Tag Archives: sacraments

The Lord’s Supper, Part I (“Sacraments” cont.)

In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we also easily settle for some superficial meaning and significance, although truer ones are equally obvious.  In a sentence, the Lord’s Supper is usually thought to represent Christ’s death and, secondarily, our life or salvation on account of that.  Closer to fact is the statement that it represents OUR death (in and with Christ), and his life now, in us.

If the Lord’s Supper represents primarily or only the death of Christ on the cross, it is almost superfluous, like a photo of a person who is very much alive and right beside us.  For one thing, we have the written Word with its detailed description of Christ’s death and its significance for us.  In addition to that we are surrounded by countless duplicates of the cross on which Christ gave his life, which is certainly more apt a reminder than a bit of food and drink, which connection has to carefully explained or be meaningless to the uninitiate.  (A picture should be self-evident to any viewer, and not have to be entitled or described in order to be “intelligible”, as in the case of a bunch of purple triangles with the label “Nude descending staircase.”  The fact that it takes far longer to read an explanation of the Lord’s Supper than it does to celebrate it makes one wonder as to whether our explanation is the correct one.)  The cross on which the Lord was “lifted up” has literally been lifted up around the world and in every age since his crucifixion; who can escape its testimony in the civilized world?  It is exposed to the public far more than the Lord’s Supper ever is, which is more of a testimony to oneself and fellow-Christians than to the unsaved.

And if Christ’s death is the prominent truth depicted in the Lord’s Supper, its celebration is of doubtful timeliness at, say, Christmas time, one of the most favorite times for its observance.  Good Friday or Maunday Thursday is appropriate, but a birthday anniversary is a bit incongruous for a death-memorial observance.

A sacrament, after all, is not designed merely to portray objective fact, but to communicate understanding and to elicit the observer’s participant’s involvement.  (Here is where the cross, as a symbol, just because of its very familiarity, has lost much usefulness, can even be counterproductive.  Perhaps an Old Testament comparison would be the brass serpent, a very-real type of Calvary (see John 3:15) which at one time was a God-given means of healing, but later became an an idol through whose veneration people lost their souls.  At one time the cross around a person’s necks was a reminder to the wearer rather than an attractive form of jewelry.  Also with a thousand other forms and uses, including acres of markers over the graves of blatant atheists and profane military people.)

As in the case of baptism (for the two sacraments reinforce one another by having points of similarity as well as difference in typology), the Lord’s Supper is intended to denote and to  assure ourselves of our personal participation in Christ’s death.  That is to say, not just the indisputable fact that an historical Christ, the perfect God-man, once died, (who is so stupid as to challenge that?) nor even that he died in my place (which we believe better on some days than others), but that when he died I died, with him and in him (much like I was in Adam and creation from the very beginning; God added no new molecules or genes to creation after his “rest” on the “seventh day”).  The Lord’s Supper is a picture of Gal 2:20, Romans 6:3,4; Col. 2:20; 3:3.

“As often as you do this,” said Paul in I Cor. 11, “you do show (demonstrate, exhibit) Christ’s death until he returns.”  What he means is that we exhibit, by our participation in that memorial meal, Christ’s death in us.  This is even clearer when he says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which I am crucified to the world and to me.”  To the same Galatians he also writes categorically that Christ had been displayed before them as crucified.  Paul did not mean that he drew any pictures or had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but that he, though very much alive physically, was a walking demonstration of death to self, death in Christ.  It will come as a surprise to most Christians that the Bible talks more about the Christian’s crucifixion (in the number of times it uses the word) than of Christ’s, who himself repeatedly said that unless we take up our cross and follow him (to Calvary, symbolically) we cannot be his disciple.  That congregation of Christians was inspired which put the letters S E L F on the cross at the back of their pulpit.  This was no offense; we do that by adorning it with jewels and drapes, even finishing finely the crude, splintery log that the original tree must have been.  The cross is incomplete, has not performed its saving purpose, until each of us is nailed upon it.

The “Sacraments” (Ordinances) Part I

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!

Baptism

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.  

Covenant, Part I

There is one “type” in Scripture of great importance, long duration, and inclusive of many “sub-types”.  That is the word and concept, “covenant”.  Few doctrines in the Bible are more controversial, confused, misunderstood, even meaningless.

The chief reason for this is the fact that few Christians realize that “covenant”, like such things as the ark of the covenant and the rite of circumcision, was or is a type, and not a final “truth”, like the fact of our atonement  Once upon a time it had reality, “fact”, significance in its own, just as Jonah was an actual historical person with a message for us (about evangelism and enemy-love) if Christ had never come.  But, in addition, he (and his experience) was a picture of Christ.

A great part of the Christian church keeps the idea and term “covenant” alive today (as though we were to embalm Jonah and display him).  Premillenarians – who dislike the present use of the word “covenant”, predict a “thousand years” when it will be very much restored.  Catholics continue some of its elements with priests, sacrifices, alters, etc.  Calvinism makes so much use of the word that it has become a catch-all cliche to avoid clear thinking and good communication.  Some of its denominations are known as “Covenanters”, who even have the Old Testament ideal of a union of church and state (like Israel’s theocracy); they sing only psalms in church, etc.  Other individual congregations have the word “covenant” in their name, but we all make that confusion of Old Covenant and New when we persist in speaking of a church building as “the house of God”; we ought to quit the use of that typological word once and for all.  Some Calvinists reverse this anachronism by talking about the “church” in the Old Testament; this is like calling Moses the first Calvinist.

Here are some of the facts (realized by very few who use the word “covenant” the most); the first occurrence of the word is ages after Adam lived and died; (after the Flood!).  The familiar phrase “covenant of grace” occurs nowhere in Scripture and “covenant” by itself is hardly found in the New Testament.  “Covenant of grace” is basically a contradiction in terms, because “covenant” is a very legal term, and is part of the dispensation of “law”.  IF we can speak of a “covenant of grace”, it did not begin with the New Testament (as it is often thought), but immediately after the Fall.

What we call the “old covenant of testament” (not the 66 books) began as late in history as 1400 BC, maybe millions of years after creation.  The “new covenant”, on the other hand, did not begin at Jesus’ birth; he lived and died in the “old testament”, so that the Four Gospels are included in the New Testament much as the preface and introduction to any book, and Moses’ story of creation to his own times in preparation for the Old Testament, technically not a part of it.

Look at all the different ideas on the covenant TODAY, on the part of those who think the arrangement is still in force!  Some think children of Christian parents belong to it, others do not.  Some say that “our” part in covenant is to “believe”; others say that faith is a gift of God and hence part of “his” side; our obligation is to obey, serve him.  Some think that children who are in the covenant are saved, born again, and will go to heaven if they die in infancy.  Others say that covenant says nothing on that score, but simply makes children members of the Christian “community” and the beneficiaries of Christian nurture which “covenant parents” promise as their part of the contract.

The result of all this contradiction and uncertainty is that instead of the clarity and assurance that any and every type were designed to bring (like the sacraments today)., this only makes for confusion and doubt, on the part of all human part-icipants, but especially parents and children.  (Some even have the idea that if you are a childless adult you are not an active member of any covenant.  Some think children are more so than grown-ups!)  When it comes to the sacraments, which are “covenantal” (using that Old Testament term for the New Testament) signs, some churches permit children to participate in both, some in neither, and some insist that they must in baptism but not in the Lord’s Supper, when – as we shall see – if it is one or the other, the Lord’s Supper should have the preference.

Following the Fall, when man and God became enemies, and before they were made friends again (and more) by the reconciliation of the God/man Jesus Christ, God provided a system of agreements, legal contracts (which is another word for “covenant”), that would bring man as close as possible to him before their at-one-ment in Christ.  These covenants were something like a truce between hostile nations, and, on the part of the human participants, just about as meaningless, since the latter kept on breaking the terms.  These covenants employed mediators (like Moses), and even angels, whose service in the Old Testament was primarily between God and man, while in the New, since they (God and his people) have become inseparable friends, their service is between man and Satan, in defense of the former against the latter.

The covenant between God and Israel was not only an interim thing to be replaced by something completely different (as grace took the place of “law”), but was to be a picture (type) of God’s relation to the church (the fulfillment, or reality).  Israel, as a “chosen” nation, was itself a picture of the Body of Christ; this is why Christ chose exactly 12 apostles, paralleling the 12 tribes.  (Does the frequent use of the number “seven” regarding the church indicate the church’s growth by addition – three, God’s “number”, plus four, that of creation – as well as by multiplication/reproduction – three times four – which was primarily the Old Testament source of growth?)

From all this it will be evident that the purpose and function of “covenant” were served and completed when Christ came and said on the eve of his crucifixion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  If it be said, “Ah, there!  We are in a covenant still today,” the answer is that the reality that was symbolized in the obsolete sign still continues, but not the form.  A perfect analogy is the fact that we are still under “law” today in the sense that Adam was, before the fall, or we will be in heaven, while Scripture categorically says that the law per se, in its Old Covenant form, has served its purpose and is passed away.  So too with “covenant”, an integral part of a arrangement by law, itself being a legal instrument.  Jeremiah predicted the days of a “new covenant”, in which external law would be no more – a covenant without a contract, and an era of “law” without laws.