This is part of a series in which I’m reposting old blog posts to explore my current thinking on the ‘big stuff’. They were first posted in 2011/12. I’m aiming to write a reflection after each topic commenting on any evolutions since this point in history.
One of my good friends (and fellow former Salvation Army Officer), Andrew Clark, posted on facebook today about a book he’d just finished reading called ‘A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community & mission around the table‘. We had a brief dialogue about communion, and it sparked off a process of thinking about my views on the sacraments.
Those who have followed my journey will know that I was brought up in The Salvation Army, which is a non-sacramental movement. That is, it doesn’t celebrate the sacraments as understood by the majority of the church. My journey away from the Army included a changing theological perspective on this, but you can read about that in ‘the story of the story‘. Basically, I felt that being baptised and breaking bread were important things that we should be doing as Jesus followers, and that I couldn’t be part of a church that didn’t do this – for several reasons…again, see the aforementioned post.
What I want to explore here is how I now view the sacraments, having been around the Anglican church professionally and as a communicant member for the last 5 years. To the uninitiated, the sacraments are those things the church does to mark membership of the body of Christ. Historically these were seven-fold – baptism, communion (eucharist, mass…), penance (confession), confirmation, marriage, holy orders (priesthood) and anointing of the sick – and if you’re of a catholic persuasion, these are still the most important things in your christian experience. Protestantism has tended to focus on just two of these – baptism and communion, as they were established by Jesus, and not developed by the church in response to their experience of Jesus (for more on sacraments, there’s an excellent post on Wikipedia).
Perhaps it’s helpful here to give a simple definition of what a sacrament should be. Augustine is said to have described it as an ‘outward sign of an inward grace’ – something that signifies that we have embraced the life of following Jesus, and that he is at work in us, transforming us. Now, the history of the church has seen huge conflict over what exactly that means, ranging from those who believe the sacraments are the means through which we experience the grace of God (the mass being us literally feasting on the sustaining body and blood of Jesus) to those who view them much more as the way in which we remember and celebrate what God does in our lives.
I belong to the latter camp. Which isn’t a surprise, given my Salvationist upbringing (see here for an extended explanation of their position on the issue). For me, baptism marks the way in which we show that we have entered the Jesus family. It reflects the rebirth that takes place (born-again), the way in which we say we have died to the old and come alive to the new, that we are in the process of recreation. I was baptised in October 2007, as a symbol that I was entering a new phase of my journey, but not a denial of what had come before, having been dedicated to God as a child. I don’t think that baptism is the point at which we become Christians, but a way in which we chose to make an outward sign of our inner transformation.
Likewise, communion is to me the way in which we remember the incredible life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We come together as a community and celebrate this on a regular basis, remembering that this is the basis of everything that we are and do. I have a very open view of communion, in that anyone can participate, no matter what stage of the journey they’re on. I don’t think you even have to have made a specific commitment to follow Jesus. I think he’s big enough to let anyone come and join in. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I think that communion is a beautiful way in which we can come to understand more about the Jesus story, if done and explained properly.
What’s so important to get right in any kind of Christian gathering is a narrative that is easy to understand for anyone who might be present, yet deep enough to speak of the mysteries that are taking place. If it’s something that only the ‘club members’ get, then we’ve lost the plot and might as well go home. Everything must be missional, must be inclusive. Everything.
I’d also go as far as to say that communion should take place every time we eat together. Actually, I suppose I’d say that this is how we should do church. I’d happily give up worship songs and preaches and embrace sitting around the table together, however many tables that needs, and sharing life. Jesus instituted communion at the supper table, using readily available elements, bread and wine. There’s some great theology about the fact that this was a passover meal, and what the elements were representing in the original passover narrative, and how Jesus brings new life to them. Jews to this day celebrate weekly their formative narrative, the exodus from Egypt as a family gathered around the table – so why shouldn’t we celebrate our Jesus exodus on a weekly basis?
So, for me, sacraments are important. We all have them – some way in which we celebrate something deeply important to us. Some follow the ‘tradition’ of the church. Indeed, one of the reasons I felt drawn into all of this is that this is the way that the church has done ‘church’ since Jesus kicked it all off. We join with the saints who were, the saints who are, and the saints who will come – this is the mystery, this is the magic stuff. We become part of this incredible Jesus family. I don’t pretend to understand what happens when we take part in this stuff – but something important, something connecting with the ‘bigger picture’ is taking place, and that’s something I want to explore.
But other sacraments come from our own personal experiences. My argument with the Army is that it had it’s own set of sacraments and needed to accept that and move forward (or grow up!). One of my sacraments is sharing in family life. Another is sitting around a table with my park-ology buddies talking about what it looks like to follow and serve Jesus every day.
Finally, for me the ultimate sacrament is a life lived trying to figure out who Jesus is and what that looks like in every situation. It means embracing the uncertainty that I’ve spoken of many times before. It means getting it right, getting it wrong. If I’m not living this out, I’m not showing any outward signs of a transformed inner life. I guess it’s that complex and yet that simple.
All of this leads me on to think about the role of ordained ministers – particularly in the sacramental traditional, and the historical role that they’ve had in the administration of the sacraments. What that means about power within the church. That’s for another post…