Monday, 30 January 2012

For a Lent Course- the local church and the sacraments

Our churches are having a Lent Course on 'the local church' this year, and I have been asked to prepare the study material.

I may well have pitched it too high, but here is what I have done so far on 'the sacraments'.

The idea is that people should read through the material, including the Bible references and answer the questions themselves before they come to the group. Then at the group they discuss the questions set at the end.


4. The sacraments that bind us together

The Church of England includes in its definition of the church,
... the sacraments … duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. (Article XIX. Of the Church)
Before the Reformation in the 16th century, people spoke of there being seven sacraments. However, the Thirty-nine Articles (following the Protestant tradition) observe that,
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God. (Article XXV, ‘Of the Sacraments’)
Our focus here will therefore will be on those things properly called sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Background history
The Lord’s Supper (also known as Holy Communion and the Eucharist), has been the subject of much controversy in church history.

According to some, including the Roman Catholic church today, the heart of the rite is when the priest offers a sacrifice (the ‘host’, from a Latin word meaning ‘victim’) on an altar.

The Protestant Reformers all agreed this was wrong. So Article XXXI, ‘Of the One Oblation of Christ Finished on the Cross’ robustly declares that …
… the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits. 
But there the agreement ended. Some, like Martin Luther, held that Christ’s body and blood really are present in the bread and wine. Others, like Huldrych Zwingli, fiercely denied this, and saw the Lord’s Supper as just an occasion for remembering Jesus’ death.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the English Reformation, eventually wrote a new service of  the Lord’s Supper which made clear that there was no sacrifice taking place. Furthermore, he denied that Christ’s actual body was present in the bread and wine — the so-called ‘elements’. (For more background, read the Book of Common Prayer Communion service, and especially the notes in small print at the end.)

But what is the biblical background and understanding of the Lord’s Supper?

The Last Supper
Read Luke 22:14-20. Here we see that the ‘last supper’ of Jesus with his disciples was celebrated as a Passover meal — a traditional annual festival with a set routine. But Jesus’ words regarding the bread and wine gave it a new meaning:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20)
The Blood of the Old Covenant
Read Exodus 24:1-11. The setting is at Mt Sinai, where Moses has brought the people after their ‘exodus’ from Egypt.

The annual Passover meal was a commemoration of their last night of captivity in Egypt. During that night the Israelites were spared (‘passed over’) when God judged the Egyptians, because the blood of sacrificial lambs was painted over the doorways of their houses.

Three months later, at Mt Sinai, Moses conducted a covenant ceremony and sprinkled the people with “the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you” (24:8) — blood from fresh sacrifices of peace offerings (24:5).

After that, Moses and Aaron and the leaders of Israel went up Mt Sinai and ate and drank in God’s presence (24:11)

•    How do Jesus’ words at the Last Supper echo Moses’ words to the people at Mt Sinai?
•    How else might we say the Last Supper is like the experience of the Israelites at Mt Sinai?
• How does the Last Supper draw together elements of both the Passover and the covenant at Sinai?

The Lord’s Supper and the body of Christ
The tradition of eating the Lord’s Supper together began early in the life of the church (perhaps even in Acts 2:40). At Corinth, however, things had gone wrong. Nevertheless, we learn very important lessons from Paul’s comments.

Read 1 Corinthians 11:20-34.

•    What was the first thing the Corinthians were doing wrong (see v 21)?
•    Why was this wrong (hint: think about Christians who had come for the Supper from other households)?

Notice, their commemoration of ‘the Lord’s Supper’ was obviously quite different from what we are used to, involving a full-blown meal. However, they still centred on the same words and actions of Jesus (see vv 23-25).

• What did they actually do with the bread and wine (v 26)?
• What should we conclude are the important words and actions at the Lord’s Supper?

The body of Christ and its members
But there is something else about the Lord’s Supper that is immensely important, yet which we often overlook.

In v 29 Paul gives this solemn warning:
For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Before deciding what he means by “recognizing the body of the Lord”, read 1 Corinthians 10:15-17.

• What, according to v 15 in this passage, are the “many” people who make up the church?
• How is this idea symbolized in the Lord’s Supper?

Now read 1 Corinthians 12:13-27.

• Into what have we been baptized into by one Spirit?
• According to vv 14-19, it is very important that the body is made up of many parts. Nevertheless, what does v 20 say?
• Because of what is said in v 20, what can the ‘eye’ not say, or the ‘head’ not say?
• What point is Paul making here about the church?
• According to vv 22-24, how should we treat the ‘weaker’, ‘less presentable’ parts of the body?
• What is God’s attitude to the ‘less presentable’ parts of our own bodies (v 24)? What should be our attitude to the parts of the body of Christ that society would hold in less honour?

