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The Transforming Heart of Christianity

V - Baptism, the Eucharist, and Worship

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

April 2, 2003

Throughout our history as a people of faith Christians have recognized that we have certain ritual obligations.  The number of obligations and their underlying reasons vary from community to community.  Nevertheless, all Christians recognize two actions as instituted by Jesus in the New Testament:  Baptism and the Eucharist.

Many Christian traditions refer to these acts as “sacraments.”  To view them as such is to believe that the acts themselves have a transforming effect on us; and that they are in fact “instruments of grace.”  The Heidelberg Catechism defines sacraments as “holy signs and seals for us to see.  They were instituted by God so that , by our own use of them, He might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put His seal on that promise.”  Typically, Christians restate this by saying that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality."

While there is consensus on the importance of baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist, there is considerable divergence in how (and even when) the sacraments are administered. Divergence in practice over the past six hundred years, in particular, means that establishing a common framework of sacramental unity is sometimes a difficult task.

A little flexibility in this regard is particularly important regarding baptism, where practices differ widely among Protestants. One cause of thise divergence is the vagueness of the biblical record. The biblical authors are quite eloquent about the meaning of baptism, but less clear on the rules regarding its administration.

We are told throughout the New Testament that we are new creations [II Cor 5:16-17].  Just as we were born once into our human bodies and our mortality, as Christians we are born again into a new, eternal life through Jesus [John 3:3-6].  Our baptism is the visible sign of that new birth [I Cor 10: 12], and by entering into the baptismal waters we join with Jesus, the Apostles, and all of the other members of the Body of Christ who have done likewise.

The name for the ritual comes from the Greek word baptizw /bap ti zo/ which means “to dip or immerse.”  The practice of a ritual cleansing as a sign of repentance was already in use by Jesus’ time [see Lev 14:8-9 for an example of ritual cleansing].  It carried a particular significance for the Essene community of which we believe John the Baptizer was a member.  The Essenes practiced a daily, communal bath as an outward sign of repentance; and John the Baptizer introduced this ritual as an act of preparation for the coming Messiah [MT 3:11].

Jesus himself was also baptized by John [MT 3:13], although presumably not for the forgiveness of sins.  The Christian consensus is that Jesus entered into the river Jordan and submitted to baptism as a part of his full participation in the human experience.  Jesus set a perfect example for our obligations as humans, and that example included submission to the rite of baptism.  Afterwards, he and his disciples continued to baptize those who followed them [John 3:22].

After his resurrection, Jesus gave a clear and unequivocal command to his disciples to continue the practice.  We are to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” [Matt 28:19].  Immediately thereafter, we read in the book of Acts that the Apostles did just that [Acts 2:38]; and the New Testament is filled with accounts of people coming to faith and being baptized [e.g. Acts 8:13; Acts 9:18; Acts 16:15, 33.].

The biblical example is that baptism is a clear and immediate act of obedience following a profession of faith in Jesus Christ [Acts 8:36-38].  This baptism was more than simply an act of repentance, since those who had previously been baptized by John were baptized again in the name of Jesus [Acts 19:1-5].  It was also the symbolic entrance of a person into the Body of Christ and their connection with that body through the presence of the Holy Spirit [I Cor 12:12-13].

It is a moment, then, rich with symbols.  We enter into the water as we will someday enter into the dark unknown of death, and we emerge from those same waters as we will someday emerge resurrected into new life.  Water cleans us, and the baptismal waters wash away our sin, our guilt, and the baggage of our mortality.  We come out of the pool soggy and somewhat disoriented, symbolically entering a new birth and a new life just as we entered this one.

No Christian group debates any of these meanings.  Where conflict arises is over the question of whether or not baptism saves us.  Can we be saved without it?  In Mark, Jesus would seem to be saying “no.”  He tells his disciples, “…The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, the one who does not believe will be condemned.” [Mark 16:16].  Likewise, in I Peter we read, “And baptism, which was prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God…” [I Peter 3:21]. 

