Sitting in my post Christmas ‘rest’ I noticed the Canadian Baptists Tweet ‘Are sacraments for those coming in or going out? Can something that’s not a sacrament be sacramental? Holsclaw and Fitch give us some perspective on their podcast. So I thought I would listen in.
It was an interesting conversation. It took a while, however, for the rubber to hit the actual road about what was meant to be the key question: ‘Are the Sacraments for Mission?’, and indeed for a lot of the earlier friendly discussion to get to the point that ‘baptists’ (neo-Anabaptists) and Anglicans (neo?) were operating with different definitions of what constitutes a ‘Sacrament’. The difference between these definitions was not resolved in the conversation.
This difference I think boiled down to the difference on the one hand between what is seen as a ‘Sacrament’ in the sense that it has been specifically ordained by Jesus Christ for ‘liturgical’ practice (Lord’s Supper and Baptism)…over and against, on the other hand, an activity which can be ‘sacramental’ in that it mediates the gracious presence of Jesus Christ e.g. a meal in a fast food restaurant.
I absolutely think that there are a variety of acts and activities such as the sharing of food at table which can give a material, tangible, visual, and experiential (yes indeed I agree sacramental) focus to the already presence of Jesus Christ in all places. I do not think that such acts and actions make him present – I think Jesus already is present – but they do give his presence a material manifestation – bearing witness to his presence in tangible ways in that place.
We need to do so much more of the above – putting ourselves in ‘non-typical for us’ places to act in a way that bears witness to the gracious liberating presence of Jesus Christ. If we cannot get over the hurdle of our careful distancing, our selective avoidance of people and places, like we would a walk in clinic filled with people with the flu, afraid we might catch something, then all of our talk and conferencing about mission is truly to be pitied.
Yet, I do think that the distinction that the Anglican contributors made between the ‘Sacraments’ as acts and activities with some specific particularity as to their form and the ‘sacramental’ has some validity. (I say this not sure that the large ‘S’ and small ‘s’ is best way to do this, and as someone who came from a tradition that tended to prefer ‘ordinances’).
This being the case, however, I was still let pondering the question of the relationship between what we ‘traditionally’ know as the ‘Sacraments’ (whatever and how many we wish to name but going with the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) and mission.
I guess one obvious connection is that the social practices of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should be helping to shape the gathered community so that when it scatters it does so with the faith and resources required of those ‘sent’ to be grace bearing agents in the world. This would be a link between the Sacraments and the sacramental. This would be an extension of the ‘sacraments’ beyond the ‘closed’ or ‘close’ community. There is plenty of work to be done on this alone, however, if these acts are to be so socially formative as it will not simply happen by people turning up.
Another connection is that both baptism and the Lord’s Supper can constantly, albeit in different ways, be offered to ‘all’ inviting participation not simply as an ‘act of belonging’ but as an ‘act of beginning to belong’.
Encouraging people to be ‘Baptized’ as a sign of coming to faith holds more biblical water (did you see what I did there?) rather than asking people to raise a hand or sign a card. A bit more emphasis on ‘believe and be baptized’ might be a good starting point for making the missional connection! It would be good to see more baptismal tanks filled with water rather than acting as extra cupboards or places for floral displays as an expression of our missional commitment and activity! We need to make more of ‘believer’s baptism’ in its ‘social’, ‘political’ and ‘sacramental’ missional dimensions.
Following on from the above people can be ‘invited’ to participate in the Lord’s Supper as a sign and act of faith. In contexts when and where the Lord’s Supper has been practiced among non defined congregations (that is gatherings in which there may have been those who have indicated belief and those who have not) I have invited all people to participate in taking the bread and wine either because they ‘love the Lord Jesus Christ and are trusting him for salvation’ or because they are ‘coming, perhaps for the first time, to confess that Jesus is Lord’. The criticism I received was that I had invited non-believers to take communion. I did not. I invited all to participate as a sign of their being or indeed ‘becoming believers’. I have known people ‘come to’ and first ‘express’ faith in this way. (you need to be an open-communion sort of person to do this). If the bread and wine preaches to the senses (paraphrase Cranmer) then eating and drinking confesses with lips!
Yet perhaps we can push the connection between the ‘Sacraments’ and the ‘sacramental’ in mission further. This is when and where we carry out acts of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in non-traditional public locations. I know that this has become more common to use a public pool or river or take a portable pool into some non typical place. But what about the Lord’s Supper? With a group of students I have celebrated the Lord’s Supper in a public street in Glasgow. In a restaurant, indeed as part of a meal, with others we have not simply expressed the ‘sacramental’ but the ‘Sacrament’ in that bread and wine was deliberately lifted, offered, shared. What was the purpose of this – nothing other than to express the presence of Jesus Christ as it were ‘out there’.
The practice of obviously ‘liturgical acts’ in non liturgical contexts brings a completely new sacramental … maybe prophetic …dimension to their nature.
I think the discussion of this podcast is an important one – not least because it brings together themes related to ‘worship’ and themes related to mission – not treating them as belonging to separate spheres of activity but united aspects of living under the prior ‘rule’ of the living Jesus Christ.