Now that we have looked at chapter 12, we can look back again to chapter 11.

• What does Paul mean in chapter 11 when he talks about “the body of the Lord” in v 29?
• How were people not recognizing the body of the Lord in the way they acted at the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord’s Supper is meant to be a practical demonstration and reminder of our belonging to Christ’s body and therefore of our responsibilities to one another in the church. The Christian believer is not an isolated individual standing in a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but a connected part of the Christ’s body in a collective relationship with him and with others:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Cor 12:27)
Baptized into Christ
Our unity with Christ is also important to our understanding of the sacrament of baptism.

•    According to 1 Corinthians 12:13, what happened to us in baptism (v 13)?
•    What have we all been given to drink (v 13)? How is this symbolized in the Lord’s Supper?

The idea of being baptized into Christ is important for our understanding of salvation. Through baptism, what is true for Christ in his body becomes true for us. Read Romans 6:3-4.

•     What has happened to Christ, and what has happened to those who have been baptized into him?

The Thirty-nine Articles have this to say about baptism:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. (Article XXVII, ‘Of Baptism’)
The key phrase here is “they that receive Baptism rightly”. To receive baptism rightly, it must be joined with faith. Therefore Paul warns against baptism without faith, just as he warns against participating in the Lord’s Supper without faith. Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-11.

•    What happened to most of those who were “baptized into Moses” and ate and drank the “spiritual” food and drink? Why was this their fate?
•    What is the lesson for those of us who are baptized into Christ and participate in the Lord’s Supper?

For group discussion
1.    What things were not clear to you from your personal study?
2.    What questions were raised by your studies?
3.    When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in our churches, how well does what we do ‘proclaim the Lord’s death’?
4.    How well does it express the idea that the church is the body of Christ where we all belong to him and to one another?
5.    How might we do things better?
6.    How does being “baptized into Christ” affect the way we think about Christ dying ‘in our place’ on the cross?
7.     Why is the idea of the church as Christ’s body so important to our understanding of the sacraments of the gospel?

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  1. If such a thing were to be attempted at our church, I would guess that it would boil down to the old "when two or three are gathered together."

    I am afraid most want to be spoon fed and do not want to actually pick up the spoon.

  2. Why not use the Catechism? Geared to the laity ( the Articles after all were always for the clergy) It served us well until at least the Second World War. ( When did clergy cease using it as the basis of confirmation classes?) My father ( born 1912) was pretty untheological but he certainly knew a sacrament was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.I gather + Chelmsford has been asked by the House of Bishops to look into the question of catechesis.

  3. Perry, thanks for your comments. I'm all for the catechism, but the course is on the local church, so the sacraments are just one part of it.

    Interesting point about +Chelmsford.

  4. Bishop Dominic Stockford (Evangelical Connexion)31 January 2012 at 18:05

    Number 1. Please send me a copy when you've finished it - it looks very useable and helpful. Although, you are right, it might be challenging!

    Number 2. (asked with my tongue firmly in my cheek...)
    Do you think that you will get past the discussion about the 39 Articles and their continuing truth for the CofE today (or otherwise)?

  5. "Before the Reformation in the 16th century, people spoke of there being seven sacraments. However, the Thirty-nine Articles (following the Protestant tradition) observe that,..."

    I suggest that the Anglican reformers would have seen themselves as following the true catholic tradition, i.e. as being in conformity with the Church from time immemorial. In 1540, Cranmer and the senior bishops of the Church of England wrote in answer to Henry VIII's 'seventeen questions':

    "I know no cause why this word 'sacrament' should be attributed to the seven only: For the old authors never prescribe any certain number of sacraments, nor in all their books I never read these two words joined together: septum sacramentum ['seven sacraments'] ... The determinate number of seven sacraments is no doctrine of the Scripture, nor of the old authors".

    For Cranmer, steeped as he was in medieval theology, the first place to look to establish a doctrine of the church was Scripture; the next was the Church Fathers. Being unable to find any mention of seven sacraments in either source [it seems to have been invented by Peter Lombard in the 12th century] he declined to hold it as a necessary doctrine for the Church.

  6. Ack! "septem" not "septum" - my apologies for the typo...

  7. "Furthermore, [Cranmer] denied that Christ’s actual body was present in the bread and wine — the so-called ‘elements’."

    True. The Anglican reformers held to the doctrine which was later espoused in the "Black Rubric", that Christ's corporal or physical body is found only in heaven. Yet they were not mere memorialists, as shown by the Exhortation in the Communion Service:

    "For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily."

    'Spiritually' is no less real than 'physically'; and we spiritually eat Christ's body during communion, if we do so by faith. Article XXVIII makes a similar point when it says that "The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner".