Sensory Sacraments

I’m preaching on Ephesians 4:1-16 on Sunday, and we are celebrating both sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We’ve been discussing the sacraments quite a bit lately in our CrossTraining services, particularly the issue of admitting baptized children to the Lord’s Table; and on Sunday we will discuss in greater depth the role of Profession of Faith, and some of the challenges we as a church face in terms of young adults who are less enthusiastic about taking that step. While I was doing research for my lesson and sermon, I ran across a book by William Willimon, an author whose writings have been invaluable to me in my preaching and teaching. It’s called A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship, and it turned up on Google Books, which generously showed me some very interesting pages about how the sacraments connect to our senses, and by doing so, connect heaven and earth, the new creation with the old, the “sacred” and the “mundane.” Publishers shouldn’t complain too much about Google Books, because after reading these few pages, I immediately ordered the book.

Here are some excerpts from pages 40-43:

“Sacraments…are everyday objects, like bread and water, and everyday actions, like eating and bathing, that when done among God’s people in worship convey both God’s love for them and their love for God. God uses everyday things we can understand—bread, wine, water—to show us a love that defies understanding.”

Willimon talks about baptism as a communal activity. There is no such thing as private baptism, nor could there be. Willimon says, “Baptism is a sign that Christianity is not a home correspondence course in salvation; it is a sign of a social, ecclesial, familial, gracious, communal way of life.”

“What do these sacraments mean? The Lord’s Supper means everything that any meal means: love, fellowship, hunger, nourishment. These meanings are given added significance because, in this meal, we commune with the risen Christ, who joins us at the Table. People may not know what redemption, atonement, reconciliation, sanctification, and all our other big words mean—but everybody, from the youngest to the oldest, knows what a meal means. …

“Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, birth, power, refreshment, life, death. These natural, everyday meanings of water are given added power because the water is administered ‘in the name of Jesus.’ When we baptize, the congregation ought to see, hear, and feel water. Once again, some people may not know what justification, redemption, and prevenient grace mean—but everybody knows what it means to be thirsty, to be born, to drown, or to be dirty.

“…When we worship through wine, water, and bread, when we point to human events like a meal or a bath, we are linking our faith with daily life, spirit with flesh, the heavenly with the mundane. …Therefore we do a great injustice to the sacraments when we transform them into some ethereal, detached, ‘spiritual,’ exercise that has no support in everyday experience. Specifically when we celebrate these rites, we must use wine that tastes like wine and bread that looks and tastes like the bread we had for breakfast this morning. When we baptize, we must use water in sufficient amounts so that everyone sees, hears, and feels the experience of water.” 

I hope this Sunday we see and hear and smell and taste and feel the grace of God in Jesus Christ.


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