Rev Dr Phil Wall’s sermon for 23rd August
Matthew 26 vv 20, 26-30 and 28 vv 16-20
The Song of the Sacraments
Today marks a special, unusual service. Every baptism is, of course, special – every Sunday service is special for that matter, for this is when we gather around the empty tomb and celebrate the victory of love – but today sees us mark something that happens rarely in this church – that is less frequent than Christmas and only slightly more common than England & Wales winning the Ashes. Any ideas?
…Yes, today sees us celebrate baptism and Communion in the same service – something that has not occurred here since Easter Sunday last year when a certain Eli, Abel’s brother, was baptised – there’s clearly something special about these Bond boys! And this morning, at St. David’s Uniting Church, Pontypridd, we gather around the font and the table of Jesus to celebrate the two sacraments of our church. And with that mention of the word sacrament, some of you might have instantly switched off. And who can blame you? At Westminster college or ‘vicar school’ as most of my friends call it – which was a little like Hogwarts, only with more ogres – we were advised to take it easy on religious jargon, particularly at weddings, baptisms and funerals – for those who are visitors, as well as those who are regular worshippers, could be put off by such terminology. And I largely agree with them – for what God revealed in Jesus, the church often hides with language. And yet, seeing as it’s a rare occurrence to celebrate both baptism and communion in the same service, I hoped you might allow me to spend a few minutes reflecting on these two core practices, these two sacraments of the church.
So let’s start at the very beginning, for that’s a very good place to start! What is a sacrament? Well we immediately dip our toe in dangerous waters here for different denominations have different answers to this question and we haven’t always politely debated the issue over tea and cucumber sandwiches. But, putting years of hurt and even bloodshed to one side for now, most churches would broadly agree with the thinking of the North African Bishop, Augustine, who said that a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.’ That probably bears repeating –a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. A bit like the way a heart is the symbol of love, encapsulating all the mystery, excitement and transformation that love can bring in one simple symbol, the Christian rituals of baptism and Holy Communion are outward, visible symbols of God’s acts of grace to us and within us. Participating in these actions, we might discover something of God, even of ourselves. So what, then, might we learn by the sprinkling of water or the drinking from funny little glasses?
Well, the first thing I would suggest is that both baptism and Communion speak of journeying. As we considered last week in the story of Abram and Sarai, our story is one of a pilgrim people, travelling ever onward with God. On their journey together, Millie and Ash have travelled to this place many times, coming here on days when they were excited to come to worship, to celebrate, to marry, and to baptise their firstborn; coming on other days when they were stressed, perhaps, or surviving on a few hours sleep…and today they have come to this place once again, with friends and family, with Eli and Abel, giving thanks for their youngest son and asking God’s blessing upon him as he is welcomed into this church in baptism. And we have all made promises to love, care and pray for Abel as the path ahead unfolds, for the journey of faith that begins in individual baptism continues in this church community. We leave this place as pilgrims, journeying ever onward towards our eternal home.
And on our journey, we must of course be fed – by spirit and word yet also with food and drink, with the bread of life and the cup of blessing. And so we approach Communion, we come close to God’s table of grace, where we may be held, fed and strengthened. We may rest our weary bodies and give thanks; we may eat and drink together – not the cake or champagne of a party – though that might come later – but with bread and wine, a simple meal and all that we require to keep moving onwards, the nourishment we need so to go back into the world, to share and show God’s love to all we meet along the way. Baptism marks the beginning of our journey; Communion gives us the rest and strength to continue on it.
The sacraments also teach us of the importance of community. As we stagger or run along the way of Jesus, much of our Christian practice can be done on our own. We can pray alone and read the Bible alone. We can feed the hungry or fast alone. We can even go on pilgrimage alone. But there are no solo sacraments. As the ever-wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor remarks, the sacraments remind us that ‘we need other people in our lives to feed and forgive us, to touch and bless us’. In baptism and Communion, we might encounter God’s blessing in the words, faces, touch of others. And so today, all over this world, people are coming together – in ornate Cathedrals and makeshift churches in migrant camps; out in the open air and in chapels behind bars – people are huddling together to share bits of bread and drops of wine, to share good news and a tale of hope, to share our very lives with one another. And this community does not simply stretch around the world but through time as well. Earlier this week, Del, Abel’s Mammo said to me that she liked pews in churches because she felt encouraged when she reflected on how she was sitting where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faithful women and men had sat, sung and spoken down the years. Our sacraments might evoke a similar response for our actions bear the marks of those who have gone before us. We baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit – words spoken in lands near and far, translated into many languages and mother tongues and yet which all trace their origin to the words of a risen leader speaking to his friends on a mount in Palestine. We break bread and drink wine, as have kings and queens, slaves and soldiers, farmers and fishermen over the centuries finding our common ground around a dinner table as we pause to listen to the words of a former carpenter from some sleepy backwater town at the edge of the Roman Empire. In baptism and Holy Communion, we gather with the community of saints and sinners, the weird and wonderful, those on Earth and in heaven.
The sacraments might also remind us of the joys and limitations of our own humanity. For in the waters of baptism and the elements of Communion we might express something that language cannot; we might encounter something beyond words, even beyond belief. I remember accompanying my Nan to church in her last couple of years when Alzheimer’s had taken its hold of her. She couldn’t read the words of the hymns or keep focused during the sermon and would often ask ‘well who’s that person going on at the front there?’. Which was a fair question. And when it came to Communion, she didn’t know where she was or what it might mean but as the tray was offered to her, she’d ask, ‘For me?’ with a child-like sense of excitement, then she’d carefully take hold of the tiny glass, knock it back, declare it ‘a lovely drop’ and ask if she could have another. I think, perhaps, that she encountered God’s grace and blessing in a way that many theologians miss.
And if God’s presence might be glimpsed in water, wine and wheat perhaps God might use other ordinary things of life to reach out to us. ‘Perhaps every created thing is a potential messenger, sent to teach us more about our relationship with God’ [Barbara Brown Taylor]. Perhaps even you and I might be the means through which God blesses the world today.
But before we make it all about us, as we sometimes have the tendency to do, the sacraments remind us and reveal to us something of the nature of God. For both baptism and Communion speak of the God who loves us so much that God came to us as a baby in a dirty stable, a refugee in Egypt, a Nazarene who was dunked under the waters of the Jordan by his cousin John. Both baptism and Communion speak of the God-man who lived alongside us, who struggled and celebrated as we do, who ate and drank as we do, who spoke words to his friends over a meal in an upper room, encouraging them to remember him whenever they broke bread and drank wine together. Both baptism and Communion speak of the God who died our death, who was nailed to a cross but who rose in a garden – showing us that nothing can ever separate us from the extravagant love of God. In the physical, bodily acts of baptism and Communion, we remember and encounter the physical, bodily Jesus Christ – the God With Us.
This morning, Abel has been welcomed into the church with water and words, prayers and promises. May he come to learn and love our stories, sacraments and sometimes odd way of doing things. May he return to this community time and again to receive food and company for the journey. And may he come to know the God of water and wine, bread and blessing, the God who takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Thanks be to God. Amen.