What (if anything) is special about the sacraments? [Questioning faith #25]

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2023

Probably the places in Christianity where the “sacred” and the “mundane” intersect the most directly are the churches’ sacramental rituals, particularly the observance of communion. Views range from the Catholic notion of transubstantiation, where the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus—and where the actual attainment of salvation depends on one’s participation in (and belief in) the miracle of the Eucharist, to some “low church” views wherein the communion ritual is strictly mundane and symbolic. Even more extreme is the Quaker understanding where there is no communion ritual at all.

As one whose views are decidedly low church, I have not experienced the communion ritual as being very important or meaningful. However, I have thought about it quite a bit and have found my general idealism about the importance of the way of Jesus to be something that informs my views of the sacraments (in this post I will only reflect on communion and will not address the practice of baptism).

I do feel reluctant to take up the issue of communion. It’s not so much that I have personally had negative experiences with communion—actually my experiences have mostly been positive. But I do know people who have had hard experiences: the denial of participation in the Lord’s Supper for my friend’s father back in the 1930s for owning life insurance, a trauma that still haunt her; the gay man who was refused communion when he returned to his home congregation hoping to rebuild a sense of connection; the teen-ager who was told she was too young to take communion, making her feel like a second-class Christian even though she deeply desired to follow Jesus….These exclusions have bothered me.

Various practices

As I reflect on communion, I find it helpful (though also troubling and confusing) to think about what this ritual symbolizes. It seems to me that the meaning of communion varies according to what we think lay behind the service. What do these acts symbolize for us? Well, lots of different things at different times. For example:

Back in the late 1970s, my wife Kathleen and I were part of a small non-denominational church. We took communion every week—in wildly varying ways. Whoever wanted to could lead the service. One Sunday we might have saltine crackers and cool aid. The next would be grape juice and bread. And every once in a while, this one guy would try to get us to use regular wine—even though about half the people in the church were teetotalers! Communion often symbolized people’s joy and enthusiasm in knowing Jesus, and in being with others who shared those feelings. Everyone was welcome; I don’t think any of us had a very sophisticated theology of the sacraments—to say the least. We didn’t have a particular formula we felt we needed to follow. We had no desire to make communion a sacrament that required a priest to legitimate it. Rarely, if ever, did we talk about anything happening to the elements—they were bread (or crackers) and juice, that’s all. What mattered was that they provided an occasion for us to thank Jesus for saving us through his sacrificial death—and usually, in some sense, to express our commitment to follow him.

A second example would be from around the same time. Kathleen and I often would go to Mass with her widowed Roman Catholic grandmother. Gramma loved for us to take communion with her, even though she knew we weren’t Catholics. She was sure the priests wouldn’t mind. To her, our sharing in the Mass with her was a familial affirmation of her faith (the rest of the family was not Catholic). For Kathleen and me, the Mass was meaningful partly because of the connection with Gramma, partly because we liked the content of the liturgy, partly because we were ecumenical in spirit and liked sharing this ritual with fellow Christians from a tradition different than ours. However, as I learned more about Catholic theology, I realized that according to Catholic teaching, we were not legitimate participants. I found this offensive and eventually began to decline to go forward to take the elements.

When my parents retired and moved to a new community, they now had a Lutheran church to attend. Kathleen and I went along the first Sunday they were there. This was the first time in 40 years my dad had a chance to be part of the kind of church he grew up in. When it came time for communion Kathleen and I hopped up and partook, even though the pastor said it was only for people who believed in the “real presence.” But my parents stayed seated. I found out later that in the church where my dad grew up, communion was only for church members. He didn’t think he should take communion in this church until he joined. I felt that part of what was symbolized both by the pastor’s statement and, even more, by my dad’s views, was that communion could represent the church as a kind of closed club—only if you believe in the right thing, or if you have a certain kind of congregational membership can you take part.

As a final example, I noticed a letter several years ago in a Mennonite periodical from a seminary professor arguing against an essay that urged opening communion to anyone who is thirsting for God. To open communion in this way, so that we “open the breaking of bread to people who have not made the covenant with Jesus,” is to jeopardize our understanding of the church according to this professor. Church, it would appear, is a place where it is important to make clear distinctions between who belongs or not. The symbolism seems to be, in part, that communion is one place where we must clearly draw lines between in and out.

What do the various practices mean?

From these examples, I mostly perceive a sense of communion as a boundary marker, a way to make distinctions between worthy participants and those who, due to theology, congregational membership, or some other factor, are not worthy to partake. The one counter example would be the chaotic practices of my old house church. That congregation took communion very seriously, practicing it every week, but as an activity that symbolized the wonders of the merciful salvation God makes available to everyone.

