[This is the second of three posts about the sacraments. The first was yesterday's: “What is a Sacrament?”.]
As we explored yesterday, our Sacraments, primarily Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism, are a physical and spiritual means of receiving grace. Today, we’ll have a small taste of the messiness around the living out of the Sacraments. There is no way I could sum up two thousand years of conflict in 500 words or fewer without scrubbing out big parts of the story. So, rather than go chronologically, I’ll name several significant issues for what they reveal to us.
1) How many sacraments?
Depending on who you talk to, there are either seven or two. Or perhaps 2+5. We have inherited from our ancestors two sacraments that are scriptural and attributed to Jesus: Eucharist and Baptism. We have also inherited five more that grew out of the tradition: confirmation, ordination, matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.
2) Are some more important?
If we believe that all sacraments are of equal value, we have to treat them as equals. If we recognize that only Eucharist and Baptism are “authorized” by Jesus, does this mean that the others are “lesser”? And by extension, unnecessary?
3) What happens in…
The Eucharist—Perhaps the most famous conflict in the church is the one over what we think happens in the Eucharist. As I discussed yesterday, we are torn between the ideas that the host actually becomes Jesus or that Jesus is merely symbolically remembered. Many Christians have sought a different interpretation that rejects that binary question, arguing that something changes that allows the bread to be bread and something new.
Baptism—Are we dunked in the water as adults to reject a sinful past or are we sprinkled with water as infants to protect us from evil? The character of baptism is about transformation and the rejection of evil. It has also historically been an entrance rite to the church, proving one’s commitment and participation in the community. Since the Patristic age, these purposes have not run in unison and caused great conflict as we have chosen one purpose over the other.
4) Who is in charge of the sacraments?
This question gets into what we call ecclesiology, or the study of the church, and is often a conversation about authority. The historical matrix we have for these discussions is about distribution of power in the church, either to a priestly class or to the laity. This has meant that our understanding of who gets a say in the sacraments is based on how hierarchical one’s church is. For Catholics, this means the line goes all the way up to the pope. For many Protestants, the line goes straight into the individual participant that may be given authority by the worship community. For many of us, we live in a both/and structure with ordained authority figures as gatekeepers who attempt to inhabit a grass-roots theology of collaboration.
5) What if the gatekeeper sucks at it?
As persistent as these other questions have been for the church, perhaps none is as damaging as this one. In the early days, there was a group called the Donatists. Their focus was on purity and they began to reject the sacraments from those who were not doctrinally pure enough. In other words, they refused taking communion from people who didn’t believe “right” (as in their way). Even though this is one of the named heresies condemned by the worldwide church, you don’t have to look very hard to find Donatists in our midst.
6) Must we keep the gates?
This is most timely of these questions, as we rediscover the roots of our sacraments and question how best to embody them in our world. Questions about restrictions to the sacraments are causing great conversation (and conflict) in many parts of the church. In many ways, this is the outgrowth of the church’s historic response to question 5, which is to say that the sacrament is a sacrament by grace—not the magic powers of the individual. This shifts the power from the gatekeeper to the Holy Spirit (where it perhaps always was) and changes some of our expectations. In the Book of Common Prayer, it gives instruction for the priest to deny the sacraments to anyone we suspect is an unrepentant sinner, meaning it is actually my obligation to keep the gate. But is that itself theologically consistent?
How we wrestle with these questions does a great deal to inform our theology. Perhaps more important is that we recognize the need to wrestle with them.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore how we choose our theology about the sacraments, and what this does to our practice.
What are your favorite theological fights? Are they over sacraments? How do you deal with some of the messiness in the sacraments?