Two of the primary distinctives of the Reformed Church tradition in general and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in particular are the sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It could be said that the Presbyterian Church is a sacramental church wherefore the institution of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper hold central position. As a part of the spiritual formation of the church and its members, it is crucial to underscore the role of both these sacraments within the Christian ordo (liturgical order) of service and the missional witness in and for the world. In other words, as we pursue Christian discipleship we are called to remember our baptismal vocation and Eucharistic mission that stems from the sacred waters and the reconciling table of Jesus; this through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to note that at the core of sacramental exploration is an embrace of mystery. Actually, the word sacrament alone derives from the Latin translation of the Greek word for mystery (Migliore 280). That is to say, the sacraments are not intended, neither within the New Testament witness or on-going church praxis, to be defined and possessed by human language. Instead, the sacraments point beyond themselves, however mysteriously, to what has actually occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Even more so, the mysterious nature of the sacraments insists that God’s people regularly gather together as a community not only to explore the richness of meaning, but also to embody the sending nature of both baptism and the Eucharist. Here is a brief discourse that can be considered and discussed.
The sacraments of the church are the visible signs of God’s covenantal promises and grace that are most fully made known in the person of Jesus and his gospel. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two sacraments affirmed and regularly instituted by the Presbyterian Church as ordained by Jesus the Messiah. First, baptism is the proclamation that God has claimed us as God’s people to be God’s image bearers in the world. Baptism is the physical representation of God’s on-going work of new creation and liberation upon an individual who is adopted into God’s family, gifted with the Holy Spirit, and called to participate within the life, witness, and mission of the church. Second, the Lord’s Supper is the regular practice of the church whereupon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah are remembered and proclaimed in anticipation of the new creation that is to come. In the practice and institution of the Lord’s Supper the church remembers God’s new covenant with humanity and that all believers have been baptized and united unto Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and called towards faithful gospel witness and Eucharistic mission in and for the world.Another marker of the Christian Church is the proclamation of the Word of God. In the Reformed Tradition it is the combination of both the proclaimed Word and the institution of the sacraments that denotes the very existence of the Christian Church. As John Calvin wrote, “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes, 4.1.9). The interrelationship of proclamation and the sacraments is to call the Church to remember the storied tradition of which it is a part, the history of God’s faithfulness within that story and climaxes in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah, and the role of God’s people as participants, by the Holy Spirit, in God’s on-going work of redemption and new creation. This has led some theologians to suggest:
The true church is not only the church of the ear (where the gospel is rightly preached and heard), and not only the church of the eye (where the sacraments are enacted for the faithful to see and experience); it is also the church of the outstretched, helping hand” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 273).Again, it could be stated that through the preached Word of God and the celebration of the Eucharist the baptized are invited to live into their missional vocation in and for the whole world. Moreover, it is proclamation as witness and sacraments as memory that remind the Church that God’s redemptive mission hinges not on its own voice or praxis, rather upon the object, subject, and goal of the faith, who is Christ, of and to whom the Church follows and bears witness.
Helpful Quotations from Significant Voices
“So faith rests upon the Word of God as a foundation; but when the sacraments are added, it rests more firmly upon them as upon columns. Or we might call them mirrors in which we may contemplate the riches of god’s grace, which he lavishes upon us”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.5
“The news which the Church has to proclaim is that in virtue of what has happened in Jesus Christ [humanity] can now live with God in faith and love and hope, on the ground of God’s unfathomable and unmerited mercy. And this news is so urgent that in every time and place where the Church exists it must be proclaimed at once and in all circumstances.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 850
“These ministries of leadership [proclamation and the sacraments] are given to enable the church to carry out its fundamentally missiological purpose in the world: to announce and demonstrate the new creation in Jesus Christ.”
Darrell Guder, Missional Church, 185
“The Lord’s Supper is therefore also the sacrament of human participation in the divine life by sharing life with each other…There is an intrinsic connection between responsible participation in the Lord’s Supper and commitment to a fairer distribution of the goods of the earth to all its people.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 295