Sacraments: Our Christian rituals. Gotta do ’em.

Though there’s more than a little debate as to what they mean.

Sacrament /'søk.rə.mənt/ n. Religious ritual which represents a spiritual reality, or represents an act of God’s grace.
2. [“the sacrament”] Holy communion.
[Sacramental /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl/ adj., sacramentalist /søk.rə'mɛn(t).əl.ist/ n.]

God does many things in our lives. Some we see. Some we don’t.

When God cures me of an illness, it’s nice and obvious: Everybody, even skeptics, can see I’m well. They’ll totally disagree about how I got well. If they don’t believe in God (or don’t believe he still does miracles) they’ll doubt God was involved in the cure. Might even doubt I was truly ill to begin with. But they otherwise agree I’m well. That part’s visible enough.

Now, when God forgives me of sin… what’s visible?

I mean I know I’m forgiven; Jesus told us we’re given most everything. Mk 3.28 I put my faith in Jesus, so I trust when he says I’m forgiven, I am. But was there anything visible? Anything we could’ve experienced? Did I hear God’s audible voice: “Behold thou art made whole: Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee”? Jn 5.14 KJV Did I experience happy feelings which I’ve come to associate with forgiveness? Was God cursing me in some way, and now he’s not? Do (as the prosperity gospel folks insist is true) I suddenly find myself flush with cash?

In fact no: Most of the time we don’t see anything. Don’t see most of the things God does “behind the scenes,” as we put it—which is inaccurate, ’cause God’s not hiding a thing. He told us what he’s up to, He 1.1 and still tells us when we bother to ask. Am 3.7 It’s just we don’t bother to ask. Or we assume it’s part of some secret evil plan he’s up to.

But God understands how we humans tick: We want experiences. We wanna have something we’ve lived through, which we can point back to and say, “That’s when God did [something profound]. There’s the date and time.” Something to jog our memory, to remind us how and when God did something for us. Like a holiday which reminds us Jesus died for our sins at around 2:30 PM, 3 April 33. Or a handy, easy-to-repeat ritual.

And that’s why God ordained such rituals for us Christians to perform. Things we can do which represent what he did, what he’s doing, what he’ll do later. We call ’em sacraments, which literally means “sacred acts.” Or (if we think “sacrament” is too Catholic a word) ordinances—’cause God did ordain ’em.

The reason God ordained sacraments is to make his grace visible. ’Cause it’s not always. Miracles are visible, obvious forms of grace. Forgiveness… well, what’s obvious is the way we respond to God forgiving us. (If we respond to him; some of us are ingrates.) Some of us think we oughta feel something when that happens, so we psyche ourselves into imagining God’s presence, into feeling stuff, even into seeing stuff. You know, contorting our brains in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Things that’ll just get in the way once real visions happen.

In comparison God keeps it simple. Get dunked in water. Eat bread and drink wine. Set up a rock pile. Wash feet. Celebrate a holiday. Make promises. Say certain words. These rituals represent the reality. Do them and remember the reality. 1Co 11.24-25 Remember God’s grace.

“But it is real.”

When it comes to sacraments, Christians can be lumped into three categories:

  1. Sacramentalists who take ’em seriously. (Often literally.)
  2. Non-sacramentalists who don’t. But do them anyway.
  3. Anti-sacramentalists who won’t do them at all; they figure they’re dead religion.

To a large degree, the people in that third group are overreacting to the people in that first group. See, many Christians insist the sacraments don’t just represent God’s grace. Instead they are God’s grace. We’re not playacting; we’re not performing empty ritual. God does stuff when we do ’em. Remember when Jesus said:

Matthew 18.18 KWL
“Amen, I promise you: Whenever you stop something on earth, it’ll be stopped in heaven.
Whenever you start something on earth, it’ll be started in heaven.”

You may think you’re playacting, but God actually counts these rituals we humans perform. Fr’instance a wedding: Doesn’t matter if the bride and groom don’t entirely mean their vows. Doesn’t matter if they don’t believe God sanctifies their union. In God’s eyes, they’re married. Done deal. After all, why else will Christians acknowledge pagan marriages?—they weren’t married in a church, by a proper Christian minister. (For that matter, we even recognize pagan divorces.)

As a result, most Christians are sacramentalists. And I’ll confess: I’m one of ’em.

Yes, some sacramentalists take these beliefs to an uncomfortable extreme. The Catholics notoriously believe when we’re having holy communion, the bread and wine literally become Jesus. No, they don’t just represent Jesus. No, Jesus isn’t just present in our midst when we’re performing our ritual. The items literally turn into Jesus; we’re literally eating Jesus; the priests have to eat all the leftovers after the ritual because God forbid we have some pieces of Jesus in the fridge overnight. If this sounds wacky to you, you’re not alone… and if this doesn’t sound wacky at all, you’re also not alone. Whole lot of literalists out there.

The literalists are the reason there are non-sacramentalists. They can’t look at communion that way. Nor baptism. Nor animal sacrifice (one of the sacraments regularly practiced in Old Testament days, which Jesus supersedes). Baptism doesn’t literally wash sins away; the Holy Spirit does that. Animal sacrifice never really canceled out sins; Jesus’s self-sacrifice did that once and for all. And they’re correct: Our rituals don’t do these things. They only represent how God did these things. We do them because we trust God did these things; it’s a faith thing.

So why do I still throw my hat over the sacramentalist wall, even though so many of my fellow Evangelicals won’t? ’Cause I find the scriptures lean far further towards the sacramentalist direction.

