Monday, November 05, 2007

More on the Sacramental Stream

Weeks ago, I began a little series explaining more about the church we're planting, and why we believe people will come and are coming to it. In Part One, I described it as a "three streams, one river" church, made up of the three streams of liturgical/sacramental tradition, evangelical, Bible-based teaching and discipleship, and freedom of the Spirit in worship. I've been exploring the least-familiar-to-most sacramental stream; Parts Two and Three discussed its emphasis on ritual and ceremony.

I mentioned that a visitor to our church plant emailed me in advance of her visit and shared: "I feel like the Episcopal churches here are dead but also that the non-denominational churches are missing the importance of the sacraments." She was one of four people in the same week who said to me, essentially, "We've crossed over a 'sacramental line' and now, we can't go back."

What did she mean, that the evangelical churches were missing the importance of the sacraments? In Part One I touched on the difference between the official church "Sacraments" and the adjective "sacramental," but now, let me illustrate the crossing of that sacramental line by contrasting views about Eucharist, or communion.

Most evangelical denominations hold a memorialist position on communion; that is, they believe that it is a remembrance of Christ's death, and no more. Sacramental churches believe, by contrast, that somehow the bread and wine become the spiritual food of Christ's body and blood. It is not a memorial service the priest invites us to, but a feast!

(This Wikipedia article summarizes various theological positions of sacramental churches. Some believe in varying degrees of a literal transformation, with detailed theological explanations for how and when that happens; Anglicans are less interested in the rational discussion, believing simply that something happens in the Eucharist service that is a mystery, and somehow ordinary bread and wine become containers of the "Real Presence" of Christ.)

The conventional definition of sacrament is "an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ."

Memorialists practice the outward sign, but don't realize or emphasize the inward spiritual grace that comes with it. So they usually decrease the practice to once a month or only once a quarter. They tend to place emphasis on searching one's heart for unconfessed sin right before "taking communion" rather than on the grace that they are receiving by it. (Even the verb choices are significant. Growing up in my Baptist church, we "took communion;" in liturgical churches, you simply "receive," often without a direct object.)

In a liturgical service, confession has its place before the Eucharist, but then we switch gears to a section of liturgy called the Great Thanksgiving. In it, we focus on what Christ did on the cross to cancel our sins and we ask God to "sanctify these gifts, to be for your people the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, the spiritual food of new and unending life in Christ."

We receive the bread and the wine with the words, "the body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation," reminding us again that Christ not only died once for us, but He continues to feed us with spiritual food. The emphasis is on what Christ did and continues to do for us.

See the difference it makes to believe that communion is more than a remembrance; it really is spiritual food? Food strengthens and sustains; it builds up the body. One is so thankful for food. That is why we call it Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving." When you believe that, you want Eucharist every Sunday! You know you need more than an intellectual feeding through the sermon; you need spiritual sustenance as well.

Not to say that you can't receive spiritual sustenance through the worship, the sermon, the prayers and the fellowship at a non-sacramental church; God feeds us all through them as well. But communion is like an extra helping (or two) of grace and spiritual strengthening!

So that's the sacramental line that once you've crossed, you can't go back. Because that sacramental understanding begins to pervade all elements of your worship--and life, not just communion...

More on that next time!


bethany said...

I love your explanation! It really was not only informative but inspirational. Thank you again for coming to see the play, it was really great having your support!


tonia said...

Thanks, Jeanne! Ive grown up on the memorial side of is really helpful to understand the other you know, I'm very drawn to it.

Lindsey @ Enjoythejourney said...

I thought of you today as I was driving around our (new) city and found an "orthodox anglican" church.

I have never heard or orthodox anglican! I figured you might be able to enlighten me??? :)