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UNIT 8: THE SACRAMENTS AND HOLY BAPTISM

This Unit requires more reading than the others. Within your explorations please be sure to integrate the additional readings noted from other areas of this website; they are central to the understanding of these topics.

The Sacraments

      Every human community has visible signs of its beliefs, relationships, and special occasions. Signs of becoming a member, continuing actively as a member, as well ceremonies celebrating adulthood, marriage, and new leadership are ingredients of many cultures and organizations. In addition, some groups have ways of expressing sorrow and forgiveness, healing, and death. It is characteristically human to dramatize convictions, changes and special moments, whether it is a nation’s parade on a holiday, a school graduation, or the awarding of Nobel prizes. For most men and women it would be unthinkable to mark such events with a passive nod! The Christian Church is no exception.

      The Christian sacraments are traditionally understood as "outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." They are reliable signs and occasions of God’s gracious activity among us. They are transforming acts by which we enter the heartfelt testimony we hear and retell. “In the sacraments, therefore, the church enacts not merely its own word, but God’s Word.” (Norris, Understanding the Faith of the Church, p. 216) The sacraments are administered within the Church community; they are not rites to which all persons are automatically entitled. As the Rev. Professor Massey H. Shepherd, Jr. noted years ago (in “Sacraments,” A Handbook of Christian Theology, pp. 331ff.):

      Apart from the context of corporate church life, a sacrament is meaningless, if not, more extremely, a superstitious piece of magic. To be a Christian involves more than a personal faith in the redeeming* act of God and Christ. It demands an incorporation into the community where the effects of Christ’s redemption in reconciliation and charity may be actualized and nurtured. A sacrament cannot be performed by an individual by himself alone; it requires at least another party. Thus a sacrament is more than a visible token of God’s free favor and grace offered to one who accepts His redeeming love in faith and devotion. It is an instrument whereby the individual is made a member of a covenant-community and ordered by its disciplines and responsibilities. To say that any particular sacrament is necessary to salvation does not mean that God is tied and bound to bestow grace only by this means, but to affirm that in all normal circumstances an individual is made a partaker of Christ’s redemption by being related to others who share the same benefits. In the sacraments, therefore, both the personal and the social relationships of Christian salvation are publicly ratified, accepted, and communicated.

      [*Redeeming and redemption refer to the reality that human circumstances, often deathlike, are out of alignment with God’s purposes for creation and our lives; in Christ’s ministry we are offered the pathway to the abundant, liberated, reconciled life with God within the Covenant community of agape (love). There are many interpretations of redemption.]

      The Episcopal Church affirms two sacraments as instituted by Christ and as necessary to the life of a Christian: Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Five other sacramental rites evolved in the life of the early Church: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitence (sometimes referred to as penance), and unction (years ago in a limited way known as “the last rites”).

Grace

      What does "grace" mean? During the 1958-9 academic year at the Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, Visiting Lecturer Dr. Leonard Hodgson (Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford) commented: “We begin by repudiating all notions of grace which think of it as a something given by God to work mechanically, after the manner of a medicine given by a doctor to be taken three times a day after meals. We think of God’s grace after the analogy of that help which one can give to another in personal relationships, help which does not set aside or supersede a man’s own freedom but enables him to be more truly himself and more fully free: the sort of help which leads him to say with gratitude, ‘I could never have been what I am but for X.’”

      In the Bible, grace is synonymous with “favor,” “mercy,” “compassion,” “kindness” and “love.” Because of our human limitations, individuals are unable to establish truly personal, faithful relationships with God solely by their own efforts. God’s grace is extended to us that we might become more aligned with God’s purposes and to mature toward a fuller communion with the Creator and each other. Neither controlling nor coercing, God’s freely given grace enables, strengthens, and empowers. Recipients of grace remain free to respond or not; otherwise, God-given human freedom would be shackled.

Other theologians have commented on grace in these ways:

      "The term 'grace' has a long and complex history. .... Grace has... come to mean the will of God (which is also his love) regarded as active on behalf of and in (human beings)." [Doctrine in the Church of England]

      "Grace is God's personal attitude toward (humanity), His action and influence upon (us) ... The Bible is a record of the mighty acts of God's grace. This action of God is both for and within (us).'' [Mollegen]

      "(Grace) is the redemptive activity of divine love." (Watson)

      "...that word denotes one of two things. Either it means the active work of the Holy Spirit, enlivening people and helping them to grow into their identity in Christ; or else it means the results - what we call the fruits - in the lives of human beings, of what the Holy Spirit does. ... It signifies the way in which, as the Holy Spirit, he becomes the interior power through which people learn to know themselves in Christ and are strengthened to grow up into his life. ... Grace, then, is both the activity of the Holy Spirit and the effects of that activity (Rom. 5:5)...the results it produces in human lives. …. What grace is not, though, is a ‘something,’ a special kind of stuff or substance, which God confers on people.” (Norris)

      Grace is God's "loving-kindness" unearned by human beings and freely given by God. "...the Bible is the story of ... the grace of God. Without grace, there would never have been any chosen people, any story to tell at all.... In the New Testament...we find (grace) made manifest in the life and work of Jesus Christ." (Snaith)

      Unable because of human limitations to establish a truly innocent and personal relationship with God by one's own efforts, an individual forms a relationship with the Creator by means of God's inviting grace. This is not unlike a quite limited infant being loved by a parent, who initiates an outreach to the child with affectionate support and nurture. Such parental love, like God's grace, neither coerces nor controls or bargains with the child; instead, it enables, strengthens, and empowers. The recipient of grace remains free to respond faithfully or not. (Please read “Gifts” and “Satan” within the Worship Notes/Bible section of this website.)

