So-called sacraments should receive some attention in any course on “preaching” because of the important part they play in worship services and the fact they are New Testament signs or types of spiritual truth which we try to communicate.
Judging from Paul’s and other Scriptural reference to sacraments (I Cor 1:17) it would seem that we either attach undue importance to them or/and are not clear as to their purpose and meaning. (A few Protestant groups take a dim view of them altogether and leave them optional to their membership.) Examples of our over-emphasis are the use of the expression “minister of the Word and sacraments” (a non-Biblical addition), and limiting the celebration of the sacraments to the clergy, when they are only the administrants; the officers of the church are in charge of such ceremonies and supervise them. Protestants as well as Catholics tend to make a “production” of the simple ceremony of the Lord’s Supper by weeks of preparation, long formularies and elaborate liturgies, forgetting that Jesus said, “Do this…”, not “Talk about it,” or “Adorn it.”
And we say that the sacraments are the keys to the kingdom of heaven, reminding of ridiculous caricatures of Peter at the Pearly Gates, but we are inconsistent on that score when we keep a person of uncertain faith from coming to communion and finally may bar him altogether, but do nothing comparable when it comes to the annulment or cancellation of a person’s baptism, by revoking it as having been invalid. In reciprocity or recognition of other communions we are equally inconsistent. Most “denominations” (a word that is not found in Scripture) recognize one another’s administration of baptism, but many do not let members of sister (!) fellowships sit down at the Lord’s table unless they subscribe to the peculiar doctrines of the host church. (No one thing has obstructed the ecumenical movement – not even doctrinal differences – as much as differences in the Lord’s Supper and the ordination of the clergy – a related matter.) It is the height of irony to recognize, as we should, that there is only “one baptism”, when that is an individual and personal relationship, but not the fact of one comm-union!
The most immediate and superficial meaning of this symbol is discipleship. There were many baptizers in Jesus’ day, some within his fellowship and others not. This explains the re-baptism of some believers in Ephesus during Paul’s time, see Acts 19. This seems to be the meaning of baptism in Matt 28:19, where Jesus commands his disciples to make others, baptizing them. It had this kind of meaning for the Corinthians, who even thought they could be baptized “in the name of ” Paul. As said above, Paul did not commend those who said they were “of Christ” (versus those of Apollos, et al.), but said they were all deficient in thinking that baptism made them only followers of any one, even Jesus. (Perhaps this is one way to explain the baptism of the Samaritans by Philip and their later realization as to what it meant. Acts 8) Paul refrained from baptizing not merely because of the danger of his becoming the spiritual guru to his converts, but lest even Christ, whom Paul preached, be one more, even if the best, of messiahs or religious leaders. The “Christ” party in Corinth should not have said, “We are OF Christ,” but all of them should have said, “We are IN Christ.” (The NIV wisely translates I Cor 1:12, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ.”)
We make a great deal of the fact that the baptism formula ought to include the words, “…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, in order to assure the deity of Christ (in contrast to the point made immediately above). (The Early Church, it seems, often baptized only “in the name of Jesus”.) Of equal importance in the baptismal formula is the little preposition, which is supposed to be “into” – more on that point later – instead of the familiar “in“. All that the latter expression means is “on one’s authority”, be it the law, the army, or some individual, For example, the Trinitarian phrase is found in many wedding ceremonies (which the Catholics call a sacrament), and is of very dubious significance, since everything that any Christian does is supposed to be “in” the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:17), and every marriage ought to be performed in God’s name or on his authority. (He instituted this wonderful human relationship.) Anybody, by rights, should be able to perform a wedding (“in God’s name”). Actually, a clergyman or civil official does not “marry” a couple or even “pronounce” them man and wife. The wedding couple marry each other, and it is the state (with its license) that declares them to be legally married.
In other words, the baptismal formula as commonly understood, (comparable to the wedding ceremony) means simply “I baptize you on my authority as a minister of the gospel and of God; as an official representative of the church I declare that you are a member of the church.” (Once more, a baptizee – if an adult – actually baptizes himself; the official is a witness, as he is in the case of marriage.) Parents of a child should be the ones to baptize their infants, just as they dedicate their children to God and make solemn promises regarding them even before the child was born or conceived. Our customs tend to confuse membership in Jesus’ body with membership in a visible organization of which a minister is the executive officer. In some communions an “ordinary” pastor, who himself trained communicants, cannot himself “confirm” them.
Baptism, Part II of the Sacraments, next post.