The sacraments in pastoral ministry

Sadly, the sacraments often are overlooked in discussing the theology and practice of pastoral ministry. I seek to address that deficit in my Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary. Here is an excerpt from one of my lectures.

In Faith Seeking Understanding, Trinitarian theologian Daniel Migliore defines the sacraments as “visible words” that as “embodiments of grace” are “enacted testimonies to the love of God in Jesus Christ.” He notes that Augustine referred to the sacraments as “visible signs of an invisible grace” and that the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls a Sacrament “a holy ordinance instituted by Christ wherein by visible signs Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed and applied to believers.” Migliore adds that the sacraments are “palpable enactments of the gospel by means of which the Spirit of God confirms to us the forgiving, renewing, and promising love of God in Jesus Christ and enlivens us in faith, hope, and love" (p. 280).

Though the Bible does not use the word sacrament to refer to the presence and purpose of God made known in Jesus Christ, it does use the Greek word musterion (typically translated mystery), which in Latin is sacramentum, from which we derive our English word sacrament. Though musterion is not applied in the New Testament specifically to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the early church baptism and the Lord’s Supper were referred to as “enactments of the mysterious presence and purpose of God in the assembly of the church.” Migliore explains:
From the earliest times, two tendencies in interpreting the sacraments have been evident. One emphasizes the objective reality of God’s grace in and through the sacraments. Those who hold to this view see the sacraments as divinely appointed rites that, when properly administered, convey grace and salvation if there are no impediments. The sacraments are said to be efficacious in themselves…. The second tendency… emphasizes the importance of our faith response. According to this view, the sacraments are dramatic signs of the grace of God and are effective not in themselves but only as they are received by faith. [According to this latter view] the sacraments are not so much something done to us as something we do—we repent, we confess our faith, we vow to be faithful. According to this view, the purpose of the sacraments is to give people the opportunity to bear public witness to their faith…. The danger of the [first] more objective view by itself is that it minimizes the importance of the response of faith and seems to disregard the freedom of the Spirit. Viewed purely objectively, the grace of God mediated by the sacramental action is depersonalized and reified. The danger of the [second] more subjective view by itself is that it obscures the unconditional and objective reality of God’s grace. (pp. 280-281)
In agreement with many Trinitarian theologians and GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theological perspective, Migliore contends that this tension between the objective and subjective views of the sacraments is resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He comments:
[Christ] is the paradigm of what is sacramental…. It is in Christ that the decisive presence and activity of God in and through a finite reality occurs. The Christocentric redefinition of sacrament underscores the free, personal presence of God’s grace in concrete, worldly form while also insisting that grace, as personal presence, makes room for and calls for free personal response. If Christ is the primary sacrament, then those rites of the church that are called sacraments will correspond to the archetype. The sacraments are celebrated in Christ and re-present Christ. God comes to human beings personally by the power of the Holy Spirit in the concrete, worldly media of spoken word [referring to preaching] and enacted sacrament [referring to baptism and the Lord’s Supper]. The gospel of God’s costly love is both spoken to us and enacted in our midst. Both Word and sacrament re-present in different ways the gift and demand of God’s unconditional grace in Jesus Christ by the Power of the Holy Spirit. (pp. 281-282) 
In The Mediation of Christ, Thomas F. (TF) Torrance notes that while the sacraments are acts of human response to the proclamation of the gospel, “they are above all divinely provided, dominically appointed ways of response and obedience of a radically vicarious kind” (p. 89). Just as ancient Israel under the old covenant was not allowed to come before God in ways of their own choosing, so in the new covenant the church is given baptism and the Lord’s Supper as important means of its participation in Jesus Christ’s response by the Spirit to God the Father on our behalf. TF comments further:
[Baptism and the Lord's Supper] are sacraments of the vicarious human response to God effected by Jesus Christ in his representative and substitutionary capacity in our place and on our behalf. They are sacraments of the finished work of Christ to which we can add nothing, sacraments which have as their substance and content none other than Jesus Christ clothed with his Gospel of atoning mediation and reconciliation, and thus sacraments which in their unique way represent the indivisible oneness of Christ's Word and Act and Person as Mediator between God and man. (p. 90)
The sacraments thus direct us away from ourselves and toward Jesus. While they are our liturgical responses to God’s commands to baptize and to partake of the Lord's Supper, they add nothing to Christ’s finished work for they are sacraments, not of what we do, but of what Christ has done in our place and on our behalf. Furthermore, the sacraments are instruments of the Holy Spirit’s operation in our union with Christ. In baptism and the Lord's Supper we continually are nourished through our union with Christ, by the Spirit, in the fellowship of the church. Both sacraments tell us that our life and righteousness are found not in ourselves, but outside ourselves in Christ—in union and communion with him in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit within the body of Christ, the church.

In Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, Andrew Purves says this concerning the important place of the sacraments in the ministry of the church:
The church’s primary identity is the exercise of a priestly ministry that proclaims the Word of God, celebrates the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and serves others in ministries that share in Christ’s mission from the Father for the sake of the world. (p. 98)
In agreement with Purves, GCI views the sacraments as central to the church’s ministry, including its worship. That being so, I want to emphasize that all pastoral ministers (along with ministers of worship, music, etc.) need a clear understanding of the meaning and purpose of the sacraments along with a well-developed ability to participate in their administration within the worship life of the church. 

In closing, let me emphasize that an incarnational Trinitarian understanding of the sacraments has significant implications for how we approach both baptism and the Lord's Supper. Note these two comments:

1) From Paul Fiddes in Participating in God:
[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters… to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. (p. 281)
2) From Graham Buxton in Dancing in the Dark:
Both sacraments declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: “It is finished!” Christ has done what I could never do…. But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis [in Luke 22:19 and 1 Cor. 11:24, 25] which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning… [conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today…. Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history—we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future…. The sacrament [thus] powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community. (pp. 137-8, 2001 edition)
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For a related article concerning how the regular practice of the sacraments shapes a person's worldview, click here

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