I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. —Ezekiel 36:25.
Discipleship is a lifelong journey. Thankfully, God provides help for us along the way. The sacraments are specially ordained means of grace that serve as resources for enduring and victorious Christian living. That is, they are means of God’s sanctifying grace.
Baptism is normally associated with saving grace. It is the sacrament of initiation, marking our identification with and inclusion in the saved community of disciples of Christ. Unlike the Eucharist, which is intended to be celebrated regularly by disciples, baptism is intended to be celebrated once in the life of each disciple. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t overlook the potential of this sacrament as a continuing means of sanctifying grace – grace for the journey.
The sacrament of baptism is intended to be celebrated only once, but it is not to be forgotten thereafter. On the contrary, remembering the significance of baptism to our Christian identity should be a part of our everyday Christian walk. By remembering I mean more than mere recollection of a past event. The ancient Greek word for remembering, anamnesis, literally means “un-forgetting.” Through distraction and inattention, we may easily “forget” who we are in Christ. That doesn’t mean we can’t recall that identity, but rather that we may fail to live with effective awareness of it.
Our identity in Christ should be formative and transformative—it should be a point of conscious and continual orientation.
Remembering our baptism (and baptismal identity) should be a significant part of every celebration of the sacrament of baptism. That is, the service should intentionally and purposefully address not only the baptismal candidates but all those who have been baptized. Recalling our baptismal identity in Christ should also be a recurring point of reference in our normal worship. Roman Catholicism practices a rite of “aspersion,” which involves sprinkling the congregation with water to remind them of their baptism. In fact, the practice of dipping hands in holy water as congregants enter the sanctuary is implicitly a reminder of baptism. We, too, need to be regularly reminded of our baptism and what it means for us. Baptism reminds us (helps us “un-forget”) of our identity in Christ.
The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)
The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) is the sacrament that clearly serves as a resource for the Christian journey. It is more than a remembrance or celebration of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. It reminds us of Jesus’ saving work in a way that makes it present and real. The Supper serves us in at least two ways – as a means of spiritual sustenance and transformative grace.
In the Lord’s Supper, we expect Christ’s very presence. John Wesley affirmed that His presence is not caused by the celebration of the sacrament. That is, Christ is not present because He must be present when the sacrament is celebrated but because He chooses, readily, to be present. This means that whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we can and should boldly believe that Christ is present with and for us.
The Lord’s Supper offers “food for the journey.” The imagery of bread and cup communicates the image of a meal. Just as we tangibly receive the material elements in this sacrament, so we receive the sustenance of grace that spiritually “feeds” us and sustains us. While the material signs are meager and plain, we understand them as figures of the bountiful feast that Christ invites us to share. We should not see this in any magical sense but as a realization of Christ’s promised presence and grace that will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The Lord’s Supper also serves as a formative sign—the unique, repeated event that is at the center of Christian worship. In addition to signifying the presence and grace of Christ, the Lord’s Supper also rehearses the core identity and pattern for the Christian faith. We are reminded not only of Christ’s identity but of our own identity as His people. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly, with intentionality and meaning, it serves as a point of “calibration” or alignment, calling us to remember who we are in Christ. This means that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has rich application if we will explore its meaning. Let me suggest a few points of connection and application.
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the Christian understanding of the material world. The reality of divine grace is revealed in the use of common material elements. For the early Gnostics, the Lord’s Supper was unacceptable because they rejected God’s direct creation of the world and held all material reality as contrary to the pure spirituality of their notion of God. For them, this world was a reality to deny and escape in their spiritual quest. For Christians, our faith is in our Creator God and in the Incarnate Christ. Grace and blessing are expressed in and through material reality. This means that we should properly value and appreciate the material world and bodily life. The material elements of the Lord’s Supper remind us of this.
The Lord’s Supper also reminds us that in Christ we are His community of kingdom people. In the early church, celebrants recalled that the bread of the Supper reminds us that we are “many grains, but one loaf.” In our diversity, we come to unity in Christ. This is practiced in the Supper as we all receive the elements together—all receive the same bread, the same cup, and the same grace. Places of privilege do not exist at the table because we are all undeserving recipients of the merits of Christ and His redemption. Our status and place are defined in relation to Christ and His cross and not our wealth, social standing, or status.
In these times of challenging social divisions, the Lord’s Supper offers a powerful and relevant counter-message to the world if we will hear it.
The Lord’s Supper also invites us into an anticipatory celebration of the great banquet when the promise of redemption and restoration will be finally and completely realized. We are transported from our own time and place to Christ’s heavenly table. We find ourselves seated together with all the saints who have gone before us: Mark, John, Paul, John Wesley, Phineas Bresee, etc. all feast with us as the great cloud of witnesses. We are reminded that in the future Christ is preparing for us all, sorrow will be past and the promise of Christ’s reign will be realized.
We, too, are being—and will be—changed. My first theology teacher, Rob Staples, liked to tell the story of a man’s visit to heaven and hell. Escorted by St. Peter, he was first taken to witness the misery of hell. As they approached the great doors, he could hear the moans and cries of suffering. As the doors were opened, he saw a great banquet hall. Long tables were filled with every kind of food, the sights and aromas tantalizing. Along each side of the tables, men and women sat, unable to enjoy the feast. Their arms were long, stretching across the tables, without any elbows that would allow them to take and eat. Their torment was agonizing. “Take me from this place,” the man cried.
Then St. Peter took him to the doors of heaven. He could hear the laughter and joyful sounds of celebration and fellowship. Anxiously he watched as the doors were opened. Before him he saw a great banquet feast. Tables stretched as far as he could see, loaded with every kind of food, tantalizing in its sight and aromas. And along each side, men and women sat with arms stretching across the tables, again without elbows. Unable to feed themselves, they were feeding each other, laughing and rejoicing at the great feast. Heaven is not just a matter of a different location but also different people. The Lord’s Supper can teach us how to live together in such a way that we are prepared for the great banquet.
Discipleship is a lifelong journey that is often challenging and difficult. To help us along the way, God has provided us the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as helpful means of His grace – His unending, sanctifying grace.
Carl Leth is former dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Olivet Nazarene University.
Holiness Today, January/February 2021
Please note: This article was originally published in 2021. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.