Monday, July 28, 2014

Revisiting the Articles of Religion Part 6-- The Sacraments

Today we turn to part six of our journey through visiting the Articles of Religion that are from the Evangelical United Brethren church and were formed as part of the UMC constitution.

Article VI—The Sacraments: We believe the Sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of the Christian's profession and of God's love toward us. They are means of grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and confirming our faith in him. Two Sacraments are ordained by Christ our Lord, namely Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.
We believe children are under the atonement of Christ and as heirs of the Kingdom of God are acceptable subjects for Christian Baptism. Children of believing parents through Baptism become the special responsibility of the Church. They should be nurtured and led to personal acceptance of Christ, and by profession of faith confirm their Baptism.
We believe the Lord's Supper is a representation of our redemption, a memorial of the sufferings and death of Christ, and a token of love and union which Christians have with Christ and with one another. Those who rightly, worthily and in faith eat the broken bread and drink the blessed cup partake of the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual manner until he comes.

For many years of my journey the idea of Sacraments was present. The value they held for me was very low. In fact when I was in process of ordination one if the challenges I had was the importance of the Sacraments. If I was going to be an Elder in the UMC, the Sacraments would need to have a fairly high value. I wrestled through and was ordained and I have been celebrating the Sacraments of the church for many years now.

Most helpful to my understanding is viewing the Sacraments as an outward sign of an inward grace. To use the language from the Articles, they are symbols that show the work of God's love and grace found in Jesus Christ. Sacraments are a primary example of inside out living that we are called to as followers of Jesus. Jesus Christ transforms our inner life to the point that the external changes. The Sacraments give us a visible and tangible reminder of this process. 

First is baptism. Whether it is through the sprinkling, pouring or immersion in water, baptism marks an outward sign that we belong to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was baptized, and would continue to encourage the baptism of others. In fact it is named are part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, that we are to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whether it is an infant, child or adult, baptism represents initiation into the family of God, and into the care of the church. For those who are able, this initiation is also associated with a public declaration of being part of the family of God by becoming a follower of Jesus. This outward sign of water and the spirit reveal an inward decision made through the grace of God. Holy Baptism is one of the most important and sacred moments in the life of the church.

Second is the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion. Again this is one of the practices that Jesus himself ordained and instructed for followers to continue. In the celebration of God's grace we remember the suffering and sacrifice Christ made on our behalf as well as remembering Christ presence with us currently in a real and tangible way. 

Deeply rooted in the celebration of Holy Communion is the celebration of the Passover Seder. We are reminded of how God has been in the practice of moving people from captivity to sin and slavery for centuries and our present celebration is the continuation of God's grace and faithfulness. It is with joy that we offer an open table, meaning that anyone is welcome at the Holy Table. Further, the celebration of Holy Communion is what John Wesley called a saving ordinance. Meaning it is possible for someone to decide to follow Jesus from simply by sharing in the celebration of Holy Communion. 

In it all, the Sacraments have become so much more than a dilemma or empty religious activity. For this follower of Jesus, the Sacraments have become vital to my life and journey. There are few greater joys than celebrating baptism, and there is almost nothing more sacred and important than the celebration of Holy Communion. The deeper I engage my journey with Christ the more their importance grows. 

My prayer is that as we develop new ways to celebrate these sacraments. As we use varied methods and materials, may we never forget or become disconnected from the deep meaning and presence offered to us in them. My we continue to be quickened and stirred by God in such ways that we need to show through signs and symbols who God is working with in us.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Articles of Religion Revisited Part 5 -- The Church

After an extended break, I will now return to the regularly scheduled posting of my revisiting the Articles of Religion.

Article Number V-- We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by people divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ's own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world.

I have become fond of thinking about the church as a glorious mystery. At its best there is not other organization or collection of people like it on the face of the planet. At its less than best, it can be just like any other organization that is fully human and obtains a huge capacity to not live to its capacity. Yet, we are left with the church, the "institution" that Jesus initiated through his life, death and resurrection. The quotation marks are necessary because I am not convinced Jesus intended another institution to enter the world. The church can most easily be put as the people of God who are committed to following Jesus, while inviting others to join in the journey. Before getting to that, the first stop is remembering the connection of the church with Jesus. Before worship, discipleship, and evangelism come into focus, first and foremost the church begins with Jesus Christ. As Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus reminds us, Jesus is the Head of the church and all things grow up into him who is the head. The life of Jesus showed the church how to live, the death of Jesus opened the door for the grace-filled reconciliation of the church with God, and the resurrection of Jesus invited the church into new life. If we remove Jesus Christ, and a wholehearted focus on Jesus from the church, then we do not have the church at all it is simply a group of people gathering around an ideology, also known as religion. Not to be lost in this, is the concept of the Lordship of Jesus. Simply put the Lordship of Jesus is remembering that Jesus is over all things, and ultimately we submit ourselves to him.

Once the relationship to Jesus Christ is appropriated, attention can be turned to the actions, or functions of the church. The Article is pretty clear on this, the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world. All of this is done through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Worship can happen in many forms, styles, places and times. All of them are important, and all of them need to connect with at time of corporate worship where the church gathers as the body. It is impossible to live a full life of discipleship outside of the community gathering for worship and other functions of the church. Care must be taken to understand the form and presentation of worship will vary from context to context and from time to time. We must not worship the style, only God to whom we direct our worship. Also the work of edification is needed. This is the ongoing work of transforming our lives to be more and more like the life of Jesus. In order to move in this direction, the gathered people learn and grow together through the Scriptures, prayer, serving and simply doing life together. The church is there to oversee, assist and encourage this growth. Finally the church is in existence to spread the message of Jesus Christ to the very ends of the earth. The language of redemption of the world can be off putting because of the baggage centuries has added to it. Perhaps it is more simply put, the church is about extending the invitation to live in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. For others to join the journey that leads to life.

Before closing, it is important to note what is not a part of the church. It is not a political entity. Yes saying that you are not political is a political statement. However, the church is not in existence to further one political ideology or another. In present terms the church is not a Democrat or Republican, it is not defined by policies and right thinking about hot button issues such as guns, immigration, sexuality and poverty. Certainly these, and more, are all a part of our world and our relationship with Jesus should inform our interaction with them. Yet, the primary role of the church is not ideas and policies rather it is the transforming grace of Jesus Christ being lived in community that worships, grows and invites.