Friday, April 24, 2009

The Attraction of the Sacraments

I am a Baptist minister. Theologically, there really is no way to get around it (and I've tried. Believe me, I've tried). Some aspects of theological conviction have been so ingrained in me that they are near impossible to eradicate. Among these are (1) the ultimate authority of Scripture for faith and practice, regardless of how prominent a role the creeds play in our doctrinal formation - which they must always play a significant role (in fact, confessed assent to the Creeds of Nicea - A.D. 325 and Chalcedon - A.D. 451 are necessary for properly reading the Bible), and (2) the salvation of believers in Jesus Christ apart from participation in the sacraments, regardless of how helpful the sacraments may be in the growth and maturity of believers (in fact, neither Nicea or Chalcedon mention sacramental appropriation of the God's grace - justifying or sanctifying). For this reason and others, I theologically fit better in the Baptist theological tradition, though I do not think myself so rigid as to elevate the Baptist Faith and Message to the same level as the previously mentioned Creeds. Nevertheless, I am in the Baptist tradition theologically (though I have taken great pains to explain why I seek to escape the phenomenon I call "culturally Baptist.")

Having said that, I must say that attending the service at the Church of the Holy Communion last Sunday was real treat. My friend Chris is a Deacon at this church, and our discussions regarding theology, polity and tradition are often illuminating and refreshing. On this particular Sunday my presence was not needed at my own church (I had duties related to military chaplaincy in another town and therefore would not be back to Gateway Fellowship in time for its service), and therefore I was free to visit Chris' church.

It was helpful that (1) I knew that the Reformed Episcopal Church is a Protestant tradition, and that (2) I knew what it means to be Protestant. If I had not known either of these things, my anti-Roman Catholic heritage might have kicked in, causing me to flee the church service in horror. It was very liturgical. It's possible that some Episcopal churches are more "high-church" than this one, but this one was way, way "higher-church" than what I was raised with or presently attend. The contrast was striking.

Nevertheless, I was committed to get the full experience, content to ask my friend later what some of the symbols and rites meant. We sang standing, prayed kneeling and sat listening. The liturgy included a recitation of the Nicene Creed, and many other readings from the Book of Common Prayer. The flow of service built up not to the sermon - which was in the middle, but to the receiving of the sacrament of the Lord's Table.

Interestingly, in considering the physiology of worship, I find that going forward to kneel at a rail, waiting to receive the Eucharist from the priest seems to be a better physical representation of Eph 2:8-9 "For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast." Many may disagree with me on this, and that is understandable (many Baptists have developed such an intense anti-Catholicism that even this conversation is intolerable, let alone actually attending and enjoying a liturgical service). Nevertheless, the physical act of kneeling (the posture of powerlessness), waiting with hand open (the sign of reception), and having the material representation of Christ (how much Christ is represented by the wafer is a discussion I'll not engage here; I'll simply remind you that I'm Protestant, not Roman - and leave it at that). When the Bishop placed the wafer in my hand, it seemed to reflect how grace is indeed "the gift of God." I didn't even hold the cup of wine when I was invited to sip from it either. None of this reflected my power, nor taught that I play a role in my salvation. It was a very good picture of my powerless reception of God's grace.

It is because of this experience that I understand the attraction of the sacraments. While I am not of a sacramental tradition, I appreciate how, if taken with faith, the sacraments are helpful in being a physical and kinesthetic tool for reinforcing faith (orthodox faith at that). Certainly such liturgical traditions run the risk of being meaningless ritual for some. However, sometimes I wonder if the doctrinal and ecclesiastical anarchy observable in evangelicalism could use a little liturgy here and there. Maybe then we wouldn't produce so many Joseph Smiths, Charles Russells, Jim Jones and Robert Tiltons. The attraction of the sacraments is in producing continuity, solidarity and accountability for the Christian people. Surely we all could use more of that too.


CMWoodall said...

Let's have lunch next week and finish yesterday's conversation.

Terry Hebert said...

Thank you for your candor. Your honest reflection refreshes the hearts of those hardened by the unending "anti-catholic" calcification amongst Protestants. You give hope. May I ask? When did "Protestant" become synonymous with "anti-catholic?" Is that today's definition? Of course, your Episcopal friends might disagree since they don't find all of Rome despicable. May I also ask? When or where does the protest end? Do you fear that one day Protestants will have reduced Roman Catholicism and, thus, Protestant Christianity to near nothing? And, do you worry that Protestants define themselves more by what they reject than by what they embrace and believe? Luther, especially, and Calvin objected to some serious faults that even Rome would later reject and amend. But they would not recognize their cause today. I suspect they might prefer "reformed" Roman Catholicism than the protest they started. (I am aware that indulgences are back in style amongst Roman Catholics--so much for reform.) May the Lord continue to grant you friends like Dcn. Chris and experiences like the Church of the Holy Communion!