Treasure in clay jars: Baptism and Communion

I talked last week about the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. Important as it is, however, this fellowship is not the only reason for attending worship services.

God is present in many things every day, great and small. Some we may find easy to attribute to God—the beauty of forest, the grandeur of a mountain, the love of those around us. Some escape our notice—the little grace notes that lighten our day. A stranger’s smile, a break in the clouds, a chance remark that sparks an idea. All are examples of God present in our lives, in both good times and bad. It’s important to notice these things, but so often we get caught up in our busy lives and forget to pay attention, or credit them instead to our own skill and luck. God’s presence can be so intangible, so easily ignored, that we need something concrete and physical to demonstrate it, something we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and know God is present in it.

In the Lutheran understanding, a “sacrament” is the combination of the Word of God with a visible sign (something we can see and touch), as ordered by Christ. We recognize two sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Jesus commanded us to do both of the sacraments as signs of his presence with us. God takes every-day, ordinary things (water, oil, wine, bread) and makes them into extraordinary signs of God’s love and grace.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)

In our baptisms we are initiated into the Christian life as disciples and members of the fellowship of believers. We are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is not fire insurance for Christians; it is not a “get out of Hell free card.” Baptism is God reaching out to us and promising us that God will always be there for us, claiming and reclaiming God’s identity as Emmanuel. There’s a reason baptism is traditionally done during the worship service, and there’s a reason that the congregation makes promises of support and solidarity with the person being baptized. God’s presence sometimes manifests itself through the companionship of our fellow members of the body of Christ, so it’s important that our fellow members are there when God promises to be with us. But beyond that, the baptism of each new member, child or adult, is a reminder that God has claimed us as God’s own through our own baptisms. It’s a reminder that baptism is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the beginning of an ongoing life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s also a reminder that Christ is present with us, not in theory but in fact. God’s presence is as real and tangible as the water and the oil.

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).

There’s been a lot of debate over these words over the centuries. Some say they’re meant to be symbolic, some have argued for arcane philosophical justifications for the turning of bread into flesh and wine into blood, some have other ideas. But the important thing is that Christ is promising to be truly present in the bread and the wine. Whatever you think it is, Christ is present in it. In this bread and wine, God’s covenant—God’s promised relationship with us—is made into a form we can feel and taste. God’s promise to forgive our sins, renew us, and make us whole is real even when we’re so overwhelmed with life that we can’t see it any other way.

This is why going to church is important. God is present in many ways every day, whether we go to church or not. But it’s only in worship with our fellow believers that we receive these two sacraments, these two physical assurances of God’s grace.

If you have any questions about this or any questions you would like interested in next week’s entry, please comment.

I don’t believe in “the church”: Faith and Fellowship

There are a lot of people today who consider themselves Christian, but never go to church. Ask them why, and you’re likely to get some variation on “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in the church.” My response is, it’s good that you don’t “believe in” the church. As Christians, we believe in the one God; “believing in” anything else in the same way would be idolatry. However, when you say “I don’t need the church,” I get concerned. The church was given by God to us as a help us in good times and bad.

While it is possible to worship God alone, God prefers us to worship together as a community. In Matthew 18:23, Jesus says specifically “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus did not travel alone; he gathered people together throughout his ministry in mutual love and support. While he occasionally prayed alone, he never went to the Temple or otherwise worshiped God by himself.

Paul, likewise, was very concerned with the church, the “ekklesia,” the gathering of the community for worship and fellowship. For Paul, one of the most important features of Christian life was that it was communal—the fellowship/partnership/full participation of all was extremely important to him. Paul called the gathering of the faithful the body of Christ, saying that no part of the body was complete without all the other parts, and that no part of the body was more important than any of the other parts. (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, etc.)

For both Jesus and Paul, the important part about the church was not the formal institutional structure. The important part was the community, the people gathered together in common cause, with mutual love and support. The community was to build each other up in love and faithfulness, to offer support and consolation in times of trouble. Anything that threatened that communion was to be dealt with, in love and forgiveness.

The church is not an institution or a building. The church is fundamentally a fellowship of people. That fellowship can nurture you spiritually when you are feeling spiritually “dry.” That fellowship can challenge you and open you up to new ways of thinking about and experiencing God in your life that you would not have found on your own, and it can comfort you with old truths of faith in a world where everything seems to be changing. That fellowship can comfort and console you in times of trouble, and it can help you learn to care for others in their own times of need. It is not a thing to be “believed in,” but it is a gift to be used and a help in our journeys as Christians.

It’s true that the church is made up of fallible, sinful human beings, and often falls short of the community to which God calls us, sometimes with tragic results. But that community of faith, imperfect as it is, is still important. You may decide you best fit in a different congregation, a different community of faith, than the one you grew up in. You may decide the worship styles of the church you grew up in don’t feed you, spiritually, as much as that of another congregation; that’s okay, too, because not everyone responds to the same way to the same worship styles. Which congregation you choose, which denomination, is ultimately not all that important; the important thing is participation in the body of Christ. The same Lord is Lord of all.

Next week I’ll talk about the importance of the sacraments in the community of faith.