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What Is It That Occurs in a Sacrament?

A priest friend of mine performing a baptism; Mom holds the baby, Dad follows the service, the child’s siblings are next to him, and the godparents are there too, to promise they’ll assist in raising the child in Christ.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself having a running discussion with my close friend Stephanie about infant baptism. She doesn’t believe in it; I do.

This discussion is mostly one-way; she’s been busy with family visitors and now is on a trip to the Midwest. The other day, however, while helping her aging mother clean out the garage, they ran across Stephanie’s baptismal certificate from an Episcopal church in Detroit; it was the last page of a commemorative book they used to give out. She was baptized as an infant.

I know her today as a very faithful Christian, someone who has been on a widely divergent spiritual journey over the years, from the Episcopal church through Messianic Jews to her current home, which is a conservative, non-denominational, contemporary megachurch.

She’s married to a great guy, who’s quite the amateur Biblical scholar. Together they’ve raised five kids, all with Biblical names. I love that; these are thoughtful, devoted parents. Stephanie’s a stay-at-home mom who’s home-schooled the kids; her youngest is in high school. The others have all done well in college, career and family.

She’s not someone you’d expect from this description to be my good friend – which shows you that’s she a more complex person than my description indicates. I don’t have any other home-schooling moms on my friends list. She doesn’t berate me about being Gay. I don’t think she particularly approves but she’s not a judgmental person – and it’s important for those of us who are Gay to remember that there are a fair number of people like her that way. Just because someone adheres to a different theology of sexuality doesn’t make them a screaming homophobe. I feel free to tell Stephanie anything that’s going on with me, knowing she is always supportive of me as her friend.

GLBTs need not to stereotype the Christians all the time. There’s more to life than  you see on TV.

Stephanie reminds me a little of a woman I used to work with, a social worker at a mental health center. She was a stalwart of the Evangelical Free Church, which she described as “very conservative” but also “not judgmental at all.” When I was setting up an advisory board for dailyoffice.org, I went to her because I wanted the prayer sites to be ecumenical. We use the Episcopal framework as given in The Book of Common Prayer, but there’s no doctrine in its structure; anyone can use it, it’s 99.9% free of controversy. That’s one reason the BCP has been internationally successful for centuries; it works for Catholics and Protestants both, like the Episcopal Church itself.

But baptism, it turns out, is an area where Stephanie and I have a disagreement, a simple difference in views. But it’s about one of the most important teachings in Christianity, so it leaves me puzzled to be close to someone who sees this central act of the faith so differently. Once again I’m challenged to love across the lines; the normal human impulse I think would be to start an argument, “How can you not see what I’m saying?”

But we’re not going to have an argument; I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings like that. Still, I am perplexed. The only analogy I can think of is it must be like what would happen when an East German physician, professor or lawyer happened to fall in love with a West German businessman. She could denounce him as a capitalist lackey, or put on same jazz and ask him to dance.

Churches are not very good at teaching us how to tolerate differences – and if Episkies can’t do it, nobody can. We’ve been peacefully disagreeing with each other since Elizabeth was Queen the first time.

One reason Stephanie and I hit it off so well on the Daily Office site is that, despite her Baptist-Fundamentalist background, she has a real appreciation for liturgy, thanks to all her Jewish friends; a love of the ancient music and forms of Christian prayer; and an ongoing interest in the Anglican way of doing things. (She’s pursued the latter exclusively among the schismatic set so far – and if I can tolerate that, I can bloody tolerate anything.) So she’s quite aware and astute. As a mother and teacher, she’s very interested in forms that “act out” the truth being told in a story. Seeing and participating in the action is how children and adults learn. We do something, and afterward we appreciate what we’ve just done. Thus she’s very interested in Advent practices, for instance; the wreath, the ritual lighting of candles, Advent calendars for the kids, etc. She’s even devised her own rituals for Lent, because both seasons are about waiting and watching, even though the content is different. This year she hosted a seder for Passover.

So why can’t she get baptism? She takes it as a symbolic thing that comes after the really important part, being “born again” as an act of will, or an assent to the lordship of Christ. That moment of recognition, she thinks, is when a person gets saved. Afterward the water of baptism is a nice thing to do, and even necessary (since it’s all over the New Testament).

I don’t see it that way at all. I think the action of baptism, the liturgical acting-it-out, is the moment God conveys the grace. It doesn’t depend on our will at all; God gives us faith as a gift.

