Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sacrament Sermon Feb. 5

Romans 12: 1-2
Luke 24: 13-35

Over the past half century, there has been a movement within the United Methodist church to re-invest our attention to the sacraments of the church. If you look at the hymnal published in 1964, you can see physical evidence of this ongoing movement. As you can see, the services of Baptism and Communion in this book are located here, in the back of the hymnal. In the most recently published hymnal, the services of Baptism and Communion are found here, in the front of the hymnal.
Over the past 10 years, church wide studies first on our understanding of baptism, and then 8 years later on Communion were presented and enthusiastically accepted at our General Conference. In fact, at the 2004 General Conference, after the comprehensive statement on the theology and practice of Communion was presented and adopted, the conference stood and applauded the action. The delegates recognized and celebrated that God’s Spirit had used their action to address a deep hunger among UM”s for more meaningful understanding and experience of the Eucharist.
Baptism and communion have been celebrated since the birth of Christianity. In fact, we count these as our two sacraments because they were instituted by Christ himself. Within these practices, Christians throughout the century have received the presence of the Holy Spirit in unique ways that cannot be quite understood with the mind alone. You might picture the sacraments as prisms that refract the light of God’s grace and love into colors that we can plainly and visibly see.
What we call the “sacraments” were first called “mysterion” in the Greek language of the early church. “Mysterion” communicates in Greek a Holy Mystery, aspects of creation that communicate to us very deeply God’s love and acceptance of us. In Latin, the word was translated to “sacramentus,” originally meaning “a signed and sealed pledge.” This Latin word was probably chosen because of the understanding that the sacraments were God’s “important message” to humanity. Eventually, the word came to mean “a consecrated thing or act,” or “something holy.”
John Wesley was profoundly inspired by his understanding of the sacraments. Wesley adopted the traditional Catholic and Anglican understanding of the sacraments as “An outward, visible sign that conveys an inward, spiritual grace.” The sacraments were so important to Wesley because he knew them as “channels,” or streams of Grace. Today, this is still a beneficial way of approaching the sacraments. Combining words, actions, and physical elements, sacraments are sign-acts which both express and convey God’s grace and love.
United Methodists believe that these sign-acts are special means of grace. The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to God’s presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality. God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives. The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which god has chosen to make grace available to us.
Wesley identified baptism as the initiatory sacrament by which we enter into covenant with God and are admitted as members of Christ’s church. This sacrament is to be administered only once in a lifetime, and we do not discriminate between baptism in the Methodist church and any other Christian church. He understood the Lord’s supper as nourishing and empowering the lives of Christians and strongly advocated frequent participation in it.
Neither Baptism nor communion is necessary, or sufficient for salvation. The sacraments are expressions of God’s grace, but God is not limited to the sacraments alone to persuade us into His love. United Methodism shares with most Protestant denominations that the proclaimed word is also sacramental in nature. A convicting word may lead us to an experience and acceptance of grace as much as the sacraments of baptism and communion.
You could say the Methodist church was born because of the sacraments, and the unavailability of ordained priests in the American colonies who could provide the sacraments to a spiritually hungry people. Throughout the mid 1700’s, Wesley was insistent that the Methodists remain a revival movement within the church of England. However, by the 1780’s, it was obvious that the American Methodists were hesitant to partake of the sacrament in the American Anglican churches, and there weren’t enough Methodist clergy to provide the sacrament (in fact, all of the Methodist missionaries to America were layman.) So, out of desperation, Wesley ordained new clergy who would in turn ordain other American clergy so that the sacraments could be celebrated among the quickly growing Methodist movement. The newly ordained clergy in America formed the Methodist church as a separate entity from the Church of England, and such was the birth of the church you sit in today.
The Evangelical revival of early Methodism was fueled by the Wesleyan heritage that the sacraments are open to all who seek them, regardless of where they are on the path of salvation. All who respond in faith to the invitation are to be welcomed. Holy Baptism normally precedes partaking of Holy Communion. Holy communion is a meal of the community who are in covenant relationship with God through Christ.
Beginning early in its history, the Xian church divided its worship services into the Liturgy of the Word, in which all participated, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, which was the celebration of the Holy Communion. Those who were not yet baptized were dismissed before the celebration of the sacrament.
John Wesley stressed that baptism is only a step in the salvation process and must be followed by justifying faith and personal commitment to Christ when one reaches an age of accountability. He referred to Holy communion as a “converting ordinance.” For this reason, we celebrate an “open table” because we believe it is Christ’s table. As we read in the Gospels, Christ invited all to have fellowship with him—so who are we to draw a line around His table and say only some can participate? For me, the open table is one of the chief reasons I have chosen to celebrate Christianity through the expression of United Methodism.
It is deeply moving to offer the sacrament. It is why I am called to the order of Elder. I believe the sacraments empower us to be alive. I believe they help us see the holy in the everyday things.
In our Gospel story, Jesus was “unveiled” in the breaking of the bread. The sacraments reveal Christ’s real presence in our midst. By discerning the sacred in the mundane—in things as simple as bread and the juice of the grape and water, we “conform not to the standards of this world,” where things are given quality by their material composition.
The sacraments give us a glimpse of what is good and acceptable and perfect. They are channels of God’s grace because they transform us by the renewing of our minds. Every time we share in a sacrament together, we’re renewing our minds to look at God’s creation with awe and reverence, with a sense of tremendous mystery. This is why the early church called our shared meal and pouring water over our heads “mysterion.”
Every time the McGaughs bring the loaf and the cup down the aisle and put it on this table, it becomes an offering. In the shared experience of this simple loaf and juice, it becomes for us the real presence of Christ. Likewise, when I come to fill up the baptismal font with warm water, I pray that the water that I put over the person’s head might be an opening in that person’s life of a new life in the Body of Christ. One reason I so love bringing the newly baptized member of our family and showing him off to you is because I believe we are witnessing the true nature of our relationship with one another as Christians.
I am so happy that last week we welcomed Cameron into the life of faith through the sacrament of Baptism. As a brother in Christ, he is on the road with us toward the fruition of the Kingdom in our midst. We are together on the road home. Along the way, God offers us nourishment and strength through the sacrament of Communion, which we celebrate today. The table is open to all who desire it. It is offered freely and enthusiastically by a God who wants you to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Thanks be to God that we are refreshed and emboldened in this journey of faith. Thank be to God that it is a meal we share together. Amen.


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