Often the wisdom in a Sunday School classroom comes from the participants and not from the leader.
This past Sunday, my class was discussing the Animate:Practices episode with Phyllis Tickle talking about Sacraments. After a pretty light conversation, it turned to two questions: infant baptism and open communion. Almost everyone chimed in and had a good back-and-forth…and then one of them said:
The thing is with the Sacraments is that they get you into trouble. All of them are about boundaries and who can take it or experience it, and those things are where people get into trouble.
Sacraments with Requirements?
There’s a lot of truth to what my Sunday School participant said.
To define what we are talking about, Sacraments are specific practices (like baptism and eucharist) that are highly ritualized and have significant meaning. They are outward and visible signs of the invisible, inward, spiritual grace given by God. Sacraments are Christian practices that order our lives and give a structure that sustains Christian living. They are not necessary for salvation, but are means of grace that help inaugurate the Christian journey, signify turning points, and sustain the Christian life.
Actually, that’s the textbook definition (from my United Methodist ordination papers). The reality is that in the Christian tradition, Sacraments are incredibly divisive.
Even if we limit our consideration to the two most-shared Sacraments across Christendom (baptism and communion), there’s deep and wide variance:
- Baptism: Southern Baptists hold to believer baptisms only, Catholics believe in baptizing babies (but only if they will be raised in the Catholic faith), and most Protestants affirm infant baptism. Many traditions require a catechumenate process beforehand; some will call you down and baptize you previously unseen. Many fundamentalist churches recognize only submersion baptism, whereas I heard a story of a Presbyterian preacher who belatedly saw he didn’t have any water in the baptismal font and he baptized the child anyway with just air.
- Communion: Catholics believe the wine becomes Jesus’ blood, whereas others see it as a reminder (memorial) or the real presence (ie. non-icky) of Christ. Episcopalians use real wine while post-Temperance Methodists use grape juice, and Mormons use water. Catholics only serve to Catholics (in good standing), many denominations only serve to Christians, and Methodists practice an open table where one may not even need be Christian to partake but need only a desire to know Christ better.
Getting into Trouble
With so much variance and rules, there’s bound to be moments when one is excluded from a Sacrament. The visceral response to being excluded from a Sacrament is one shared by many, especially when it comes to Protestants attending a Catholic funeral or wedding or teaching at a Catholic school and being denied Communion.
It’s in those moments of exclusion–no matter how rigorously theologically maintained or pure of thoughtfulness the action is–that the Sacraments get us into trouble. We get into trouble when we cross a boundary or note that we are on the other side of a boundary, and no matter how deeply committed we are to our own faith tradition, it impacts us in ways that separate us from the holiness of God in that moment.
Sacramentality without Limits?
Because humans have codified and segmented Christendom through barriers and rules regarding water and wine, I wonder if we need to rely on something different.
If we humans have chopped up the Sacraments, can we still hold onto seeking Sacramentality?
Sacramentality is the belief that God’s grace has been received through participating in the activity instituted by God. Sacraments like Baptism and Communion are rituals that connect us to the church’s past as if threaded onto an ever-long tapestry, like Phyllis Tickle said in the Animate:Practices video.
But beyond the moment of the sacrament, sacramental living means approaching all aspects of life as a means for sharing and receiving God’s grace. We are empowered to live God-directed lives outside the context of the Church and its rituals. Regardless of how codified and segmented the actual Sacraments are, they are meant to empower us to take that sacramental living into the messiness of the world. Sacraments are not mountaintops but instead are pit stops that reconnect us so that we can go about our task of reconnecting our diaspora of a world. The grace conferred by these Sacraments empower our bodies to do good works for the Reign of God and continue to seek reconciliation, peace, and justice in the world (2 Cor 5:17-21) for all those that have bodies and all those who need to know the love of God.
Perhaps the Sacraments have layers of exclusion and particularity because we have the inverted belief that what we believe about the Sacraments defines how we live out our sacramental living beyond the altar space. I believe the opposite is more true: how we live sacramentally ought to define how we view our Sacraments. If we live a life of inclusion and grace, then why are our communion tables closed, or our baptisms by one particular “valid” method?
Does it matter? Grace is everywhere
In The Diary of a Country Priest, the unnamed Catholic priest has spent the bulk of his short life practicing the understanding of the sacraments on his rural parish. As he lay dying from stomach cancer, unable to himself receive the sacrament of last rites from a tardy neighboring priest, his last words are: “Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
Grace is indeed everywhere. The Sacraments connect to those thin places in the context of worship. There is abstract value in having insider language and meaning for the Sacraments. However, I believe there is concrete value in performing them in such a way that outsiders feel included and can see the transformation in our lives going forward.
Truly, the grace of God is known in all places. If our Sacraments do not affirm this reality, or have layers of exclusion built upon them, then what kind of grace do they really point to? The anti-grace of requirements, secret languages, and judgment of qualified and not? Or the unifying grace of people helping people, seeking the means of grace at all moments, and only occasionally turning to the moments when our grapes, wheat, and water touch the sky?
May we allow the grace of God to define our Sacraments in ways that the roped off corridors of humans cannot. And may all our Sacraments point to a life of celebration of our relationship with God whose grace knows no requirements, whose presence is found in grapes of all kinds, whose refreshment is found in all forms of water, and whose receiving line is always open, waiting for you.