what are the sacraments?
We in the church love to use churchy words. We use words like chancel, narthex, Gospels, and Trinity among others. These are not words that many of us will hear in the normal course of life (except maybe Trinity in reference to the University which Cindy and I attended). One more of those words is sacrament. While sacrament is a bit more familiar it is still probably a bit of a mystery, considering that each Christian denomination has a slightly different view of what it is, what it does and how many of them there are.
Let's begin with a basic churchy definition. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace based on a command of Jesus. While this definition might not seem all that helpful I believe it will be once we unpack it.
A sacrament is visible. In other words there is something tangible that we can see, touch or taste. Baptism (one of our two sacraments) has water that is clearly visible and is used in a way which is felt by the one being baptized. In the Lord's Supper (our other sacrament) we have bread and juice. We take hold of each and physically consume them. Therefore each of these is visible and physical.
A Sacrament is a visible sign. Here we are using the word sign in the normal sense of a sign. A sign points to something. A sign announces that there is a curve ahead, or that a particular business is located at a particular place. Both of our sacraments are signs that point to something important that God is doing. This means, and this is important, that the sacrament doesn't actually do anything (it is not magic or spiritual medicine) but points to a particular something that God is doing.
A sacrament is a visible sign that points to something that is invisible. The thing that God is doing to which the sacraments point is invisible. While over the next couple of weeks we will look more at the invisible thing to which each sacrament points, suffice it to say that we believe that just as God is at work in the world and in our lives in a general way there are specific moments when God does something powerfully out of the ordinary. And it is to those out of the ordinary invisible acts that the sacraments point.
A sacrament is a visible sign that points to an invisible grace. An easy way to understand grace is to think of it as a gift we are given that we have not earned or deserved. Grace can be seen as God's love for us which precedes our love for God. Grace can be seen as God's guiding, transforming and even disciplining work in our lives. Thus a sacrament is a visible action that points us to the loving, invisible, behind the scenes, out of the ordinary, unmerited, work that God is about in our lives.
A Sacrament is based on a command of Christ. Jesus commanded his disciples to go into the world baptizing those who believe…so we baptize. Jesus commanded his disciples to celebrate the Lord's Supper until he returned…so we celebrate the Lord's Supper. By understanding a sacrament to be something that comes from a command of Christ, we (meaning us Protestants) narrowed the field of sacraments from seven/ten to two. The Roman church has seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage, confession, ordination, last rites…or unction. The Orthodox churches add fasting, almsgiving and monasticism to that list of seven in order to have ten sacraments (or mysteries). While we consider each of their sacraments to be a means of experiencing the grace of God we do not affirm them as sacraments.
One last thought about sacraments. Many churches, though they baptize and participate in the Lord's Supper, call those actions ordinances rather than sacraments because they believe that baptism and the supper simply help people remember what Jesus commanded. While we do not believe that anything magical happens in the sacraments, we see them as particularly powerful means of God's grace entering our lives and thus use the term sacrament rather than ordinance.