This month’s topic is ordination, the sacramental rite in which the Church lifts up leaders to assume particular responsibility in the community of the faithful. As Heather and I were divvying up teaching sermon topics, I got this one because I’m involved in this process at diocesan level: I participate in the admission of people into the ordination process, in mentoring those folks through their formation, and then certifying their qualifications when the time comes for ordination.
As we’ve usually done in these teaching sermons, this morning I’ll provide some historical background, and talk about what the process looks like today, including both the REALLY complicated sequence of things that take place in the selection and preparation of candidates for ordination and the things that happen in the rite itself. Finally and most interesting for me, I’ll reflect a bit on the theology of ordination and some of the issues involved.
I’m sure you’ll remember the apostle Paul’s discussion in his first letter to the Corinthians in which he develops the metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ. Like the physical body, he says, the Church has many parts, and they each have their own unique and important function - it’s up to the eyes to see and the ears to hear: the body needs all of its parts and they all work together. (I Cor 12:4-27)
As the young Church grew rapidly in the days, months, and eventually years after Jesus’ ascension, it became obvious that the apostles couldn’t handle all of the leadership needs of the growing community on their own. An incident in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles ( Acts 6:1-6) tells about a group of Hellenists getting cranky because the widows were not getting served the meals they needed. Their complaint was obviously justified, because the apostles put their heads together and figured out that they needed to appoint a group who could take charge of that important ministry. The apostles selected candidates who had the gifts to do well at the job, prayed, laid their hands on those members, and called them deacons. Really, this is ordination in a nutshell – the Church identifying the people we believe have the gifts to serve in needed functions, laying hands on, and then setting them at their tasks.
By sometime in the second century, the Church established three orders of ordained ministry that have not changed in the centuries since. First, however, I remind us that, in the catechism found in the Prayer Book, the answer to the question “Who are the ministers of the Church?”, is that “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” (BCP 855) All of the baptized are the primary ministers of the Body of Christ in terms of sharing the gospel and doing God’s work of caring for one another and for all of God’s creation.
Here's a quick review of the three orders of ordained ministry:
How does the Church know who to ordain, and how does it come about? It takes BOTH a personal sense of vocation AND the conviction of the Church that the person has “a call” to ordained ministry. The traditional notion is that God calls people as leaders, and the Bible of full of stories of folks who get such calls, many of them, in the Bible, are ready to go to great lengths in order to avoid the responsibility. In our own time, we look to the judgement of the Church to hear and confirm a call to ordained ministry, trusting that the Holy Spirit works through the prayerful processes the Church has developed for selecting its leaders. Although the canons (or laws) of the Church set out some requirements, the process varies from diocese to diocese and is pretty complex.
There are basically two phases a person goes through before they are ordained:
1.) The first is that of an extended period of discernment of a vocation or call to Holy Orders. Here in Western Massachusetts we require that a person thinking about ordained ministry does lots of things including being active in practicing their faith life, engaging in individual conversation about vocation (for at least a year) and participating in another year of diocesan-led groups aimed at helping with deep exploration.
If, after completing these requirements, they believe they are called to ordained ministry, they apply for postulancy, which requires documents of support from their rector, vestry and others in addition to their own written discussion of their sense of vocation. After a group session and an individual meeting with the Bishop, they are invited to a day of conversations with the Commission on Ministry, a group of lay and clergy representatives who have read their application materials. Based on the Commission’s reading and their interviews with the applicant, the Commission makes a recommendation to the Bishop, either that they be admitted as a postulant, be asked to wait while doing additional discernment – what we call the “not now” outcome – or that they not move forward as a postulant. Before the Bishop appoints them to postulancy, the applicant needs to undergo background checks and a psychological evaluation (to insure that there are no previously undiscovered obstacles.)
2.) Once a person is admitted as a postulant, there is a lot of preparation for ministry to be completed. Candidates for vocational diaconate take part in a two-year School for Deacons, meeting regularly both virtually and in person with candidates throughout New England. Priesthood candidates complete a Master of Divinity degree at a seminary or Divinity School approved by the Bishop: (if done full-time, an MDiv takes three years, but many candidates complete the program on a part-time basis while continuing to work.) In either case the formation includes worship in community, academic coursework, and an internship in a parish different from their sponsoring parish. Candidates are also required to complete Clinical Pastoral Education, a program of supervised self-reflection as one practices pastoral care, frequently in an institutional setting. Four times a year throughout the formation process, postulants write “Ember Day Letters” to the Bishop providing a check-in on what they are doing and thinking about.
As their training approaches its completion, Postulants apply to become Candidates, a final step toward approval for ordination. They complete more interviews at both parish and diocesan level and are required to demonstrate proficiency in a set of areas required by national church: scripture, theology, ethics, history, worship, and the practice of ministry. Deacon candidates do this through submission of a portfolio of materials produced during their training, and priesthood candidates sit for a nationally-administered three-day essay exam.
Candidates who successfully complete these many requirements (which they invariably experience as hoops to jump through,) may be ordained.
The ordination liturgy itself is, in many ways, like the baptismal liturgy that we have all experienced many times. As in a baptism, the candidate is presented by those who have sponsored them and is examined by the bishop, making a series of promises. Listen to the key exchange that takes place at ordination of both priests and deacons:
The Bishop asks:
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
The ordinand replies:
I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)
Following this verbal exchange, the ordinand then SIGNS the declaration “in the sight of all present”. Somewhat later in the service, the ordinand reiterates their commitment to submit to the authority of the Bishop, promises to persevere in prayer and the reading of scripture, to be a faithful pastor to those they are called to serve and, perhaps most interestingly, to “pattern their [life] [and that of their family, or household or community] in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that [they] may be a wholesome example to [their] people”. (BCP 532) Heather and I puzzle over that one occasionally.
