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Saturday, June 6, 2015

How to Get Yourself into Serious Trouble Regarding Sacraments

This particular post is being made for several reasons.  First, Brad made some important points in a comment on my post from Saturday, May 30, "What if Marriage Was a Sacrament?"  This is what he said:

"I agree with you that words matter. That's why I'm not sure "sacrament" is the best word to use for marriage. It clearly is sacramental. But traditionally we Protestants have understood that sacraments have three qualities: 1) they were instituted by Christ himself, 2) Christ commands them of his followers and 3) They become the occasion for an encounter with God, they are a means of immediate grace. Marriage fits the final characteristic and this is what we need to find a way to stress. Marriage isn't something we do, it is something God does. But I struggle with whether or not it fits the first two. Was marriage instituted by Christ? I suppose if we appeal to the economic operations of the Trinity we can make that argument. But typically we speak of sacraments being instituted by Christ during his earthly ministry. And marriage doesn't fit that. And I don't see how any argument can be made that Jesus commands his followers to marry. Some of them he even specifically calls not to marry. Perhaps these qualifiers (instituted during earthly ministry, commanded of his followers) are accretions to the concept of sacrament and we need to strip them away. But as long as they are associated with the word, we had probably better look for a better word to avoid connotations we don't mean to suggest."

The other reasons?  Well, they include things like, "I thought it was a brilliant idea to take on a research paper about sacraments, because it seemed like an easy topic at the time," and, "Wow!  I have been self identifying as a 'Sacramental Nazarene', but now that I've opened my mouth it is painfully clear to everyone that I don't actually understand the difference between a sacrament and what is sacramental."  Humility is important.  This week has been an education.  

It's been very helpful to me to look into the various ways in which different branches of the Church define "sacrament".  I am not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination, so if I say something here that doesn't add up, please, call me out.  But here is what I've found.

In the Roman Catholic Church, sacraments are, "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.  The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (Catechism, 1131).

If we go with this definition, I'm not sure a sacrament must have been instituted during Christ's earthly ministry, and I'm also not sure that every sacrament is explicitly commanded of every follower of Jesus.  Of course, in the Roman Catholic church it is absolutely true that every sacrament is not commanded of every follower, because no one can partake in both marriage and holy orders, which, in some ways, addresses the point above that Jesus did specifically call some followers not to marry, but I realize there are continuing issues with this line of thought, because it's not as if every single follower of Jesus in the Roman Catholic Church is also called to seek ordination.

I do think this begs the question, though, how do we determine which sacraments are necessary for which people?  This question is, perhaps, especially important in traditions where sacraments come with a promise of salvation.    

These thoughts from Excerpts from the Orthodox Church, are helpful:

"While all seven are true sacraments, they are not all of equal importance, but there is a certain 'hierarchy' among them. The Eucharist, for example, stands at the heart of all Christian life and experience in a way that the Anointing of the Sick does not. Among the seven, Baptism and the Eucharist occupy a special position: to use a phrase adopted by the joint Committee of Romanian and Anglican theologians at Bucharest in 1935, these two sacraments are 'pre-eminent among the divine mysteries'" (Kallistos).

I think it's OK if we want to go ahead and think in terms of seven sacraments, and I also think, more and more as time goes on, that we need to give those seven much more prominence in our lives, regardless of how we choose to define them.  But I do think we need to be careful with our definition of "sacrament", itself.  Since that can get tricky, it might possibly serve us well to think in terms of sacramental, instead.

But, what's the difference?

From what I can ascertain, after asking questions on FB groups and pestering friends all week long with messages,  the simplest comparison I can come up with came from Eric Frey at sacnaz (this is kind of funny, because I don't know him, yet he gets credit on this post even though I talked with all kinds of people who I do know, and their names are nowhere to be found). 
Sacrament: The means of grace, conveyed through a physical sign, instituted by Christ, accompanied by a scriptural promise of salvation.

Sacramental: a means of grace


Now it gets really interesting, because we have most Protestants holding to the two sacraments, but sometimes recognizing that there are other things that can be sacramental, including the other five Catholic sacraments.  But, when we dig a little deeper, even more things come into play as specifically sacramental.  Now we can have discussions about holy water, and blessings, and funerals.  Sometimes even icons and imagery enter into the picture, crosses and relics and rosaries.  And suddenly, it becomes about living sacramentally. 

I have to be honest, I think we've really limited the sacraments.  When I look at the seven, I can't get around thinking that some of them fit into even our limited Protestant definition better than we would like to admit.  Confession/Repentance?  I think that's pretty clearly instituted by Jesus and commanded of his followers as a means of grace.  And yet, we don't really do it all that well (maybe these are words for next Saturday).  Confirmation?  We might consider the parallels here to discipleship, and, quite frankly, when you look at the Catholic definition and the connection to the Holy Spirit, we might do well to remember our "distinctive doctrine of holiness" in the Church of the Nazarene, because I'm not sure the concept behind this is all that far removed from sanctification  (words for the Saturday after that).  For now, maybe I'd better quit while I'm ahead (or just a little bit behind), but I do intend to keep exploring the sacraments in the coming weeks.

But just one more thing.  In some of my discussions, this week, the question has been raised about the risk we take when we begin to see everything as sacramental.  I would venture to say this creates the same kind of conflict that I have observed when I refer to everything as sacred.  I really do think that God is working in and through all things, and certainly in partnership with humanity, to bring redemption to everything and everyone who can be redeemed.  This has left me wondering about how vitally important it is to remember that Christ has, indeed, called us all to some things.  I think, through the sacraments, and through the sacramentals, we are blessed to share a number of these things with one another, which is sort of ironic, because the sacraments are often referred to as very personal, and yet they draw us together, in community.  But I also think we would be wise to consider how we might live sacramentally in every moment, recognizing that God is at work even in the most mundane of circumstances.  It's worth thinking about.


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