances, to the glory of God and to the nurture of my Christen life.

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