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Saturday, July 8, 2017

What Makes a Sacrament?

I had this great podcast interview, this morning, which will post tomorrow.  It’s the first in a series of podcasts covering various sacraments, and the truth is the conversation was so good that we only managed to cover about half of what we intended to talk about.  Less work for me, because that means one transcript is going to stretch for two episodes, but I did want to touch briefly on a foundational sacramental identity issue.  What makes a sacrament?

As Protestants, we insist on three qualities:

Dominical institution:  I actually really hate it when people use this phrase, and I’m about to tell you why (surprised much?).  I don’t like this phrase, because it’s not accessible.  I feel like people use this phrase, because they want to look really smart, and honestly… it’s so great when you know Latin.  I mean that.  There is absolutely no sarcasm here.  I promise.  I love language.  I’m going to learn Latin, too, someday.  But when you say this to the average person; it doesn’t make any sense.  Before we ever begin a conversation about the sacraments, we have lost the ear of the vast majority of people in the entire world.  So here’s the definition, friends: Dominical institution simply means that it is a direct command (and perhaps promise) of Jesus.  Look for the red words in Scripture.  You’ll find it.

Now, I was not even going here, but rabbit trails seem to be the story of my life, lately, and it’s all just coming out of my fingers onto this screen, so here we go…

Sacraments are too important to lose people because we’ve made them feel stupid.  And if you don’t think that’s a real thing, I have a story.  Several months ago, I sat down to dinner with a friend of mine.  We started to talk about life and theology and education, because… let’s be real… that’s mostly what I talk about.  As is often the case with conversations such as these, we began to muse over shared experience and mutual acquaintances in the world of theology, and I don’t know if it’s a curse or what, but more often than not these conversations lead to a single name of a shared friend, and everybody…  I mean everybody says, “Oh wow, I really want to meet him someday…” 

So I was just bracing for my typical response when his name came off her lips and she said, “Oh wow, he really made me feel stupid…”

I’m glad I had not yet taken a drink of my Coke, because I seriously would have spit it all over the restaurant!  This friend of mine—she’s really smart… really educated… top 8.9%.  If somebody made her feel stupid, there’s a problem, and it’s not with her.

And I’m so far down this rabbit trail; I think I fell in a hole, but the point is we have to be more conscientious than this.  The average adult in the United States has a 3rd-8th grade reading level.  If we’re making people with graduate level degrees feel stupid, what must we be doing to the general population?

Today was originally about confession, so I’m sorry.  I will use more accessible words.

Oh… goodness… sacraments…

So, the second qualification is that the sacrament must be a means of grace.  Nobody… and I mean nobody… should feel as dumb as me on this one, because I have asked a ridiculous number of questions most often phrased as, “What grace is this?”  That concept is a topic for another day… another blog… another podcast, but it matters deeply, because we have often assigned specific types of grace as worthy of sacramental value, and I don’t think we can ignore our human inclinations in this.  Most often, the grace imparted is salvific (leading to salvation) or communal in nature.  Sacraments tend to embody the grace of God that initiates, transforms, or redeems identity and community of some sort.  So, that’s what you’re looking for.

And third, the sacrament must have an outward sign.  This might be the most subjective of the sacramental attributes, and I have to be honest here; sacramental people (me included) can kind of be snobs about this.  So, if you’re going to fight for more than two sacraments in the Protestant Church or more than seven in the Catholic Church, just be ready… you might have to pay with your orthodoxy card (and your reputation… and the relationships you fought so hard to have, grace and all).  There are definitely some undeniable ones—the water of baptism, the bread and wine (body and blood) of the Eucharist, but there are others that are difficult to sell (I think I live to see another day as a Protestant… maybe).

God makes this grace available to everyone, but I’m afraid we might limit it with our human standards and insistences.  So maybe we could work together to stop that… or to change it?


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