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Sometimes the question comes up in new members classes – what about baptism? Do you do that sort of thing here, and where, pray tell, is your baptismal swimming pool? Every once in awhile, like with this most recent class, we have a great discussion about communion – why we do what we do, how often we do it and why we take communion in so many different ways here. Sometimes these questions seem benign, like they’re supposed to be asked when you join a church so let’s just go through the motions. But more often than not they are born from a desire to reconcile past relationships with “church”, in whatever flavor that came, or, as is increasingly the case, from an ignorance of churchy stuff. So the question isn’t, “Do you do baptism”, as much as it is, “What is baptism, or communion?”
These are issues which, in the long tradition of the church, compose the collection of rituals and rites that are called sacraments, defined in this way – a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual reality, or the indwelling of divine grace, to be particular. In other words, the mark of God on our lives. We recognize two sacraments in the United Church of Christ – baptism and communion. There are more in the Christian tradition, like marriage and confession, confirmation, and what is often called “unction”, or the anointing of the sick or dying with oil. Those sacraments are recognized in other Christian traditions, but baptism and communion are the ones we have settled on in the UCC. However, just because we only recognize two official “sacraments” does not mean those are the only two things we consider sacramental.
The Book of Acts is an account, a history if you will, of an early movement of the church, or better yet, the followers of Jesus, the practitioners of “The Way” that was apparently being lead and taught by his earliest disciples. It is important to note that this is the account of one expression of early Christianity, not the only expression. It happens to be the one codified in our canon, so that gives it extra weight, but it was far from the only story out there in the first and second centuries after the first Easter about what it meant to follow, worship and structure your life around Jesus Christ. The time in which Acts was written was a time of great diversity and complexity, with all kinds of theology and images of Jesus floating around, and little apparent need to have a singular expression of what it meant to follow Jesus…except for a few details that seemed to be held in common.
In many early reference, from outside the Bible, we get commentary about Christian groups, all of whom seemed to set themselves against the empire in practical ways. They lived communally, they did not participate in the economy in the same ways that others did, they gave generously to those in need and they practiced a sort of first century “free health clinic” policy of being a place of healing and comfort for the sick. In short, as the camp hymn goes, Christians were known by their love.
In this oft quoted section of Acts, chapter 2, we see some other characteristics of this early movement. It’s not all political or social, there are spiritual practices here – the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…the breaking of bread and the prayers. These early churchers are also described like this – “All who believed were together and had all things in common…” Notice that it says that, “all who believed were together”, not “all believed together” as in they all agreed on everything. And then, of course, the most radical thing probably to all of us – they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
The actions of the early church as recorded in Acts amount to a protest. They were a protest of the system that was in place in that time, a economic, cultural, religious and social system that was hierarchical, with some on the top, which was seen as divinely ordered, and others on the bottom, which was also designated, the system said, by divinity. We could perhaps hear some echoes of this as we struggle to keep schools open and pass bills that cut healthcare for millions…or perhaps more directly as we sit in a system where more than half of all income is in the hands of 10% of citizens. There are similarities, but I don’t think we can hear this as a wooden directive to create a commune and start eating a lot more wheat germ. What it should say to us is that resistance is a part of our faith, perhaps a critical part of our faith. The question is – what are we resisting? And how?
Do we resist only in loud, angry marches or bitter social media posts? Do we get the right bumper stickers for our cars or wear really snarky t-shirts? Or can we resist, in fact, by shaping our own hearts…by deciding what we want the world to be like– peaceful, compassionate, hopeful, kind – and then be that, ourselves…however imperfectly we might pull that off.
The end of this passage says that, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The result of all of this sharing and gratitude, the fellowship and the sacraments is this Greek word sozo, which we get translated as “saved.” And this, of course, makes us think of a contract signed, where we agree to call Jesus, “Savior”, and he agrees to give us eternal life in some mansion on the sky. Only the word really describes being delivered, or rescued or healed…and how different is it when we say that all of this sacramental work is helping us to heal?
For we are engaged in sacramental work all the time, not just with water or the table. When we serve at meal at the Day Center, or tutor a child, or face some hard truths in a study on white privilege, we are being sacramental. When we stand up for fellow human beings, whether they are immigrants or Muslims, whether they have been “driving while black” or don’t seem to fit on that dang gender binary in the “right” way…when we stand up for them because they are human beings, we are living sacramentally. And that is the work that is ultimately healing us from the sins that keep us divided from one another, breaking down the hierarchies that we have established because we don’t see with open eyes and we don’t act with healthy hearts. And, the church ultimately reminds us, we must be delivered from that, rescued even, for I don’t think we can pull ourselves out of that on our own.
The two sacramental rituals we do recognize here in the United Church of Christ, baptism and communion, are mean to serve as foundations for a discipleship that finds us equally in awe of and fleeing from a God who wants us to be whole, sometimes despite any willingness. In our baptism, we are reminded that salvation has a necessary component of being “born again”, of waking up and then “staying woke”, of dying to some old way of seeing or being and birthing a new reality – which first must begin in our own hearts. In communion, this bread and wine, reminds us that the table is a place where we are welcome with all of our pre-existing conditions and that at this table we learn, as church together, over and over again, to put our elbows down, to scoot over and make room for the other who needs a seat at the table. Here we feed a hunger beyond our physical needs, a hunger for identity, for belonging, for justice and hope, for this meal is more than a memorial of Jesus, it is an announcement that he is alive in us and in the world, and that the kin-dom is still present if we will have the eyes to see it and that hands to make it. It is from these foundations – baptism and communion, rebirth and inclusion, we come together to remind ourselves of the values that set the stage for us a church, and where we make room for the indwelling of the Spirit which is always making all things new, including us.
We cannot expect a single ritual of water to magically transform our lives, nor can we ask a scrap of bread and a sip of wine, even once a month, to usher in the kin-dom of God…just as we cannot simply claim the title of Christian and expect that to make us one. It is these ritual reminders, these signs that seal in us our dedication to day by day sacramental living, the inward reality that feeds the outward sign, the sharing and caring and loving and living, the soul shaping and heart changing work of seeing beyond a single story that make us, over time, into people of the way…followers of Jesus…Christians.
May God bless us for this journey…beginning at the table.