Fr’instance my hypothetical friend Icarus. Let’s say he wants to be married to a Christian; let’s say her family insists he be baptized first; let’s say he believes in neither Jesus nor baptism, but gets baptized anyway, just to make nice. Must God honor Icarus’s baptism? Wasn’t it just a dead, meaningless ritual, like those unrighteous Hebrews in Isaiah’s day who didn’t mean their sacrifices? Is 1.13 Is God obligated to honor it? Is Icarus unwittingly Christian now?

Well you actually are gonna find sacramentalists who insist yeah, Icarus is indeed Christian now. I’m not one of ’em. But here’s the thing: When Icarus got baptized, part of the typical baptism involves denouncing the devil and declaring we now follow Jesus. It’s a vow. And God has this to say about vows:

Numbers 30.2 KWL
“A man who vows a vow to the LORD,
who swears an oath to bind his life with a bond,
must not violate his word.
He must do everything which came from his mouth.”

Icarus swore to God, which is something God doesn’t take lightly. There’s a whole command about taking his name in vain, y’know.

Exodus 20.7 = Deuteronomy 5.11 KWL
“Don’t swear by the name of your LORD God for no good reason.
For the LORD won’t free your obligation when you’ve used his name for no good reason.”

So is Icarus a Christian now? No, but he’s obligated himself like a Christian. Is he following Jesus like he promised? If not… well, sometimes God disciplines his kids. Icarus may discover God’s made him his special project—somebody God’s determined to fix, and produce good fruit through. That’s what you get for dabbling in sacraments: Sometimes you get God. Sometimes that’s great!—they finally do repent and turn to Jesus. But sometimes they reject God all the more.

Want another instance? Okay, Paul and Sosthenes wrote about Corinthians who were botching holy communion. Some ate all the bread, leaving nothing for others. Some actually got drunk on the wine. 1Co 11.21 Obviously they missed the point of the ritual, and made it a dead one. But the apostles warned: It doesn’t matter how we think of it, or treat it. God doesn’t consider it a dead ritual. He takes it seriously. He’s not playing.

1 Corinthians 11.27-32 KWL
27 So anyone who eats the Master’s bread or drinks of his cup wrongly,
will be guilty of the Master’s body and blood.
28 People, examine yourselves! Then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29 For those who currently eat and drink,
eat judgment on themselves, and drink without considering the body,
30 and for this reason many among you are unwell, weak, dying.
31 Had we examined ourselves, we’d never be judged!
32 We the judged are being reared by the Master—
so we weren’t condemned along with the world.

If the bread and wine are only symbolic, only representative, it’d make no difference how we do it. Swap the wine with Dr. Pepper. Swap the bread for bacon-wrapped shrimp. Eat too much; drink too much; doesn’t matter.

But it does matter. ’Cause some of the Corinthians were dying. Yep, even in our age of grace. God forgives, loves, and is patient. But he doesn’t turn a blind eye to dead religion. If we Christians make a mockery of the things God considers important, if we’re gonna be dead inside, God has no qualms about letting us be dead for real.

You getting the idea God takes sacraments seriously? I sure hope so.

Protestant versus Catholic views.

Sacraments represent God’s grace. And because we’re to take them seriously, because God takes ’em seriously, we do actually receive God’s grace through ’em. When we do baptism, we die to sin and rise to Christ. When we do holy communion, we connect ourselves to Jesus and all his other followers. When we declare someone forgiven, they are. Neat, huh?

Now… who gets to practice ’em?

Well, Protestants believe every Christian is a priest. Therefore every Christian can do ’em. Every Christian can forgive sins, listen to confessions, baptize other Christians, serve ’em communion bread and wine, wash feet, and perform marriages. (I know; governments have a problem with just any Christian doing that last thing. It’s one of the ways governments violate the separation of church and state without us noticing. But that’s another article.) Catholics, on the other hand, recognize only certain Christians as priests. Namely men who’ve gone through their training, who took holy vows.

Protestants believe Christians can perform these sacraments anywhere and everywhere. Usually during our church services, but you can baptize people in the ocean, or have holy communion on the moon like Buzz Aldrin did. Catholics kinda believe that too… but in practice they stick to church services.

Protestants believe the sacraments are far from God’s only ways of granting us his grace. His grace is everywhere. And again, Catholics kinda believe that too… but in practice they insist sacraments are the main way he grants it. That’s why you’ve gotta go to church. Skip church, skip sacraments. Skip grace. And if you haven’t got enough grace when you die… do you have enough grace in your tank to still be saved?

Lastly, Catholics limit the number of sacraments to seven: Eucharist (i.e holy communion), baptism, confirmation of your baptism, penance, anointing the sick, marriage, and ordination (which is only for clergy). Whereas Protestants tend to take one of three extremes:

  1. Say there are only two or three: Communion, baptism, and foot-washing. ’Cause they’re the only three Jesus specifically ordered us to do.
  2. Say any ritual activity is sacramental—like lifting hands, saying amen, saying grace, saying any kind of blessing, etc.
  3. Say there aren’t any; they’re all dead religion. You know, anti-sacramentalists.

I’d fall into the second category, although we do wanna make a consistent practice of the rituals Jesus particularly told us to do.

And I’d also say the Catholics sorta have the right idea: If we have a continual, growing relationship with God via Christ, we oughta interact with our churches on a regular basis so we can practice sacraments. Most of our rituals require other people. Fr’instance, having communion on our own is an oxymoron: In what way are we connected to Christ’s body if we won’t practice it with Christ’s body? Same with foot-washing, penance, and other sacraments. It’s not about being saved by our regular church attendance record. It’s about loving one another, like Jesus commanded. Jn 13.34

But are sacraments the only form of God’s saving grace? Nah. Just the more obvious forms. With an entire spiritual reality behind them, where God is more intimately, directly involved than we realize. We’re worshiping God with our rituals, and he shows up when we worship him. He doesn’t take our worship lightly. We shouldn’t either.