However, another element of communion symbolism comes to mind when I think of a good friend of mine who models faithfulness to Jesus’s gospel of peace. This friend works hard, for justice and reconciliation both inside and outside the church. He has put his very life on the line—in fact, he was nearly killed while witnessing for peace in Iraq. He also put his reputation and ministerial status on the line by welcoming sexual minorities to his congregation.

For my friend, sharing in communion is extraordinarily important as a source of spiritual sustenance. While not formally a Roman Catholic, he feels strongly drawn to Catholic sacramental theology. For him, communion symbolizes solidarity with other peacemaking Christians, an identification with the long Christian tradition, and his receptivity to the Spirit’s nourishment through the bread and wine. I know other Christians who share my friend’s convictions about peacemaking and his experience of the depth of meaning in the communion service. So, I would not want to try to drive a wedge between sacramental practices and costly discipleship—even though I am suspicious of the sacramental tradition for tending to emphasize external churchly ritual over actual deeds of justice and compassion. These issues keep getting more complicated for me, though, as I reflect more on the symbolism of communion.

The prophetic concern

A biblical passage that touches on my concerns as I reflect theologically on communion comes from the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of wellbeing of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

The book of Amos as a whole focuses on the spiritual character of Israel. This people had been formed by God for the purposes of living faithfully to the message of Torah. Amos understood Torah to reflect God’s concern for justice and equity among all the people of the community. Community rituals were meant to encourage this justice and equity. Instead, the rituals had been delinked from the ethical core of Torah. The rituals themselves became an occasion for sin. They were not an expression of faithfulness to God but actually expressed the opposite—disregard to the core message of God’s will as found in Torah.

Here we have people who share in religious rituals while being blind to profound social injustice. The rituals had become ends in themselves: go to services, get blessed, and you are set. God is in the holy sanctuary; God’s presence is mediated through the religious leader. The only demand on the believer is to show up, go through the ceremonies, and go on with life as if God’s commands for social justice are optional. Virtually any ritual runs the risk of evolving into the kind of approach that Amos spoke against. When faithfulness can be equated with simply sharing in an external ritual, ethical practices easily become marginalized, secondary, and optional. Only in this way could we have the ongoing repetition of the practices Amos condemns—people of faith attending services while also participating in unjust social practices.

Communion as welcome

Let me mention one more symbolic expression of communion, described in the book Take This Bread by Sara Miles. Miles grew up an atheist. She cared deeply for justice in the world, devoting years of her life to working in Central America. She eventually ended up in San Francisco, a bit burnt out from her work. One Sunday, she found herself attending an Episcopalian worship service. Miles went simply to watch, not even sure what had drawn her to attend. Then in the middle of the service, when the priest announced, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” she found herself caught up in the movement forward and took the bread and wine.

Miles was suffering in many ways at this time. Her father had just died unexpectedly. The father of her daughter had separated from her. She carried the pain of her experience in Central America. Taking the bread and wine seemed to speak to her need, though she didn’t know how that could be. She remained skeptical but couldn’t stop going back to church and accepting the invitation to Jesus’s table. About the time she realized she had become a Christian, an opportunity arose for her to begin a food pantry at this church. So, as she grew in her faith and her understanding of what it meant to share at Jesus’s table, she found herself sharing food with others who also were hungry, as she had been, though in a more physical sense.

Ultimately, Miles links these two experiences closely together. Jesus’s table symbolized by the communion service at Sunday worship complements Jesus’s table symbolized by sharing with hungry people at Friday food pantry. Both express God’s welcome to all who hunger for spiritual wholeness and to all who simply hunger for food. She found inspiration in stories such as Jesus feeding the 5,000, breaking bread and sharing it indiscriminately with all who were hungry for physical food. Typically, sacramentally oriented Christians do not view this story as a precursor to the communion service. After all, Jesus shared indiscriminately and did not limit the “elements” to believers. In Miles’s view, though, the key points of continuity between Jesus’s sharing food and her experience of coming to his table at communion could be seen in Jesus’s compassionate response in providing nourishment in face of people’s hunger and his blessing the “elements” before sharing them with those in need. Miles also drew inspiration from when Jesus sits down for table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners and announced that his message of healing was for all who needed their brokenness bound up.

Jesus provides a model for a celebration that includes at its heart sharing with people in need and welcoming “sinners” (rather than excluding them). The food that is blessed and shared meets people’s physical needs while also symbolizing God’s welcome and promise to heal their souls.

Sorting through the symbols

So where does this cacophony of symbols leave us? Communion can symbolize God’s mercy, God’s empowerment for peacemaking, communities of generosity and support. Communion can also symbolize boundary lines between insiders and outsiders; communion can symbolize human efforts to find assurance of God being on our side.

