Okay, I know there are some people who think that I am out of my crazy skull talking about baptism and communion as things that actually shape a person’s worldview as if they play a central role in a Christian’s life. Are they really that important? The short answer to that is “yes”. Here is the longer answer, and I will frame it by asking two questions: what place do the sacraments (or ordinances in non-Reformed theology) have in the Christian life? and, why do we even need them since we have the preaching of the Word?
We get something in the sacraments that we don’t get by sermons alone. The sheer physical presence of the elements of water, bread, and wine engages the whole person in sight, touch, and smell and not just through an engagement with the mind through the ears. The sacraments present the good news of Jesus to us, along with the Word, more clearly. Perhaps all of us have had the experience of receiving an e-mail with an attachment we cannot open. We may gain a certain amount of knowledge and understanding from the e-mail itself, but without the attachment the communication is insufficient and lacking. Holy communion and baptism are the attachments opened to us revealing the presence of Jesus among his people and showing us the incredible union we have with God through Christ’s redemptive events.
The big deal here is that we need more than just talk in communication of the gospel. Just as lovers need more than just the words “I love you” (sermon), they need an embrace, a kiss, some action that reveals and seals the words as real. This is the role of the sacraments in the life of faith, that they assure us, in a material way, of the great love shown to us in Christ (VanderZee, Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, pp.191-2). They lift us to heaven where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and help us to know the reality of grace. The Belgic Confession says this of what we are speaking:
“We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, had ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.”
It is a misguided belief that the only things believers need is a lively sermon and some good praise choruses for their worship experience. Two thousand years of church history testifies to the importance of the sacraments in the life of Christians. We push them to the periphery at our own peril. They are meant to seal the message of union with Christ to us with greater certainty. When they are practiced with the attention they deserve, along with the preaching of the Word, it provides a solid foundation from which to construct a decidedly Christian world and life view of human need and divine redemption. So, how do you view your life and the world around us?
One of the great tasks of the church, and a vital pursuit for any believing college student, is to continually come in line with a Christian world and life view. Our postmodern and post-Christian society works against becoming spiritually formed according to biblical categories. The university, as important as it is, can be the vehicle of promoting a rival worldview to Christianity. More than one professor in my undergraduate experience told me that they enjoyed shocking freshman students into thinking in more secular terms and away from their “narrow” thinking about God and the church. Although that has been a few years ago, I continually speak with students who feel like they are swimming upstream of the prevailing attitudes on reality in our society and university culture. One of the most significant means that the church can help inform students and promote a Christian worldview is through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Western society, and sometimes even the church, tends to hold to a cleavage between the spiritual and the material in an inherent dualism inherited from ancient Greek categories of thought. Yet, in the sacraments these two elements are firmly united. The good news of Jesus is not just proclaimed by stating propositions of truth, but, as Frank Senn has said in his book Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical the forgiveness of sins is declared “by sentences joined to a bath, the laying on of hands, and communal eating and drinking” (p.31). God is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16). The incarnation of Jesus is where the invisible God became a visible human. There is no dichotomous reality here between the material and the spiritual, but an essential unity. Leonard VanderZee has said that this unity makes the sacraments “a place where God meets us and where the spiritual and physical come together for our wholeness and healing” (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, p.28). Now that the Lord Jesus has accomplished his great redemptive events of cross and resurrection, the sacraments serve as material signs to us of the now invisible Christ. John Calvin called this a “visible word” that declares God’s saving work in Christ on behalf of every human being.
There is certainly a profound place for didactic instruction in the church on a Christian worldview, and I would argue that it needs to take place. But this is insufficient. God himself has instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of proclaiming forgiveness and declaring the unity of reality, and the great union we have with God because of Jesus. When we partake of this, we are doing much more than remembering; we are providing and re-enacting a view of the world that is in contradistinction from prevailing notions outside of Christendom. Here is where college students can find a place of seeing life from God’s perspective. Emphasizing the place of the sacraments in the life of the Church gives an alternate view of reality from that provided in many secular environments. This, certainly, is not the last or only word on addressing the great slide of a whole generation of people out of the Church, but the Word proclaimed at the Table is a necessary element to help college students meaningfully connect with a Christian view of life and reality.