By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
Christian faith is about more than simply believing the right thing. If we limit faith to the doctrinal positions we hold, or the theological nuances to which we ascribe, this will create a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we live. We may talk a good game, but our outward lives will remain unchanged, un-transformed. This is not to say that what we believe is unimportant. Of course it is! However, what we believe (or better yet who we believe in) is to inform how we live. The two must be connected. Christian faith is to be embodied, lived out.
This outward display of faith can prove difficult. There are times when we all struggle with how to express outwardly what we believe internally. It is precisely because of these struggles that the sacraments are important for us. The sacraments of the church are one of the ways that Christian people have historically navigated the lived-out dimension of their faith. As tangible expressions of our connection to Jesus, sacraments help us live our faith in a visible way. Still, many people have questions about the sacraments, and why they are important for our spiritual lives.
Here are four essential truths we must remember about sacraments:
Sacraments are biblically based.
Historically, the church has understood the sacraments differently, based on whether one is a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church lists seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, Unction (anointing for healing), Confirmation, Confession, and Ordination. What is important about these seven activities is not simply that they are beneficial for Christian life, but that these activities are revealed in scripture. Each of the sacraments are places where the individual meets the dispensation of Christ’s blessing and grace. Take the sacrament of unction, for example. Scripture testifies that the apostles laid hands upon the sick and anointed them, making known the healing power of God. Also, the book of James exhorts us to seek the elders of the church when we are sick, specifically mentioning the anointing of oil (James 5:14). This is the case for all the sacraments. The seven sacraments of the church are linked to biblical exhortations pertaining to how we authentically live our Christian lives.
Protestant Churches limit the sacraments to Baptism and Eucharist (Communion) alone. The difference in number is because Protestant denominations emphasize that only Baptism and Communion were specifically instituted by Christ. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus specifically commands the disciples to “Baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, Jesus instructs the disciples at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). As it is only these two sacraments that can be linked to a specific gospel command, the Protestant church reserves the sacramental title to these alone.
This is not to say, however, that the other five have no scriptural warrant. No Protestant church, for example, would ever state that prayers of healing are unbiblical. Thus, some Protestant denominations will refer to Baptism and Eucharist as the Dominical Sacraments, whereas the other five are termed “lesser sacraments” or “commonly-called sacraments.” The point is, sacraments are not just made up. The elites of the ancient church hierarchy did not just dream up practices that they believed would be beneficial for the Christian life. The various sacraments of the church are linked to scriptural mandates for how we live our lives as followers of Jesus. They are rooted in scripture.
Sacraments are physical actions.
Sacraments point to our relationship with Jesus, and our reliance upon the Holy Spirit, in a physical way. Simply defined, a sacrament is an outward and visible expression of the inward grace of Jesus. Each sacramental action communicates participation with the Holy Spirit in our lives. This participation is not merely a matter of internal thought or inward affection, it is an embodied participation. Thus, essential to any sacraments is the outward physicality of the sacrament. The “act” of the sacrament helps us recognize that our life with Jesus is about the “here and now” not the “then and not yet.” Sacraments are taken into flesh-and-blood existence and become part of how we live our lives.
Take baptism as an example. One cannot simply decide they are baptized. One cannot imagine themselves into baptismal identity. One must, physically, feel the water upon their skin. Or take Christ’s call to participate in Communion. To partake of the Eucharist, one must physically reach out for the bread and the wine. The external action signifies our reception of the inward grace of Jesus.
We cannot downplay the physicality of the sacrament. The common fear is that such actions amount to works-based righteousness. Sacraments are not ways that we earn our salvation. Salvation is by grace alone. We do not merit anything in the sacrament. The embodied action is not a magic deed or a divine loophole. The reason the physicality of the sacrament is important is because, in the action itself, we witness to our heart of faith. The physical action acts as a visible form of worship that aids in our spiritual growth.
Sacraments are holy invitations.
We can sometimes get bogged down by debates and disagreements regarding the Sacraments. What is the correct number of sacraments? Should babies be baptized? Do we dunk or sprinkle? Is wine necessary for communion? If we get side-tracked by these arguments, we will fail to recognize one of the most important aspects of the sacraments: Sacraments are places in which we are invited to realize the grace of Jesus. This means that there is a dual nature to the sacraments. On one hand, the sacrament is something that we do, an action that we perform. We eat the bread. We drink the cup. We anoint with oil. On the other hand, the sacraments testify to something that Jesus does. The very point of engaging with a sacrament is to receive the inward presence of Jesus.
When we partake of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, for example, it is not simply the bread and wine we receive. We receive, in a real way, the presence of Jesus in our lives. In the moment of consuming the Eucharist, we commune with Jesus. The same holds true for the sacrament of baptism. As we are outwardly covered with the baptismal water, inwardly we receive the presence of the Holy Spirit. The inward grace that is received is as real for us as the water that drips down our forehead or the taste of the Communion bread in our mouths.
There is, of course, a danger of making the sacraments simply routine action. The danger is that constantly engaging in the physical expressions of faith may end up masking the spiritual reality behind the action. Yet this is a danger pertaining to how we approach the sacraments, not about the sacraments themselves. If we remember that, in the sacraments, we encounter the presence of Jesus, then we thwart the danger of making the sacraments simply empty routines.
Sacraments are resources.
So, why are the sacraments important for our faith lives? Well, it is not uncommon to struggle with our faith. Many faithful Christians experience times where they doubt their ability to experience the presence of Christ. When we find ourselves in these times, the sacraments beckon us; they are the voice of Jesus calling out “If you want to find me, you can find me here.” The sacraments assure us that Christ draws close and bestows his grace upon us.
Have you ever asked yourself “How can I be assured that I have received Christ in my life?” Maybe our question is rooted in a desire for healing, something like “Will God really respond to my prayer for healing?” These questions, doubts, and struggles are common. When our doubts speak louder than our beliefs, simple answers do not always do the trick. In these times, we need to be confronted with the presence of Jesus. This is what occurs in the sacraments. If we are ever tempted to doubt whether we have fully and truly received the gracious gift of Jesus, all we need to do is remember the action of partaking in the eucharist. If we doubt the efficacy of prayers of healing, we can simply remember the hands laid upon our shoulders, or the holy oil placed on our skin. The sacraments act as a type of “spiritual muscle-memory”, reminding us of Christ’s indwelling presence. They give us assurance that Christ is with us.
This, undoubtedly, means that the sacraments are something we can look to. Are you feeling spiritually empty? Take up the eucharist. Find a church, go to the altar rail, and receive the bread and wine. In that moment, as you reach out to receive the physical elements, know that you reach out to Jesus who is present with you. As you consume the eucharist, taking the physical elements into your bodily life, recognize that in the same way, the presence of Jesus dwells inwardly. Or perhaps you are in a need of healing. Take up the command of James and go to the elders of the church for prayer and anointing.
Whether one believes in seven sacraments or two, the radical thing about the sacraments is that they contain power. They bring into our lives, in a mystical and spiritual way, what they signify. In the sacraments, we interact with the real presence of Jesus. So, if that is something you are looking for, then seek out one of the sacraments. Christ is present in them, and he bids you to come.
Photo credit: ©Sparrowstock
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.
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