January 5, 2020
Rev. Sandy Larson
Today, we celebrate the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and the baptism of C.C. Mastronardi. What makes a sacrament a sacrament? Sacraments are ritual words and action that signify receiving divine grace. Augustine described a sacrament as a visible sign of an invisible grace. Do you hear the root word?—sacred? The word “sacrament” was 1st used in the 13th c.
It comes from Latin sacre (holy) and sacrare: to consecrate, an oath of allegiance, an obligation. In ancient Roman law, Saramentum described placing life or property in the hands of the supernatural powers to uphold justice. It later became soldiers’ oath of allegiance, using a formula having a religious connotation.
By the 3rd c or earlier, the fledgling Churches practiced adult baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. These practices caused some difficulties. The Last Supper stirred up rumors of Christian cannibalism. Baptism caused outsiders to be suspicious of these new religious groups because of seeming exclusivity. Baptism was used as a rite of passage into the Christian community after lengthy preparation and testing.
Christian Sacraments are beyond logical explanation. Yet, Paul Tillich explains, ... Natural objects can become bearers of transcendent power and meaning; water and food become sacramental elements. Even among primitive peoples, water is a symbol of cleansing and moral purification. Meals are not just for the satisfying of hunger, even under normal conditions, but opportunities for communal fellowship, social occasions…. Water and food are typical of the reality of God's presence throughout nature.
Some church denominations include several sacraments. Because Jesus participated in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Presbyterians recognize these two as sacraments. Quaker Christians do not practice sacraments. They believe that these rituals can distract from spiritual cnxn.
For those who do not accept or understand their significance, sacraments can be confusing. A non-churchgoer I know visited an Anglican Church and received the communion wafer. She knew some churches do not allow non-Christians to participate, so she put the wafer in her pocket. When she told about her dilemma later that day, a Catholic asked for the wafer, saying—“I’m so glad you have it. I missed mass today.” A guest creative worship professor at Princeton Seminary used round flat pita bread for the Lord’s supper and tossed it to us like frizzbies. Once, when I was a visiting pastor, the worship leaders did not tell me that one pitcher had wine and the other juice. I obliviously switched the wine and juice. Thankfully, someone spoke out and saved any alcoholics in the congregation from imbibing.
A probably fictitious story recounts a priest offering The Body of Christ to worshippers. A kneeling woman said, “I’m vegetarian.” So the priest responded, “The Tofu of Christ broken for you.” At least once that I know of, the Lord’s Supper was set up on a hot summer Saturday; By communion time on Sunday, the juice had developed a bonus film of gray penicillin mold. I also remember a parent telling me that as the morsels of bread and tiny juice glasses passed, his little boy quietly asked, “Was Jesus poor?”
What are your memories of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? If participants are open to the power of these experiences, the Holy Spirit fills the sacraments with mystery and meaning. The first time I received the Lord’s Supper, my knees literally shook with awe.
I remember being filled with deep joy when I participated in the Lord’s Supper as the World Council of Churches broke bread as one united worshipping community for the first time ever. Each time we participate in a baptism, the whole congregation seems caught up in the joy of being a Christian family. I felt this power when I was the Godparent for a Catholic baby. The priest was so senile he could not even speak the words of baptism and the baby’s parents were near divorce. Yet these hurdles did not matter. Baby Brian was baptized and became part of God’s beloved family.
[BAPTISM] Presbyterians believe that Baptism is a once-in-a-life time sacrament and recognize child and believers’ baptisms. No matter how we are baptized, that baptism signifies belonging to God’s beloved family. For Presbyterians, baptism is not a private ritual. Baptism is evidence that God’ Spirit is best empowered where two or three are gathered in his name.
Jesus told his followers: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [Mt 28.19] Baptism is a beginning of life as a fellow follower of Jesus.
The Lord’s Supper spiritually nourishes Christians and strengthens participants’ in our union with Christ. Christ is present in his Spirit. Martin Luther understood the Lord’s Supper above all as a gift from God. Our only appropriate response is thanksgiving. The word 'eucharist.' in the original Greek is derived from the verb 'to give thanks.'
The Lord’s supper is beyond our full comprehension and has many layers of meaning. Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ Last Supper that we heard this morning, Jesus points to his immanent death and his reassurance to his followers. Mark says that Jesus told those gathered for his last meal: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” [Mk 14.24-25] Think about the impact of Jesus’ words to his followers: my blood is poured out for many. I will not drink again until I drink in the kingdom of God!
His declaration is staggering even today when we have had 2000 years to absorb what was about to happen. In the bread and cup, Jesus’ death and resurrection are re-enacted symbolically. John’s gospel assumes that his listeners knew the story of the Last Supper. Rather than repeat it, John continues the story: “During supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” [Jn 13.2-5]
Jesus, instituted the sacraments by word or by example. Biblical scholar, Jonathan Pennington identifies five themes in the Gospels: The Last Supper is “(1) an enacted parable of Jesus’ impending sacrificial death, (2) the fulfillment of the Passover and exodus, (3) the inauguration of the new covenant, (4) a foundation for Jesus’ community and their identity, and 5) an appetizer for the Messianic eschatological banquet of the Apocalypse.”
By celebrating sacraments their meaning is shared and I validated by a common faith experience. They require more than an individual faith in God Sacraments are shared with others and nurtured within a community of faith.