My own take on these verses is that they are using baptism as representative of receiving the grace of God, and that we should weigh them with the many other understandings of salvation evident in the New Testament.  We went through those at length in the previous lecture, so I’m not going to repeat them here.  Suffice it to say that there is no single view on this topic that is normative for all Christians.  For our purposes today it is sufficient to note that, based on some scriptures as well as Christian tradition, there are some Christians who believe that a person who has not been baptized will spend eternity separate from God in Hell.

This created some obvious problems for early Christians who were raising their children in the Church.  Following the pattern of the Apostles and the New Testament, the early Christians baptized those who were old enough to proclaim their faith and who completed a period of catechesis.  Unfortunately, that was a time of high infant mortality, and the children of many believers died before they were baptized.

Consequently, by the fifth century Christians began baptizing infants.  The underlying concept of baptism remains the same whether the one baptized is an infant or able to speak for themselves:  baptism is the mark of entry into the Christian community of faith and the Body of Christ.  The one baptized then relies on the community which baptized them to nurture them with an increasingly mature understanding of the meaning of their own baptism until they are able to affirm the baptismal covenant in a ceremony of Confirmation.

The Reformers as a whole maintained this concept, with only small splinter groups like the baptists and Anabaptists seeking to return to the New Testament model of believer’s baptism.  Since those "splinter" groups have grown considerably in szie over the past half of a millennium, I think it best not to treat the concept as an aberration (and I would be hesitant to do so anyway since it is the New Testament model.)  The primary advantage of believer’s baptism is that it is a memorable experience for the believer.  It is a rite of passage that we chose, and it marks us indelibly.  From that moment forward, we have the memory of entering into darkness and rising again, clean, into the light.

Yet often we enter those waters, even as adults, with very little understanding of what we are doing.  Like the baptized infant raised in the Church, we spend the rest of our lives unpacking the meaning of God’s grace and our membership in the Body of Christ.  In that sense, although mode of baptism is an issue of huge division for some religious groups, in personal practice both infant baptism and believer’s baptism lead us to the same place.  By grace we are given a gift we do not fully understand, and our baptism unites us with others who continue on the journey of fulfilling the promise of that gift.

Part of that journey is nurturing our common sense of community; and for two thousand years the most visible symbol of our common Body has been the Eucharist – the Holy Meal.  It is an echo of a meal that Jesus shared with his closest disciples shortly before going to his execution [Mk 14:22-24; MT 26:26-28; Luke 22:17-20].  The synoptic gospels identify this as a Passover meal, whereas the Gospel of John describes it simply as a meal prior to Passover.  Contemporary scholarship leans towards the latter, since the meal itself follows the normative pattern that a pious Jew would have observed while eating.

Enrico Mazza describes this ritual in great detail (Celebration of the Eucharist), and I will sketch his description here.  The host would have observed the Kiddush, or act of sanctification which included a recitation of God’s goodness in creation, prayer over the cup of wine (the Birkat ha-Mazon), additional prayer, then the breaking of the bread for the meal and its distribution to the guests.  This began the meal, after which the host would take a final cup of wine and recite again a prayer of blessing.

In and of itself, this ritual has considerable symbolism.  People of faith use it to remember that it is God who nourishes us, and that God provides for our needs.  In addition, the prayers and the sharing of bread and wine reinforce the understanding that we live in community with one another, and that community is also part of God’s creation and sacred to God.

Jesus took these meanings and added another layer to them.  In the gospels, the broken bread and common cup become the symbols for the broken body and spilled blood of Holy God in the person of Jesus.  By partaking of them, Jesus disciples share in the cross and in the common Body of Christ.

Jesus instructed us to continue to observe this sacred meal as an act of remembrance [Luke 22:17-20].  It is evident that from the very beginning, the Early Church did just that [I Cor 10:16-17; 11:23-26] and we have named the sacred meal the Eucharist (from the Greek for “thanksgiving”).  Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth even included particular instructions about the holiness of the meal, warning against partaking “unworthily” lest we bring judgment upon ourselves [I Cor 11:27-32]. 

