Written by Pastor Ed
Know Your Rites
June 5, 2016
I Cor. 11: 23-26
Matthew 28: 16-20
Many of the things we do in church have meanings beyond the actions themselves. Even among those churches, like Mennonites, who did away with what are sometimes called the “bells and smells” of high church traditions, there are still symbolic acts.
The story is told of the little boy who invited his friend to church with him and as the service progressed, was explaining the meaning of all that was taking place. Then the pastor got up to preach and took his watch off and laid it on the pulpit. “What does that mean?” the friend asked. “Not a thing,” was the reply.
I wonder sometimes if we think about what we do, and what some of our rites mean. Rites, according to Merriam-Webster, are “a set form of conducting a ceremony” or a “ceremonial act or action.” Since we are participating in one of the church’s most significant rites today, I thought it might be a good time to consider what we are doing and why.
Back in the dark ages, when I went through the church membership class, we learned about the ordinances of the church, of which there were seven listed, something I later learned we had in common with the Roman Catholic church. The seven were:
The Holy Kiss
Anointing with Oil
And I remember seeing all of those practiced except for the anointing with oil. These we learned were outward acts which represented an inward experience or meaning. And there were, and are scriptural references for each of them. These were seen as symbolic acts which didn’t convey anything special in and of themselves, but rather symbolized decisions, attitudes, and relationships that a person had made. Some churches still practice all of them, although footwashing and the Holy Kiss have fallen out of practice for many.
In other denominations, the sacraments consist primarily of two, Baptism and the Eucharist, or communion. Sacraments, to use a Lutheran phrase, were a “means of grace.” That is, they convey a spiritual grace, in and of themselves. I won’t go into all the theological differences, but to use simply one example; if you believe in original sin, that infants are born sinful and in need of saving, then you need the sacrament of baptism which will provide grace and salvation, regardless of how the infant feels about it.
If on the other hand you believe that infants are safe in God’s hands, and that following Jesus is a choice that each individual needs to make for themselves, then baptism becomes a sign of that decision, rather than initiating it. So our confession of faith in a Mennonite Perspective says:
“We believe that the baptism of believers with water is a sign of their cleansing from sin. Baptism is also a pledge before the church of their covenant with God to walk in the way of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers are baptized into Christ and his body by the Spirit, water, and blood.”
It goes on:
“Baptism is a testimony to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the continuing work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. Through the Spirit we repent and turn toward God in faith. The baptism of the Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future glory.
Baptism by water is a sign that a person has repented, received forgiveness, renounced evil, and died to sin,1 through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Thus cleansed, believers are incorporated into Christ’s body on earth, the church. Baptism by water is also a pledge to serve Christ and to minister as a member of his body according to the gifts given to each one. Jesus himself requested water baptism at the beginning of his ministry and sent his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is done in obedience to Jesus’ command and as a public commitment to identify with Jesus Christ, not only in his baptism by water, but in his life in the Spirit and in his death in suffering love.”
Baptism, then, is the initial sign or expression publically of a person’s commitment to follow Christ. And since we believe that following Christ means becoming a part of his body, baptism is also a sign of joining with other believers in the body, namely the church. It is an initiation rite into the body of Christ.
Again from the Confession of Faith:
“Christian baptism is for those who confess their sins, repent, accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and commit themselves to follow Christ in obedience as members of his body, both giving and receiving care and counsel in the church. Baptism is for those who are of the age of accountability and who freely request baptism on the basis of their response to Jesus Christ in faith.”
So, is baptism necessary? Well if you believe in it as a sacrament, then obviously the answer is yes. For us, the answer is perhaps more ambiguous. I would compare it to marriage. Do two people need to be married to live together? Obviously not. However, marriage, like baptism, is a public declaration of intent which means one becomes accountable to the broader community for upholding those vows. And I would maintain, even though it is a symbol, symbols can be very powerful and meaningful and convey much more than just the act itself.
I recall someone who resisted ordination saying it really didn’t have any meaning and wasn’t really necessary. But after their congregation, and the conference pushed, they reluctantly agreed to go through with it. And discovered in the process that it was a truly significant point in their life and identity as a ministering person. I have often found that true of baptism as well.
The second ordinance that is shared across the Christian church goes by a variety of names; Eucharist, The Lord’s Supper, or communion. Our Confession of Faith Article 12 is entitled, The Lord’s Supper and states:
“We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sign by which the church thankfully remembers the new covenant which Jesus established by his death. In this communion meal, the members of the church renew our covenant with God and with each other. As one body, we participate in the life of Jesus Christ given for the redemption of humankind. Thus we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
It has been interesting to see the evolution of thinking and practice of the Lord’s Supper over the years that I’ve been observing. Growing up, and in my first pastorate, “closed” communion was practiced. Only baptized members of the specific congregation, or at most other Mennonites, from your particular denomination, were allowed to share communion. There was an emphasis on the relationship not only with God but with your brothers and sisters. We had “preparation meetings” to make sure that everyone was at peace with each other. I know that was also a practice in General Conference congregations and stories are told of congregations that did not have communion, sometimes for years, because of conflict. If you read the context of I Cor. 11, which we read this morning, you can understand some of that.
Then the practice of many congregations moved to “Close” communion. This is what is reflected in our current Confession of Faith, when it says, “All are invited to the Lord’s table who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in the faith, and are willing to be accountable in their congregation.” This is an understanding that despite out theological differences, all Christians are part of the body of Christ and share in recognizing Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Opening communion to all baptized believers recognized this as a symbol meaningful for many.
More recently, and as has come to be practiced here, the Lord’s Table has become “Open” to all. In some ways this is anticipated in our Confession of Faith when it says, “The supper re-presents the presence of the risen Christ in the church.” And in that sense moves beyond the purely symbolic, to what I spoke of earlier, that in the participation we meet Jesus in a new way, whether that is in a re-affirmation of our baptismal vows, or perhaps only as we are coming to know Jesus in a more personal way.
So we come today to participate in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection, in anticipation of the great banquet talked about in the book of Revelation, to affirm the commitments we have made in the past, to share in a common symbol with all Christians everywhere, and to meet Jesus at his invitation.
I remember an exercise we did in one seminary class where we were asked, “If you could only do one thing in worship, if there were restrictions limiting you to one thing, what would you choose?” and my answer even then was communion, because it embodies so many meanings within the symbols of the bread and the cup that we share together.
And so, let us prepare ourselves to share together in this feast to which Jesus invites us, there to meet him again and again.