I was eleven-years-old when I was baptized on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1977 at the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ. As soon as the sermon was over and the congregation began singing “Trust and Obey,” I stepped out into the aisle from the third row where my family always sat and made my way to the front. It was a short walk — like four steps. After the song was over, my dad told the church how proud he was of me and he took my confession.
“Allan, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”
“Yes, I do.”
We both walked behind the stage into a dressing room where I put on a weird little nightgown thing, my dad shoved me into the water, and I was baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When I came up out of the water, the church began singing “Happy, Happy, Happy.” We didn’t clap after baptisms back then, our congregation always sang this awful song. It’s a horrible song — I hope you don’t know it. As my dad and I were walking up the steps out of the water, he looked at me and asked, “How do you feel?”
I replied, “I feel perfect.”
And I did.
The following Sunday I took my first communion. And I felt like everybody was watching me. My mom and dad, my sisters and my grandmother on that third pew, my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us — it was a big deal. And when that tray came down the row, I pinched off the tiniest little bit of cracker that was humanly possible — I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know what I was doing — and I drank that little sip of grape juice. I kept my head down, didn’t make eye contact with anybody and thought about Jesus. Shhhhhhh. We’re thinking about Jesus.
And I felt like a Christian. I felt like I belonged. The Lord’s Supper is what you do when you’re a Christian. Every single Sunday. That’s why you go to church even when you’re out of town on vacation: so you can take communion. That’s why if you have to leave church early for work or a special event, you only leave after communion. In fact, communion is such a big deal, if you miss Sunday morning, we’ve left it prepared for you in a little side-room on Sunday night where you and four or five others can sit down and eat it while three deacons stand there and watch you.
But we never missed worship. Every time the doors were open — that was us. We were right there on that third pew worshiping. All five acts of worship: singing, praying, preaching, Lord’s Supper… and… announcements? I can’t remember. Do not forsake the assembly. It doesn’t matter if the Cowboys are in the Super Bowl or if CBS is showing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer back to back, we’re going to church.
Because that’s what Christians do. Those are the ordinances, the commands. Especially those big three: baptism, communion, and the worship assembly. We do those things. And we go to great lengths to make sure we do those things in the right way at the proper time using the correct words. And it didn’t take long for me to learn how to do exactly what we do.
But I’m not sure I ever seriously considered what God is doing when we are doing what he wants us to do. Where is God? How is he involved? What is God doing?
Oh, I suppose if you had asked me back then I would have come up with an answer.
What was God doing when you were baptized? Well, he was watching from above. And when I came up out of the water, he forgave all my sins and wrote my name into his book of life. He saved me. He checked the box next to my name. My obedience pleases God.
What’s God doing when you eat the Lord’s Supper? Well, he’s with us, he’s present in a vague and spiritual way. And he’s watching me. He’s happy that I’m thinking about his Son. My sincerity pleases God.
What about during worship? When Christians get together to sing and pray and read the Bible, where’s God then? Well, he’s listening to our praise, he’s soaking up the songs. He’s the audience of one. My performance pleases him.
We probably think individually about these three things: baptism, communion, and the assembly. I think that’s our tendency. This is about God and me. It’s personal. But they are all three actually communal in nature. They have more to do with the community. We also think and talk about these things primarily as commands we obey, ordinances we are obligated to fulfill. But they are all three more fundamentally about what God is doing. These are all communal moments, these all happen when we’re together. But, more than that, these are moments when God meets us, when he is especially present with us and works on us, changing us more into the image of Christ.
This Sunday our adult Bible classes at Central are launching into a thirteen-week series on these divine ordinances. What we’re trying to do as a church is move more toward viewing these three areas as encounters with God and less as things we’re just commanded to do. We want to participate in these things and experience these things more and more as means of grace, or avenues by which God meets us and blesses us with spiritual gifts. The theological term is sacrament or sacramental.
Now, the word “sacrament” can mess some of us up if we don’t slow down and talk about it. The word “sacrament” carries some baggage with some of us. We think it’s a Roman Catholic thing or it’s about magic words or secret powers. It doesn’t mean any of those things. But the term is vitally significant for our understanding of what’s happening during baptism, communion, and the assembly.
Because “ordinance” means we do something. “Sacrament” means God does something. “Sacrament” means God is at work.
We’ll define “sacrament” and flesh out the practical implications for us in this space tomorrow. Stay with me.