The Psalmist says God knew us “in our mother’s womb” and called us before we were born. Jesus says, “Unless you have faith like a child’s, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So naturally I believe in infant baptism, which has been practiced at least since the 2nd century A.D., and was universal until the Reformation. But even today most Protestants do infant baptism, meaning the vast majority of the world’s Christians; Presbyterians, Methodists, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, everybody almost except Baptists, Pentecostals, Amish and Mormons – who aren’t really company I want to be with.

Baptists say, “But kids don’t know what they’re doing; they can’t understand what it means.” To which the rest of us reply, “Neither do grownups! Even after a lifetime of faith and study, nobody really ‘understands’ everything it means.”

If you want to delve more deeply into the pros and cons of infant baptism, go here; Wikipedia gives a brief and reasonable overview. But the question of baptism leads me to a broader question, what do we mean by sacraments? Can we learn something about baptism by studying the other times of liturgical acting-out-the-story?

Before I leave baptism, let me add something telling: Stephanie’s daughter and son-in-law recently adopted a little boy, age five or six; it was a joyous event. And while they did not get him baptized into the Church and their Christian family, they did have a private commitment ceremony for him at home. They made the same kinds of vows that godparents make in infant baptism, “We will raise you in the household of faith.” And they welcomed him into the family.

I think, for believers in credo-baptism of adults only, they absolutely did the right thing for this child. They felt a need and created a liturgy; excellent! Baptism would have been much better, in the church, with a priest or minister, in the Name of the Trinity; but short of that they did what they felt was necessary.

If it’s necessary, why not go ahead and dunk the kid? Don’t leave it to chance, I’d say.

But really, the issue comes down to whether the sacrament is the efficacious life-changing event, or if it’s just symbolic of something. I think the Baptist practice devalues baptism (though of course they see it differently). And to me it’s very telling that the same churches that don’t baptize almost never have Holy Communion.

There are very few times in the New Testament when Jesus issued orders; “Do this in remembrance of me” is one of his few imperatives.

Baptism is the other. He himself went to John the Baptist to receive the sacrament from him in the Jordan River.

How much more evidence do these people need, anyway? (“Oh, but he was an adult!”)

The issue turns on whether the liturgical act makes the change occur, or whether it happens when Billy Joe Jimbob, who’s been drunk half his life, finally decides to beg God’s forgiveness so he can get help before he kills himself.

I’m all for Billy Joe turning to the Lord; too bad he wasn’t raised in the Lord in the first place. Or didn’t stick to it, whichever.

We all must be delighted, and are, with every conversion experience. But then to seal the deal, you get your sorry behind to the river first chance you get.

With other people around; with the entire church; and with God’s minister or priest. Make your vows in public, Bubba!

That way the next time we see you drunk we can get in your face over it.

Now then, every Christian wants “communion” with God. We want to feel close; we want to know God’s presence in our lives and God’s love for us.

Yet here are all these Baptists and megachurches who never use the Communion Christ himself ordained. What’s up with that?

They think “preaching the Word” is the most important thing. It isn’t!

Preaching is some guy or gal standing up front and telling you what to think, by telling you what they think.

One hopes they have some educational background for this, but that’s not always the case.

Making preaching the center of the church service leads people to go to whatever church has the most popular preacher. Some of them are razzle-dazzle guys; most of them are fast talkers with the gift of gab.

They thunder, they shout, they prance, they dance; some of them sing, or get offstage so better singers can put on a performance. They’ll tell you you must be “born again,” and then they’ll tell you to vote Republican and hate the Gays, and then they’ll make you give them money.

No wonder so many of them are corrupt.

Preaching is no substitute for Bible study. It’s no substitute whatever for giving you the bread and wine Jesus commanded you to receive as his Body and Blood.

It is the act of receiving – eating, drinking – that makes communion real. It’s not an emotion you have; it’s an objective fact.

Feelings are fleeting; who knows when your mindset and circumstances will line up properly so you “feel God’s communion”?

Take and eat anyway – because it works.

Afterward you might feel kind of happy. It might not always happen, but chances are good you’ll feel better.

That’s why Jesus instituted the sacrament.

He knows you got drunk last night; he knows you were mean to your friends. He forgives you anyway, in the act of your receiving him.

It’s the act that makes it effective – even though it’s liturgical and ritualistic, which all those Protestants have decided they don’t like, because if the Pope’s in favor of it they can’t possibly agree with anything he says.

I’ve told Stephanie more than once, that’s why you see crummy little Baptist churches with steeples and no cross on top; the Pope puts a cross on all his steeples to lift high that Cross and make it the thing you see when you look to heaven. But the Prots all think they should never do anything like the Pope does. It’s pathetic – and it’s heretical. Not the best Christianity.