That passage has struck terror into generations of Christians who walk away from the altar afraid that they might not have been suitably pious, meditative, or repentant to receive the elements (the bread and wine) of the Eucharist.  Consequently, that passage deserves a pastoral note encouraging us to remember the context for which it was written.  If we read on to verse 33 and 34 it appears that some were coming to the Eucharist (or at least the common meal – called an Agape feast) and sating themselves before the other members could arrive.  Paul is cautioning against such behavior.  As a general rule, it is safe to say that if a person is seeking to avoid unworthiness in their participation in the Eucharist, then they are worthy.

A related issue is who can receive the Eucharist.  Generally speaking, traditionally any person who has been baptized is welcome at the table (Welker 146-7).  Nevertheless, some denominations argue about what constitutes a “valid” baptism.  My personal policy is that I will not refuse the meal to anyone.  If they come to the table seeking fellowship and participation in the Body of Christ, I will not exclude them from that fellowship.  The thief on the cross had not been baptized, and he shared fellowship with Jesus in paradise [Luke 23:39-43].  I do not want to risk denying access to the table to someone whom Jesus invited.

Concerns like the issue of who can participate reflect a deeper issue in dealing with the Eucharist.  It is obvious that from its inception the Church has viewed the meal as an important and holy event to be treated with great reverence.  As a result, it has held in tension two aspects of the Eucharist:  the mystery of our inclusion in the Body of Christ and the more human symbol of our common community and fellowship.

The most extreme view on the mystery side of the spectrum is the Roman Catholic concept of “transubstantiation” whereby the essence of the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of the person Jesus (while leaving the apparent form unchanged).  The more moderate perspective is that of “consubstantiation.”  Luther advanced this view, arguing that the elements do not change but that we still miraculously receive the person of Jesus through its addition to the eucharistic element.  Other Protestant Reformers rejected this notion entirely, arguing that the meal is simply what it appears to be – an act of obedience and a symbol of community.

Perhaps more importantly, many Reformers rejected the idea that Christians are obligated to continue to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist if they are to remain within the grace of God.  To make a rather simplistic analogy, the Roman Catholic view is that the Eucharist is like a vaccination booster that needs to be reapplied periodically.  The Reformers argue that we are already cured.

It is perhaps healthiest to seek an inclusive balance of both aspects of the Eucharist.  While affirming that our salvation is secure and is not dependent on any human action, we recognize the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit in transforming us as a community into Christ’s Body.  Likewise, we also recognize that gathering at a common table and sharing a meal unites us in a more temporal sense as a family.

Thus, the Eucharist becomes central to our worship.  Whatever else we do, when we gather we feed each other and share collectively in the food of God’s mercy.  The Eucharist becomes a tangible reminder of all of these things.  We hear the familiar words of institution, we see, smell, taste, and touch the elements.  Worship becomes an act that we can participate in with all our senses, and a gift that we give to each other.

We also add additional elements to our worship as acts of spiritual discipline.  Our worship is the tool by which we reinforce our theology, and act intentionally to reshape ourselves individually and as a community into the image of Jesus.  Consequently, with the Eucharist at our center we build in additional ways for us to relate to God, each other, and ourselves.

One of these is the Church Year.  As a reminder that our lives are not rooted in the rhythms of the secular world Christians have created a calendar that is instead shaped around the life of Christ.  It is divided into seasons, and each season uses an aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry to allow us to reflect on specific aspects of the Christian journey.

The Church Year begins with the season of Advent which starts four Sundays prior to Christmas and runs through Christmas Day.  The color for Advent is purple or blue, and its theme is expectation.  As believers, we hold a mirror to Israel’s expectation of the coming Messiah and use it to reflect our own hope for the second coming of Jesus the Christ.

The season of Christmas lasts twelve days, from Christmas Day to Epiphany.  The color for Christmas is white.  During that time we celebrate and ponder the mystery of the Incarnation – the mystery of God in the flesh.

