The word "Sacrament" describes a ritual performed in the Christian Church that has a deep spiritual significance. However, this concept has been very divisive and controversial throughout Christian history, and the different ways these are practiced have often been reasons for denominations and movements to split.
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have many sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, The Eucharist (Communion), Penance, Anointing the Sick, Ordination, and Matrimony (Marriage). Protestants have significantly fewer - only two, Baptism, and Communion. However, some Christian groups may stay away from the language of "sacrament" altogether.
For some people, these distinctions may seem minor, but they are important for understanding our spiritual practices and beliefs. And their effects have been deeply felt throughout history. We will focus on the two rituals that Protestants often identify as "sacraments" and look at the different ways the relevant passages of scripture have been interpreted in order to understand why these perspectives matter.
The most commonly emphasized issue here is Communion - also known as The Lord's Supper or The Eucharist. This ritual is so important that many Christians will simply say "The Sacrament" in reference to it. This is the ordinance where Christians eat the bread & wine in remembrance of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.
For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord’s death until he comes again. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NLT)
The Lord's supper is an amazing ceremony for many reasons, just on the basis of this passage. The fact that it is part of a meal that symbolizes death reminds us of another ceremony in the Bible: Passover. In fact, Jesus and his disciples had the first Communion service during the Jewish festival of Passover. This feast was established first in the Exodus, when God set his people free from slavery in Egypt. At that time, the angel of death was coming for everyone dwelling in the land, and only those who prepared a meal of a young lamb or goat and who painted over their doorpost with its blood would be passed over by the angel of death. Jesus is drawing a parallel between that passover lamb and his own death.
So Jesus' body being broken is a fulfillment of the Passover lamb being sacrificed, and his blood directly corresponds to the blood that the Israelite's painted over their doorposts in order to save them from the power of death.
Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 11 that when we celebrate communion, we are "announcing the Lord's death until he comes again." This ceremony also points forward to the final fulfillment of God's kingdom, when Jesus will return and invite us into an even greater feast and celebration (Revelation 19:6-9).
The next most important ceremony to examine is baptism. We first seeing people being baptized by John, Jesus' cousin. When we meet him, he is baptizing people in the Jordan River. This location would have had great significance for Jewish people: during the time of Joshua, the Israelites who had escaped from Egypt crossed the Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land that would be their new home. Passing through the Jordan river, to Jewish people, was a symbol of entering into God's promises, and leaving behind being enslaved and lost.
Jesus was baptized in this way to show that he was joining and leading his people into God's promises and to fulfill "all that God requires." But he also added to the meaning of baptism by connecting it to his death and resurrection. "Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Matthew 20:22 ESV) Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection as a kind of baptism. Paul makes this clearer later on, explaining that Christians are baptized into Christ's death and raised from the waters into the power of Jesus' resurrection life.
Conflict over these ordinances is common. Some people believe that the bread and wine of communion actually transform into the physical body and blood of Jesus when they are blessed during the communion service. For others, the body and blood of Jesus are "spiritually" present in those food elements, and still for others (including Seventh-day Adventists), the communion elements are symbolic of Christ's death only. To participate in communion is to affirm one's faith in Christ's death and to be reminded that we can receive Christ's sacrifice into our own self as a gift of God's grace.
Baptism is also sometimes complicated. While the Bible only shows us adults being baptized as a conscious choice combined with repentance, some denominations believe that the mandate to baptize "all nations" (Matthew 28:19) must include babies. For some, baptism actually saves people and washes away their sins, and so failing to baptize an infant is dangerous and irresponsible. For others, baptism symbolizes a conversion experience which must be undergone consciously, and so is only reserved for people old enough to choose Jesus. Because we receive new life from Christ by faith, we must be able to exercise faith before being baptized.
One thing must be said, however. Both baptism and communion are important rituals that have significance in Christian spirituality, and it is important not to mix those up. There are some Christians who believe that if they have sinned, stumbled in their faith, or otherwise wandered away from the right path, that they should be re-baptized. But re-baptism is never presented in the Bible as an option, because baptism is connected to Christ's death and resurrection, which are once and for all.
People may have failed to realize that there is already a ritual for people who feel they need to renew their commitment to Christ when they have gone astray - and that ceremony is communion. Baptism marks the start of new life in the power of Christ's resurrection, while communion serves as a checkpoint along the way - reminding us that we belong to Christ, reaffirming his commitment to us, and reconnecting us to the source of our spiritual strength, which is faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
While the Bible is generally clear on how these rituals are to be carried out, these issues are still complex and can be confusing for many people because of cultural and historical norms. Getting back to the text of the Bible can help us understand these things clearly.
Read 1 Corinthians 11:20-34. What criticism did Paul have for the Corinthian believers, and what warnings did he give them? What seemed to be the problem they were having in the way they celebrated communion.
Read 1 Peter 3:21. How does Peter say baptism saves us? Compare this with what Paul says in Romans 6:1-11. Does it seem like baptism actually causes us to be saved, or is it a symbolic representation of how God has saved us? Give reasons for your answer.
Do you think that people who understand these rituals in different ways can or cannot worship with each other? Why or why not?
Before Jesus instituted The Lord's Supper he also washed his disciples' feet to demonstrate how to be humble and live as a servant to others (John 13:1-17). Today, Seventh-day Adventists include a foot washing ceremony as part of their communion celebration. Read through John 13:1-17. Do you think Jesus meant for the foot washing ceremony to be part of the communion service every time, or is it an instruction for us to humble ourselves and serve others in many ways? Give reasons for your answer.
Many have noted that The Lord's Supper is closely related to the Jewish celebration of Passover. Read through Luke 22:7-20 and Exodus 12:1-30 and then watch this helpful video from the Bible project. What connections do you see between Passover and the way Jesus introduced The Lord's supper?
- Watch this comical video by The Lutheran Satire to see a depiction of the disagreements between the Protestant Reformers on the meaning of The Lord's Supper. Note that this is coming from a Lutheran perspective. What do you notice about the difference between Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin in this video? Which ones are closer and which are further from the Catholic position?
- Have you ever been baptized, or participated in communion? If so, what was the experience like the first time you had communion, or when you were baptized? If not, would you consider getting baptized?