I wouldn’t give you two cents for the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, but their core theology I think is correct. Jesus is there in the bread and wine, because the church as a community has called on him to be present. And he comes to us, as he came to his disciples, in the eating and drinking.

We all actually know this, because one of the lesser sacraments has never changed: you’re not married until the minister says, “I now pronounce you…” That’s the moment the change happens.

True, they’re only words, but they’re very meaningful; you just got married. It changes your state, your status; you weren’t married before, but now you are.

By professing your love and commitment, giving and receiving vows, you have acted out marriage in front of the public, the church and the minister or priest.

It’s the same with every sacrament; absolution, confirmation, ordination, and anointing. There comes a moment at which it becomes effective.

We don’t know how exactly; theologians argue about that, but I don’t have a need to know how. I need to know, “Now I am confirmed, or married, or forgiven, or in communion with, or ordained, or spiritually healed.”

So Billybob, it ain’t about you calling on the Lord. He called on you first!

It’s a miracle, that’s what it is; too bad those Baptists practice it so seldom.

OR: “Stephanie, how can you possibly not see this!!!”

Instead of arguing, I simply pointed out that the baptism in which she was joined to the Lord obviously worked, even though she was a little bitty kid and doesn’t remember a thing.

The efficacy of sacraments was brought home to me recently by the Daily Office lectionary, where the lesson from Numbers in the Old Testament had nothing to do with baptism. Instead, the story concerned the death of the first priest, Aaron:

Numbers 20:22-29 (NEB)

The whole community of Israel set out from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. At Mount Hor, near the frontier of Edom, the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Aaron shall be gathered to his father’s kin. He shall not enter the land which I promised to give to the Israelites, because over the waters of Meribah you rebelled against my command. Take Aaron and his son Eleazar, and go up Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his robes and invest Eleazar his son with them, for Aaron shall be taken from you: he shall die there.” Moses did as the LORD had commanded him: they went up Mount Hor in sight of the whole community, and Moses stripped Aaron of his robes and invested his son Eleazar with them. There Aaron died on the mountaintop, and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. So the whole community saw that Aaron had died, and all Israel mourned him for thirty days.

What struck me about this passage is the sequence of events. The Israelites, after all their wandering, are getting close to the Promised Land. But God decides it’s time for Aaron to die. He’s been a good priest, but he also had that major “golden calf” failure awhile back, as well as not following directions at Meribah when the Israelites complained about not having any water, so God decides Aaron doesn’t get to see the fulfillment of the promise – and Moses won’t either. God directs Moses to take Aaron and Eleazar up the mountain. They go up “in sight of the whole community,” strip off Aaron’s priestly vestments, and put them on his son. Eleazar is thus ordained priest in his father’s place, and Aaron, without his vestments, is naked, bereft of his identity and his role. Then he dies.

It reads as if the stripping of his clothes is what caused him to die. The three of them acted out a liturgy; you could call it a death ritual for priests. Once the vestments (that is, his special robes) were gone, Aaron himself was gone. Stripping him did him in.

(I love that the Israelites give him a full month of mourning, in recognition of the faithful service he did provide most of the time. No doubt they marked those thirty days by performing ritual acts – just as the United States mourned President Kennedy’s assassination by lowering the flags to have staff, and keeping them there for thirty days. In that era it meant raising, then lowering the flag, every morning and night. Soldiers, families and Scouts in 1963 all remember the ritual. Everyone watched in silence as the flag-bearers did their solemn work.)

I wish that Stephanie, steeped as she is in the religious experience of the Jews (and therefore of Jesus), understood the centrality and efficacy of the sacraments as liturgical acts.

I wish that Methodists, Presbyterians and everybody else who neglects the Holy Communion would obtain better minds. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (as an Anglican priest), begged his followers to participate in Communion every Sunday as Christians had always done – but they didn’t then and they still don’t. They do it once a month, or once a quarter, or once a year, and some of them don’t do it at all. On their deathbed maybe, they should live so long; or maybe the minister doesn’t get there in time and they expire, never having fulfilled Christ’s plain command.

The act of baptism is what makes someone a Christian. It’s the water that’s symbolic, not the act. The act is a miracle. That’s what I believe.++

James Tissot: The Death of Aaron (Jewish Museum of New York)

One Response

  1. Josh, excellent and thank you. I might suggest Derek Olsens recent essay on sacraments on Daily Episcopalian. He reminds us that the Sacraments are, as the Bcp sez, “sure and certain means” of salvation.

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