Sacraments

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Not so long ago and when it was very cold, an elderly woman was reported as putting her cat in a microwave. She then switched it on - with sad consequences! It was Augustine who penned the maxim - in Latin - in the early church, "Abusus non tollit usum" - the abuse does not deny the true use. That is also relevant for our subject tonight - the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). Sometimes they have been and are abused. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned with their true use. Let me begin with three preliminary points.

First we have to admit that in the NT a great deal is left unsaid about the sacraments. Secondly, it is clear from the general drift of the NT that the sacraments are in a subordinate position in the Christian scheme of things. For example Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor 1.17). But thirdly, there is enough in the NT for us to see that we must take baptism and the Lord's Supper seriously while not enough to allow us to be over dogmatic.

Well, to help us with our thinking I want us to focus tonight on Acts 2.37-47 our NT reading but also and briefly on Joshua 4 our OT reading. And my headings are first, THE SACRAMENTS, secondly, BAPTISM and thirdly, THE LORD'S SUPPER.


First, THE SACRAMENTS

And there are two questions to be asked. First, why should we have sacraments at all, and, secondly, what do they do? First, or (a), why should we have sacraments? You maybe saying that pagan religions have ritual washings and ritual meals that people believe bring spiritual transformation. But the bible says that salvation comes not from rituals but from faith in Christ:

"if you confess with your mouth [says the bible], "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10.9)

And then you say, "Baptism and Holy Communion (or the Lord's Supper) must be dispensable - certainly in some cases. For didn't Jesus say to the dying thief: 'today you will be with me in paradise' (Luke 23.43). But he was not baptized nor did he take Holy Communion? So [you say] if we can be saved by faith alone why bother with the sacraments? Why not be like the Quakers or the Salvation Army that don't have the sacraments?"

The answer is simple: it is because of Jesus - the divine Son of God, the Lord of Glory. If we love him and want to follow him, we must obey his commands - confident that what he commands is good. And baptism and the Lords' Supper are commanded by Jesus. Jesus was crystal clear. After his Resurrection and before his Ascension he said this to 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" (Matthew 28.19)

And earlier, on the evening of his Crucifixion, at the close of the usual Passover meal ...

" ... he took bread [we read], gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'" (Luke 22.19)

There you have two commands - to go and baptize, and to "do this" (to celebrate the Lord's Supper). And the NT reports that the early Church obeyed Christ in baptizing and in having Holy Communion. A Church, therefore, that doesn't require baptism or expect its members to attend the Lord's Supper cannot claim to be obedient to Christ. So the fundamental reason why we have baptism and the Lord's Supper is because of Jesus' command.

That brings us to our second question or question (b), what do the sacraments do?

Let me begin by telling you what they don't do. In the bible sacramental actions are not magical. The sacraments do not work automatically. For example, Simon Magus was baptized but Peter had to say him, "your heart is not right before God" (Acts 8.21).

Some people have the idea that God's grace or the working of the Holy Spirit is like a liquid or electricity that is conducted automatically through pipes or cables. The pipes or cables are the bishops and duly ordained clergy. And the sacraments the clergy administer are the taps or the sockets. All people then have to do, so to speak, is to turn on the tap or plug into the socket and they have their supply of God's grace and his Holy Spirit. Of course that is a travesty. It fundamentally is to misunderstand how sacraments work and what they do? Let me try to explain.

Think back to our OT reading. When the Israelites had finished crossing the Jordan they set up twelve stones from the middle of the river "at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant [had] stood." What was that for? Joshua tells us in Joshua 4.6-7. The stones were ...

"to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' 7 tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."

These stones, in one sense, were "sacramental". A sacrament is where something is done with something which is symbolical and which has an effect, yet that effect is not magic. The stones symbolized or stood for the miraculous crossing of the Jordan. But they only had an effect when people of later generations asked the question: "what do these stones mean?" and when they were given a correct answer. Their effect was to strengthen faith in God. Article 25 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England speaks about sacraments like this:

"Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him."

They are visible words, if you like. But they are more than visual aids - you don't just look at them. There is to be active engagement for there to be an effect. In the case of Joshua, some were to ask questions and others were to give an answer. In the case of baptism you are to undergo baptism; and in the Lord's Supper you are to eat bread and drink wine. And the "sacramental principle" is in everyday life.

There's the ring in a wedding ceremony and the crown in a coronation. There's the chain on a Mayor and the seal on a document. Human beings anchor relationships, offices and agreements - less tangible things - with more tangible things - like rings, crowns, chains and seals. I am sure you can think of many other examples - a degree ceremony, a Royal investiture, a cup that you play for like the FA Cup and that Liverpool now hold - and so on. There is nothing magical about these things. But understood in their context, they are important and have effect.

Notice that this sacramental principle often seems to involve the use of what the grammarians call "synecdoche" - that is, speaking of a part as though it were the whole. So you say, there were a number of new faces in church this morning, meaning a number of new people. And often the "part for the whole" is sacramental. So your refer to the power and person of the monarch as "the Crown". A biblical example is Peter where he writes:

"baptism ... now saves you also--[but to avoid misunderstanding he immediately goes on] not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1 Peter 3.21)

Well that brings us to our second heading tonight - baptism.


Secondly, BAPTISM

Look at Acts 2.37-39:

When the people heard this [the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call."

Right from the first day of the church's history - the Day of Pentecost - there was baptism. Peter had been preaching some pretty heavy stuff. He had been telling the people that they had just murdered God's Messiah - the one everybody was waiting for. And the proof that he was the Messiah was his miraculous ministry and Resurrection and Ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit. So being convicted by Peter's message, they asked, "what shall we do?" Peter said, straightaway, "Repent".