Let me suggest this: No human ritual is in and of itself sacred. God is not to be evoked mechanistically, through the performance of some specific ritual that guarantees God’s presence when the correct words are recited, and the appropriately credentialed leaders officiate. We could say, instead, that rituals may provide a context to be encouraged to love. We best see our practices of communion as continuing in the line of the biblical practices of keeping Torah, especially keeping the Sabbath. Jesus gave us definitive guidance when he asserted that human beings are not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for human beings.

The purpose of the Sabbath from the start was to serve human wellbeing, not to be ritual that works as an end in itself. Sabbath observance began, according to the story, as a political statement: the Hebrews were free from slavery. After their liberation, they were to live as free people. To symbolize this freedom, they were to keep the Sabbath—a time for rest, communal fellowship, and worship of God. The on-going practice of Sabbath observance meant to remind the people of God’s mercy and of God’s radical transformation of their social lives.

We may say the same about communion. Certainly, for Christians, as well as for Jews, the radical memory of God’s liberation in the exodus and creating the community of God’s people as a light to the nations remains central. Complementing the memory of the exodus, Christians also point to the liberation effected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—liberation memorialized in the communion service. So, I do not believe we should focus on communion as the ritualistic re-enactment of Jesus’ death as a necessary sacrifice that brings about salvation by enabling God to offer forgiveness in a way God could not before. Rather, the Lord’s Supper may better be linked with the liberation Jesus himself evoked when he talked about his impending death as a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “Ransom” was used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the liberation of God’s people (see Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:21-23).

Communion, as with Sabbath observance and Torah in general, best serves its purpose when it is understood as a human response to God’s mercy. This response, like all life-fostering ritual, helps make concrete the experience of healing that God offers. This evocation of God’s healing mercy is why we do well to hold the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes and sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners together with the story of his sharing his “last supper” with his disciples.

Evoking God’s presence in service of love

I understand “sacrament” to refer to some act that makes us aware of God’s presence in ways that serve our call to love. Maybe we could say that to live “sacramentally” is not so much about constantly sharing in official church rituals. Surely such rituals do have the potential to heighten our awareness of God’s presence when practiced with care. More so, though, living sacramentally has to do with openness to perceiving God in all our social interactions. If we use as our criterion for evaluating the validity of any particular sacrament that it evoke God’s presence, we will embrace all acts that bring healing, reconciliation, renewed awareness of God, and love of neighbor as, in a meaningful sense, “sacramental.” Religious rituals can and do evoke God’s presence in these ways—and at times they do not.

When we think about sacraments as if Jesus matters, we will not privilege any particular rituals as “objectively” evoking God’s presence simply because they are authorized by church hierarchies or because they follow certain prescribed formulae. All rituals and all other attempts to evoke God’s presence face the same test. Do they help us love God and neighbor? Do they foster healing and reconciliation? Do they empower us to follow in Jesus’s way? At times formal Christian rituals (the traditional “sacraments”) do pass this test—and at times they do not. Our challenge is always to hold together the life-giving elements with the practice of ritual.

Sacramental theology as if Jesus matters will refuse to assume that God’s “real presence” always happens in the formal communion service. It will remember the prophetic critique of Amos and others that remind us that formal religiosity without justice is an affront to God. Likewise, sacramental theology as if Jesus matters will refuse to delegate informal sharing of cups of cold water to less than sacramental status. If acts evoke God’s presence, they are sacramental. As creatures who do rituals, we gain encouragement and a sense of coherence in our lives when we do have practices that concretely remind us of our convictions, our values, our sense of solidarity with one another, and our continuity with those who have gone before us. One such practice is the communion service. Christians do well to attend to this service, to be self-conscious about its meaning and its importance—and about its dangers.

Questioning Faith blog series

5 thoughts on “What (if anything) is special about the sacraments? [Questioning faith #25]

  1. “When faithfulness can be equated with simply sharing in an external ritual, ethical practices easily become marginalized, secondary, and optional. Only in this way could we have the ongoing repetition of the practices Amos condemns—people of faith attending services while also participating in unjust social practices.”
    This pretty much sums up my whole issue with the Western Church. It seems to have become nothing more than a cultural symbol, an exclusive club. Fire insurance.
    Having been raised in the Episcopal Church, now attending a small Mennonite Church, I strongly believe in the sacraments, but have found few churches that practice with any real sincerity.

    1. I strongly support open communion. And sacraments mean nothing if they are only a formula for self-gratification, just as they mean nothing if there is no understanding of them.

  2. You mention so many varied practices. How about also taking note of the Love Feast as the Church of the Brethren understand it. Never participated myself, but read about it and it makes sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s