Whether you view them as sacraments or ordinances, baptism and communion have meaning because the church is a community, says the Rev. Michael J. Clingenpeel.
Whether we call them sacraments or ordinances, whether we regard them as impartations of God’s grace or expressions of faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed in virtually all Christian traditions. In congregations around the world, these two events are the focus of some of the most extraordinary moments in our worship.
When we talk about “best practices,” when we consider the best way to observe and speak about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are trying to answer the question, “How?” Practices are about praxis. But before we can answer the “how” we must first answer the question, “Why?” We can not sever theory from praxis. Maybe it is enough that Jesus commanded his disciples to do these things. But in my effort to love the Lord with all my mind and heart and to defend these practices to searching post-moderns, I cannot treat them as givens.
Questions to consider:
How do we practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper? In his book, “Word, Water, Wine and Bread,” Will Willimon offers the following questions:
- What kind of church do we want to be, and what is the best rite of initiation into the church that will help us to become that?
- In our church, how is the story best told and the word best proclaimed?
- How do we nourish Christians by our worship?
Increasingly, I see and understand the church not only as an institution but also as a living, growing, changing organism. It is in this context that baptism and communion are best understood. They are not solitary acts. They are actions that occur in and are mediated by a community of believers. Precisely because the church is a community, baptism and the Lord’s Supper take on meaning.
In his book, “High Flying Geese: Unexpected Reflections on the Church and its Ministry,” Browne Barr maintains that church has three essential aspects: It is a community in passage, a community of rites and rituals and a community of memory and hope. For me, these three attributes are essential to understanding the role -- the “why” -- of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
A community in passage
“We are not only a people of the Way but we are a people on the Way,” Barr writes. We have begun a journey of faith, but we have not arrived.
Because we are in passage, we can lose our bearings, get discouraged and encounter danger and obstacles. In a compelling metaphor, the British theorist Zygmunt Bauman says postmodern life is like living in a city where the traffic is rerouted daily and street signs are changed without notice.
For the church, a community in passage, baptism and Eucharist are signposts. They prevent us from losing our way, from succumbing to danger, from chasing down blind alleys and errant paths.
The story of God’s people is a story about a community in passage. God’s people are always in transition.
Through the waters of the Red Sea, God opened for the people an avenue of escape from slavery. Through the waters of the Jordan River, God made for the people a solid path into freedom. Soaked by the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus advanced his self-understanding. Baptism becomes a tactile way by which we recall that in moments of danger or searching, God shows us the way.
When God’s people were starving in their wanderings through the wilderness, God fed them each day with manna. When Jesus’ countrymen were hungry on a hillside, Jesus fed them with meager provisions. When the disciples were alone and frightened, Jesus broke bread with them in an upper room, on the Emmaus road and by a lake. Communion is a tactile way by which we recall that in moments of hunger and desperation, God provides.
A community of rites and rituals
Every organization has its special, and sometimes somber, rituals. As pastors, we all have attended or even presided at such ceremonies. We’ve seen teenagers receive their Eagle Scout badge; heard “Taps” played over a flag-covered casket; seen people wearing robes and hoods march in procession at commencement.
Rituals connect us to our core values, higher loyalties, deeper bonds of friendship and commitment.
Christian rites and rituals connect us to the story of our faith, to transcendence over our lives and world. They mark the passages and moments of transition that give our lives meaning.
Clergy have the responsibility to practice these rites and rituals in ways that maximize their meaning. When we carry them out poorly or carelessly, the story they tell and the meaning they represent are not conveyed.
Forms convey substance. When we treat baptism like a prefix to worship and communion like a suffix, what message are we sending about the initiation to faith and church membership, and to the towering events of our faith -- the death and resurrection of Jesus?
A community of memory and hope
The central affirmations of our faith are Christological: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. They call us to remember and to anticipate.
This was not lost on the Apostle Paul. He admonished the Corinthian Christians to imitate the supper Jesus celebrated with his disciples, and added: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:25b-26)
Communion, therefore, is a visible act of memory and hope. It reminds us of our common past and our shared future. Memory and hope are sources of Christian unity. The baptismal pool and the table unite.
It is possible to announce the Christological affirmations with words from the pulpit. The Protestant error is that often we emphasize the proclaimed word at the expense of the table and the pool. We make the sermon the supreme sacrament. But as William H. Willimon wrote in his book, “Word, Water, Wine and Bread”: “When we do not move from the Service of the word to the Service of the Table, we are cheating ourselves of the full range of Christian experience.”
We need words to tell the sacred story, but we also need sacred objects. When we do this well, we stimulate memory and elicit hope.
Because we are a community in passage, a community of rites and rituals and a community of memory and hope, we need worship that includes the word, water and table. The first enables us to hear the sacred story. The second enables us to feel and enter the sacred story. The third enables us to taste, remember and believe the sacred story.