What is repentance? Repentance isn't remorse or regret. When anyone gets into a mess, if they are normal, they regret it. They are remorseful. But that is not repentance. Repentance is admitting that you are at fault - that you have done wrong. And Christian repentance is to admit that you have wilfully been ignoring God and living life your own way. And you have rejected Christ. And then it is to renounce that independence and submit to Christ as Saviour and Lord. That's where baptism comes in.

The word sacramentum was the Latin word for the allegiance a Roman soldier pledged or swore to the emperor on enlistment. And that word is especially appropriate when talking of baptism. Let me explain. The bible teaches that becoming a Christian is, first and foremost, a matter of God pledging himself to us and (as Peter says in verse 38) forgiving our sins and giving us his Holy Spirit.

Baptism in Jewish practice was not new. It was basically a "washing". The people at the time of Pentecost would have been familiar with many such ritual washings. What was new about this Christian initiation was that at baptism people were not only confessing their sins, as they had done with John the Baptist at his washings, but in Christian baptism they were being symbolically washed for a forgiveness that was absolute. They were being put right with God once and for all - that is why Christian Baptism is not to be repeated. Paul calls it "being justified". And they were receiving the Holy Spirit for new life and power. So in the first place baptism is not about men and women witnessing to their faith; it is about God's pledge and initiative of grace in saving men and women.

But, secondly, it is a pledge of the believer's commitment to God in Christ. It is their enlisting, not in the Roman army, but in Christ's army. So baptism is also symbolically an act of submission to the rule of the Triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ's command was to baptize not in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit - as though the person baptizing someone was doing it on behalf of God - that is a bad translation. No! Literally, it should be translated, "baptizing into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

In the Jewish idiom the name carries a claim. It means you enrol yourself under the person of that name. So Paul in 1 Cor 10.2 spoke of his Jewish ancestors being "baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" - they were submitting to Moses leadership at the time of the Exodus. In 1 Cor 1.13 he ironically asks the question: "Were you baptised into the name of Paul?" - meaning neither he nor any of the other leaders in the church have an absolute claim to loyalty. So no leader could be put on a pedestal. Baptism, therefore, "in [or into] the name of Jesus Christ" is an occasion where you say "I want to be Christ's faithful soldier and servant until the end of my life" - words that we use in our baptism services here at JPC.

Or, to change the metaphor, it is a pledge to follow Christ the Good Shepherd and to be come part of his flock. Baptism has a corporate dimension. Paul can say, also in 1 Corinthians 12.13: "We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body". And there are more aspects to the symbolism which you see as you study the bible.

But as you study the bible you will see that the practice of baptism varied as did the experiences of those being baptized. Many of the details are not clear. For example, it is not clear what was the amount of water used or the method of application - was it by immersion or affusion [pouring water over someone]?

Nor is it clear what happened to the infants of believing parents. What is the meaning or point of the reference to "children" in verse 39 of Acts 2? It is not clear. I come down on the side of thinking that the households that were baptized in the NT included the children of believers - that is from my reading of the texts, from my reading of the biblical view of the family and from historical evidence. I haven't time to give you all the arguments. I need to write something on it some time. But there are other good Christians who take a different view and think that infants of believing parents weren't baptized.

So there are many believing parents who accept the Anglican and other churches' practice of infant baptism with children later confirming their baptism at Confirmation. But there are other believing parents who have a "thanksgiving service" with baptism later. Let me give you Jim Packer on this subject:

"The high-flyers on both sides seem to over-argue. Scripture neither commands not forbids infant baptism and we may not assume that the divine Author who guided the human writers meant to do either."


Thirdly, and briefly THE LORD'S SUPPER

Look at verse 42 of Acts 2:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Here "the breaking of bread" as something on its own, probably refers to the Lord's Supper. Let me conclude with three essentials of what the bible, surely, teaches about the Lord's Supper.

One, the bread and the wine at the Lord's Supper remain bread and wine - their use changes but not their substance. Yes, Jesus spoke of the bread as being his body - but it was his body considered not in any aspect but as "given" (in sacrifice) for us; and the wine as being his blood - but as "shed" for you and me. That is the teaching of Jesus. The bread and the wine were symbols pointing forward to his death the following day at Calvary. At the time of the institution there was no transformatory change of the elements. Now in 2001 they point backwards to nearly two millennia ago.

Two, while, therefore, there is no "real physical presence" of Christ in the bread and wine, there is a "real spiritual presence" of Christ in the hearts of believers at Holy Communion. By his Holy Spirit Christ is present even where only two or three meet in his name.

Three, the Lord's Supper is not a sacrifice. To call it that is dangerously misleading. It is a sacrifice of praise but not a sacrifice to secure our relationship with God. Christ died once for all as the bible says. We now remember that sacrifice and give thanks.

Of course there is so much more to the Lord's Supper. While it primarily looks back to Calvary, it also looks on to the Lord's return. It also speaks of our fellowship, one with another; and it is a challenge. You are to examine yourself as you come to the Lord's Supper, says Paul. For far from there being an automatic blessing, there can be judgment. These are serious things.


I must conclude.

The sacraments are for believers. They strengthen faith.

Maybe there are some here tonight who have been asking questions. But you are now beginning to see that at the heart of the Christian faith is the forgiveness of sin - that rejection and ignoring of God. As the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion) reminds us, Christ died for sin. And accepting that you now want to follow him.

In your heart you can pray a prayer of commitment as you sit there. But Jesus commands baptism. There can be an opportunity for baptism or renewal of baptismal vows later this session in the evening. If you would like to make use of that opportunity, please see my colleague, Jonathan Pryke.

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