      Interpreted in various ways are issues related to administering sacraments (such as baptism) and their effects on a person unable to comprehend the occasion (such as an infant) or upon a person without faith. Any explanation cannot presume to limit God’s activity in a human life, and all interpretations need to avoid a magical, wizard-like implantation of a spiritual vitamin within a person.

      We need to remind ourselves that just as one cannot precisely define that "chemistry" between two persons called "love," we cannot with scientific-like language define "grace" and specify precisely how and where it "works." No matter how hard we try to describe or analyze relationships, we always fall short of understanding fully what is happening; this limitation in our comprehension applies both to human relationships and relationships of grace between God and humanity. Degrees of ambiguity accompany most attempts to explain intimate relationships, whether human or divine.

      Under most circumstances preparation for participation in the sacraments is expected. At the very least the participants should understand the basic meaning of the Prayer Book words to be used.

      What follows in this paragraph is harsh, but valid. Too often, clergy are guilty of liturgical malpractice - by “selling” liturgical rites; - by cowering under pressures from influential individuals who demand “christenings,” confirmations, and weddings; - by trying to appear “successful” by means of reports of numbers/quantity of their liturgical victims; or - by trying to be nice/popular/“pastoral.” This is clearly sinful on the part of such clergy, and they try to excuse their wizardry by declaring that those involved receive God’s grace regardless of any preparations. This irresponsibility flirts with magical understandings of the sacraments and is often labeled pejoratively and rightly “cheap grace.” Recipients of such reckless generosity rarely have any significant commitment to the words muttered in Services, to the Church, and to the Covenant with God through Christ. Afterwards we wonder why we see in church only a minority of the people who amble through these rites-on-demand from the ecclesiastical public utility!

      The sacraments are precious gifts from the Creator that are to be cherished and respected. Their true meanings indicate God’s loving search for individuals and their graceful nurture in covenant life. Not to be idolized or trivialized, the sacraments are indispensable to the evolving journey of the people, the Christian Church.

Baptism

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      Baptism/Part One: Please read the selected chapters from Living Issues in Ethics. Return to the website’s home page; select “Textbooks.” If you don’t have it yet, you will need the Adobe Acrobat Reader which can be downloaded free. You may reach this source by clicking here: . After you have the reader downloaded on your computer’s hard drive, click on the title Living Issues in Ethics; the various sections and chapters will show. Read chapter 5 “Who Am I?” and chapter 6 “Love and Friendship.”

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      Baptism/Part Two: Please read the selected items from the Title section of “Reflections” (entered via the website’s home page):
“Am I A Somebody?”
“Eternal Life Now”
“Love Is…”
“Retirement and Identity”
“Summary of the Law”

     

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     Baptism/Part Three: The most important day in one’s life is the day of his/her baptism. On this day we are graced with a basic identity and purpose and welcomed into the community of Faith called the Church, the “Body of Christ.” We are baptized as Christians, not as Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, and so on. The realization of that identity as a unique child of God, a member of the Christian Church, will depend on the nurturing we receive.

     Legitimate differences remain among Christians as to the age at which baptism is to be administered, whether as an infant or as an adult. If as an infant or child, the child’s family with the broader church has the responsibility for the nurturing process. Sadly, this is seldom carried through.

     The practical benefits of baptism are stated or implied in the readings requested in Parts One and Two of this section. Briefly, each baptized person becomes a named child of God within the Church; his or her purpose in life is to love and be loved, that is, to live the Summary of the Law. This provides the basis or perspective for all of our roles and activities, our ethnic and national heritages, and who we see in a mirror. There will be no identity crises, major problems with self-esteem, or puzzlement to the purpose of one’s life, if baptism is one’s foundation.


To conclude this unit, please read the section below from “An Outline of the Faith.”


The Sacraments

Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Q. What is grace?
A. Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.

Q. What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel?
A. The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.

Holy Baptism

Q. What is Holy Baptism?
A. Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.

Q. What is the outward and visible sign in Baptism?
A. The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, in which the person is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.

Q. What is required of us at Baptism?
A. It is required that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Q. Why then are infants baptized?
A. Infants are baptized so that they can share citizenship in the Covenant, membership in Christ, and redemption by God.

Q. How are the promises for infants made and carried out?
A. Promises are made for them by their parents and sponsors, who guarantee that the infants will be brought up within the Church, to know Christ and be able to follow him.

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