Following Epiphany we observe a period of Ordinary Time, for which the color is green.  During this stretch of Ordinary time we look at the example of Jesus’ life and teachings leading up to his Passion. The first Sunday of this season of of Ordinary Time is "Baptism of the Lord." The final Sunday of this season is Transfiguration Sunday. Ordinary time is called "ordinary" because the Sundays are marked with ordinal numbers ("first," "second," etc.).

The season of Christ’s Passion is Lent.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty days (not counting Sundays) prior to Easter Sunday.  The color for Lent is purple.  It is a time of reflection and loss, when we contemplate grief, sacrifice, and in particular Christ’s suffering for us.  Lent closes with Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday (commemorating Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem) and includes Maundy Thursday (commemorating the Last Supper), Good Friday (commemorating Jesus’ execution on the cross), and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. These last three days are called the Triduum (literally, "the Three Days").

Traditionally, people leave the sanctuary in darkness on Good Friday, and then watch the light return at the Easter Vigil.  The color for the Easter Season is white, and for fifty days the Church reflects on the hope of eternal life represented by the empty tomb.  At the close of the Easter season we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus.

We then move to the gift of the Holy Spirit which we remember on Pentecost Sunday.  The color for Pentecost is red, and it is on this day that we also commemorate the establishment of the Church.

It is followed by another season of Ordinary Time during which we work to understand how we are to bring about the realm of God which was the focus of Jesus’ ministry. The first Sunday of this season of Ordinary Time is Trinity Sunday, and the last is called "Reign of Christ."

I mention colors because the Church has – since medieval times – used colors as one mnemonic tool to key our worship to the rhythms of the Church Year.  The clergy wear stoles and chasubles ("vestments") of the appropriate color.  Likewise, the altar, pulpit, and lectern are draped with paraments in the appropriate shade for the season; and the liturgical colors can usually be found elsewhere in the sanctuary as well.

Another tool that we use to shape our worship to the pattern of the Christian year is the lectionary.  A product of the combined work of several denominations, the Revised Common Lectionary is a list of Scripture passages to be used in worship during each Sunday of the year as well as on the Holy Days.  The lectionary includes a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a passage from the Gospels, and an epistle reading for each day; and those readings are built around the episodes from each of the three Gospels.  Consequently, we actually have three lectionaries – one each for: Year A (Matthew), Year B (Mark), and Year C (Luke).  John gets sprinkled in across the three; and we alternate them in sequence – starting a new one on the first Sunday of Advent.

The lectionary readings form the subtext for our worship each Sunday.  First of all, we sing the Psalm and read each of the other three in their entirety every Sunday.  As we discussed in our conversation on Scripture, we trust that the Holy Spirit can work, with no additional prodding, in our attentive hearts as we listen actively to the words that have guided the Church for millennia.  By drawing the readings from the lectionary, we ensure that – as a congregation – we hear from the whole breadth of the biblical writings (instead of just certain favorite texts).

To further reinforce the words that we hear, we recite litanies and prayers that are built around the lectionary texts.  These prayers and responses are also part of our spiritual discipline.  The Collect gathers us in, helping us to transition from the hurried cacophony of our mortal lives.  The Call to Worship is a corporate plea to feel the presence of God.  The time of silence teaches us to listen.  The Prayer of Confession reminds us of our sins.  The Assurance of Pardon reminds us that we are forgiven.  And the Homily helps us to connect the collective wisdom of the Bible with our present situation.

All of these components work together to form our understanding of who we are as a unique community.  By setting aside (perhaps even “sacrificing”) time week-in and week-out to their practice, we allow the teachings of Jesus, the words of our ancestors, and our own words and actions to shape us – through the work of the Holy Spirit – into something the secular world could not create.  It is not an immediate occurrence, but a gradual wearing away of the weaknesses of our mortality, whereby we make room for truth of God to settle into our lives.

To tie these concepts together:  we step into that process through our baptism, we nurture it foremost through sharing together in the Eucharist, and we unfold the meaning of those rituals (and the mercy they represent) through thoughtful, disciplined worship.  We do so because we “have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as [we] were called to the one hope of [our] calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in all.  [And] to each of us was given  grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ…” [Ephesians 4:1b-7]


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