During the the religious forum at our school's Faith Week, I was asked to respond to a number of questions representing our mainline campus ministry program. This is the second question that I was asked to address.
What religious rites or practices are meaningful to those in your faith?
Every protestant church, that I’m aware of, has two sacraments: communion and baptism. These have been important for protestant churches because it was believed that the two practices were instituted in the life of Jesus. Communion was a remembrance of the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before his death. Baptism, in the river Jordan, marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But in the life of the church these two sacraments have taken on additional significance.
Baptism has come to signify one’s participation in the life of the church. When infants are baptized the community promises to aid in love and support of the child and their growth. As an adult, baptism represents the decision one has made to become part of the community, in seeking to live out a life faithful to God’s purposes. The water being poured over a person, according to scripture, symbolizes the death of the old self, one, which was self-centered, and the birth of a new self, one, which seek to live embodying God’s love. Baptism, like communion, is a sacrament found in all churches, so that it also come to signify a unity we have with Christians throughout the world and throughout time.
Communion, the sharing of bread and wine, points us to the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry. Traditionally the focus has been on the death of Jesus but increasingly mainline Protestants identify communion with the ministry of openness that Jesus practiced. One example is found in a story told by Jesus of a wealthy man who invites guests to a meal and no one shows up. So he literally goes out into the streets, trying to find anyone he can, the poor, the folks who don’t signify much in society, and invites them all to the meal. Breaking food at that time and today is generally done with people we know, people we are comfortable with. But in communion, everyone is invited to God’s table. Food is a good way of knowing the divisions, which exists between peoples; communion is a way for us to break out of such divisions.
I mentioned the word sacrament, which is a practice that embodies God’s presence. Communion and baptism, when they point us to God’s reconciling love in this world, take on the status of sacraments. But there can be a tendency to lift these two rites up in a way which makes us forget that all of life should be a sacrament, that is to say that everything we do ought to embody God’s love. So life it’s self should have a sacramental quality to it.
And in fact, many of the practices we experience in church do just that even if they are not labeled a “rite” or a “sacrament”. When the pastor visits an infirmed parishioner he or she is practicing a sacrament. The person who volunteers at the soup kitchen is engaging in a sacrament. The nun who is arrested, protesting a nuclear weapons facility, is practicing a sacrament. Much of the fondest memories in and out of church, were we learned love, saw self sacrifice, learned the virtues, whether from parents, friends, meaningful events in our life are of a sacramental nature. The call is to make all of life a sacrament, and ideally communion and our baptism are reminders of this very call.