Several years ago I had a meeting with a local Anglican priest. In the course of our conversation, I expressed my desire to learn more about sacramental theology. I was quite surprised when he said, “I’m not sure that I can help you with that.” I remember thinking, “It’s strange that a man in his position, representing a denomination with a rich theological heritage, is unable to explain a concept that, in essence, epitomises the raison d’etre of the Christian Church.”
Indeed, the Anglican Prayer Book of Australia, describes a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself, as a means by which we receive that grace, and a pledge to assure us of this” (A Prayer Book for Australia, Broughton Publishing 1995, p. 817), in accordance with the definition originally formulated by Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The English word ‘sacrament’ is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which in classical times was used chiefly as a technical legal term to denote a bond deposited in a temple by two parties to a legal suit, and as a technical military term designating an oath of obedience of a soldier to his commander. The word sacramentum was used for the first time in a distinctively Christian sense in the writings of Tertullian in the early part of the 3rd century, and in the Vetus Latina (the Old Latin Bible), dating from the middle of the 4thcentury.
The word sacramentum was used in both the Old Latin and Vulgate (the late 4th century Latin version) to translate the Greek word mysterion (mystery) in such passages as 1 Timothy 3.16 (in reference to the birth, death and resurrection of Christ), Ephesians 5.32 (in reference to the union of redeemed humanity with God in Christ), and Revelation 1.20 (in reference to the Church as the Body of Christ on earth). Thus, in later usage the word sacramentum came to represent the visible sign of a hidden, spiritual reality, as indicated by the term mysterion.
Bearing this in mind, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature” and that “by the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (p. 307). In his great mercy God has taken into account our physical nature, providing visible signs of his invisible grace and tangible means whereby we may receive it.
Rites, rituals, or real encounters?
Historic churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Orthodox Church recognise seven major sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation (Penance or Confession), Eucharist (Holy Communion), Confirmation, Marriage (Matrimony), Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction). Some Protestant denominations such as the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church only recognise two sacraments: namely, Baptism and Eucharist, while some modern traditions such as Baptists and Pentecostals do not recognise sacraments at all, but use the word ‘ordinance’ to denote practices such as Baptism and Communion instituted by Christ’s authority.
In my view, practices such as Baptism, Communion, and Anointing of the Sick are not just rites to be observed or rituals to be performed, but rather, opportunities to encounter the power and presence of the living Christ in real time. To me, they are more than just ordinances; they are sacraments in every sense of the word.
“By grace you have been saved through faith” wrote the Apostle Paul (Eph 2.8). God’s salvation is a free gift that must be received through faith. However, the record of Scripture and personal experience attest to numerous ways in which the grace of God is imparted to believing human beings. For example, the laying on of hands (Mark 16.18), the anointing with oil (James 5.14), the application of holy cloths (Acts 19.12), sacred relics (2 Kings 13.21), the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 10.16), and the washing of one another’s feet (John 13.14-15). Indeed, there are various ‘points of contact’ through which we can access the inexhaustible supply of God’s grace.
In our church we encourage people to expect something supernatural to happen in their lives when they enter the waters of baptism, thereby identifying with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. It is not just a rite of passage or a symbolic gesture; it is a spiritual transaction, a putting off of the old and a putting on of the new, an infilling of the Spirit and an investiture with power from on high.
Likewise, we teach people to expect to be actually empowered by the Holy Spirit when oil is poured over their heads in prayer for healing or in an act of consecration (James 5.14; Psalm 133.2). Furthermore, we teach people to expect to receive an actual infusion of the life of Christ when they eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance of him” (1 Cor 11.25-26). As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “the body and blood of Christ being … as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance as the elements themselves are to their outward senses” (Chapter XXIX, Paragraph VII).
Many years ago, my wife, Heather, was healed of chronic eczema whilst receiving Holy Communion at St. Peter’s in Mornington. As she went forward to eat the bread and drink the cup, she prayed, “Lord, I believe that you bore my sickness and infirmity in your body on the Cross. Please heal me now.” Her healing was instant and complete. The Holy Spirit acted in response to her faith in the finished work of Christ at Calvary. But the point of contact with God’s power was the sacrament of the Eucharist — the commemoration of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood.
The Church itself is a sacrament
Whilst recognising the seven major sacraments, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church also consider the Church itself to be a sacrament: “The Church is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism p. 316). “The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church both contains and communicates the grace she signifies …. The Church, in Christ, is a sacrament — a sign and instrument — of communion with God and unity among all men” (Catechism p. 223).
Writing to the believers in Rome, Paul said, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom 12.1). Viewed in this way, one’s whole life becomes a sacrament — a sign and an instrument of God’s saving grace.
In a similar vein, Peter urged his readers, “Live honourable lives among the Gentiles, in order that, although they speak against you as evil-doers, from your good deeds they may witness your character, and may glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2.12 Weymouth), perhaps calling to mind a sermon that he had heard many years ago on a hillside in Galilee: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mat 5.16).
If, as Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx suggests, ‘Christ is the sacrament of the encounter with God’, then it stands to reason that ‘the Church is the sacrament of the risen Christ’; for “in that body dwells the fullness of him who fills all things everywhere with himself” (Eph 1.23).
Let us therefore learn to live sacramentally — representing Christ in everything we say and do — that the fragrance of His knowledge may be diffused through us in every place (2 Cor 2.14).