Though Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God, the Gospel of Matthew is emphatic that he remains with us as well.
- Matthew 1:23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
- Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
- Matthew 28:20 “… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Historically, one of the ways the church has seen the presence of Jesus has been through the observance of sacraments. The sacraments (from sacramentum) are literally “mysteries.” They are elements whereby the claims of the gospel take shape in front of us. Augustine wrote, “The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word.”[note]Tractates on the Gospel of John 80.3.[/footnote] Later, Thomas Aquinas would concur: “Sacraments are visible signs of invisible things whereby man is made holy.”1Summa Theologica III.61.3.[/note] In the Reformation, the protestants would adopt this language as well. From Luther’s Small Catechism: “A sacrament is a sacred act instituted by God, in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element.”[note]An Explanation of the Small Catechism Item 236.[/note]
While I have written before on the sacraments generally, about a year ago I entertained a separate question: What elements of church life are sacraments? Traditionally, the Catholic church recognized seven: baptism, euchrist, reconciliation, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and anointing of the sick. Luther preferred to think of only two: baptism and eucharist. My own heritage, the Church of Christ, has disregarded the term “sacrament” altogether in favor of Alexander Campbell’s preferred term, “ordinance.” The advantage has been the continued insistence on baptism and communion (our favored word for what was traditionally called eucharist), but the disadvantage has been the under-emphasis of the sacramental sense of the elements, the real presence of God in our midst. Other churches have diminished them more, relegating them to tertiary status if they appear at all.
In my consideration of the sacraments, I looked at the topic with the following criteria:
- I expected to see all meaningful sacraments in the Scriptures.
- I expected to see a connection to the traditional list of seven sacraments.
- As a “mystery of the church,” I expected each sacrament to appear senseless to outsiders and meaningful to the believer.
- As a visible word joined by the presence of God, I expected each sacrament to make manifest the reality of God’s intimacy to the life of faith.
The result of this exercise was a sermon series which I titled, “7 Mysteries of God.” The series was fairly well received in my home congregation, and after months of reflection, I have decided to articulate it in written form here on my blog.
The first two sacraments on my amended list are Baptism and Communion, and they are the most recognizable. Also Marriage seems like another obvious choice from the classical list, though Luther inexplicably omitted it. Beyond that, the list gets tricky for someone of my persuasion. Reconciliation in the Catholic tradition is closely tied to Penance, but I choose to emphasize the embedded element of Forgiveness over any particular method of reconciliation or restitution. Likewise, instead of the specific action of anointing the sick, I have opted to discuss the uniquely Christian emphasis on Care for the Weak. In lieu of confirmation – a recognition of faith that follows after infant baptism – I will discuss Confession of Christ – a recognition of faith that typically precedes believer’s baptism. Finally, instead of the division of human efforts into the sacred and the secular that takes place in the Holy Orders of Catholicism, I’ll be discussing the unique calling of Shepherds and Servants in the church.
So there you have it.
- Shepherds & Servants
- Care for the Weak
These form a sort of reformed seven sacraments list, and each meets my four point criteria above. In the articles that follow, I want to discuss each in turn, especially the manner in which each brings us into the presence of Christ and represents a uniquely Christian point of view.