So it sounds good, doesn’t it, that the Church takes so very seriously the work of lifting up people to serve as leaders? As is always the case, there are issues – places where we have failed, places where there is disagreement and sometimes controversy.
For one thing, the Church has not always practiced a theology of full inclusiveness. The ordained ministers at the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the 18th century were exclusively white men. The first African American to be ordained a priest, Absolom Jones, was not admitted to holy orders until 1802, a full decade after he founded the first Black Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. John Johnson Enmegahbowh, Ojibwa Indian, was the first indigenous person to be ordained priest, in 1867.
During our own lifetimes two more barriers to full inclusion in the life of the Church have fallen, but are not yet fully accepted. The first women were “irregularly” ordained to the priesthood in 1974, and the Church voted to regularize and approve women’s ordination in 1976. Although the first openly queer individual, Ellen Barrett, was ordained in New York by Bishop Paul Moore in 1977, the action caused an uproar in the Church, causing the House of Bishops, several months later, to pass a resolution identifying “homosexuality as unbiblical”. The consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 was likewise unacceptable to many in the Church.
A point of theological disagreement feeds what I regard as another serious issue in relation to the sacrament of ordination. Here’s the question: Does ordination represent a change in function for the ordained, or does the movement of the Holy Spirit in ordination convey an essential change in the being of the ordained? Are bishops, priests and deacons, as a result of their ordination, closer to God than lay people? Does ordination make them better people?
Clericalism is the assumption – to one degree or another, whether conscious or unconscious – that the clergy are different and somehow spiritually superior to lay people. The official teaching of the Church is that ordination signifies a change in responsibility in the Church and is assisted by God’s grace. Clericalism runs deep in Christian culture, however. I cannot tell you how many times people have apologized for using a naughty word in front of me, or asked me to “put in a word” (in prayer, I presume) for better weather.
These examples are basically silly, but the insidious effects of clericalism have been the assumption on the part of the clergy that they are invariably right and the non-ordained are wrong, and the subsequent difficulty the Church has historically had in holding clergy accountable where they commit wrongdoing. We are all familiar with some of the most damaging examples of clergy misconduct that have come to light in recent decades, both in other denominations and in our own. I deeply appreciate the comments of Pope Francis on this topic, in 2018:
Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.
(Address to Synod Fathers, 2018; cited on Wikipedia, “clericalism”)
The assumption of moral rectitude in the ordained does not serve any of us well, either the clergy themselves or the Church. Let’s agree to do everything we can to end it.
Those are rather grim observations, aren’t they? I don’t want to end there, but these hard things needed acknowledging, and I have also tried your patience long enough.
For myself, ordained ministry has been an incredible gift and privilege, especially in the years that I have served in parish ministry. I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to serve and learn and grow in this work, and particularly in the good company of my colleague the Rector of James and Andrew.
One of the best prayers in the Prayer Book is prayed in the ordination service AS WELL AS in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, so it is appropriate to conclude with it here. Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were being cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 527)
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Have you ever wondered how many sacraments we have in the Episcopal Church? If so, this is your lucky day.
Our tradition affirms there are two sacraments and five sacramental rites. They have two key distinctions. First, sacraments were given by Christ to the Church, whereas sacramental rites were instituted by the Church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (1/ 2) Second, sacraments are understood as essential for all Christians, while sacramental rites are not. (1) In other words, some people will be called to partake in one or more of these rites, but it’s not imperative for all Christians.
Having covered the two sacraments in previous sermons, we’ll spend the next few teaching sermons getting better acquainted with the five sacramental rites. These are: confirmation; marriage; ordination; reconciliation of a penitent - a form of personal confession; and unction - better known as anointing. (1) Today our focus will be on confirmation and marriage. (2)
Our tradition affirms there are two important things happening in the sacramental rite of confirmation. First and foremost, “Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ…” (1) The rite of confirmation exists in several mainline denominations, primarily because these traditions practice infant baptism. Meaning, parents have chosen to proclaim to the child, themselves, and the universal Church that we want to raise our child to walk in love in the Christian tradition. However, this means the child does not get to choose that for themselves, making the ritual of confirmation an important rite of passage.
It is the opportunity for youth and adults to choose for themselves: I want to walk in love with Christ, and I affirm the values and beliefs of this particular tradition. All of this means, it is vitally important that confirmation be a choice, a calling, and not something young people are pressured into doing by parents or other adults.
In Lauren Winner’s book, Still, she describes how a minister responded to a young person who felt unsure whether they could go through with confirmation. (3)They said, “What you promise when you are confirmed…is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.” (3)
The second significance of confirmation is that in it we, “...receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.” (1). Confirmation is one of the two sacramental rites that require a bishop.
Our friends Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, describe why in their book, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices: “Bishops can trace their consecration back to the apostles of Jesus - something called ‘apostolic succession’. In this way, confirmation connects us to the worldwide church through the bishop, the symbol of our unity, and to the communion of saints, past, present and future. This reminds us of the way in which we are connected to the wider sphere of the church…” (2)
You may recall Bishop Doug made his annual visitation earlier this year, where three important things happened:
You may also recall that the liturgy of confirmation is pretty similar to that of baptism. (1). It begins the same way, and after the sermon the bishops asks the candidates:
Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil? (1)
Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? (1)
The bishop then asks the congregation if they will support the confirmands, and after affirming they will, the community reaffirms our baptismal promises together. (1) Then there are prayers for the candidates, emphasizing their renewed commitment, followed by the bishop laying hands on the confirmands. (1) The bishop will lay hands on top of the candidates’ head or maybe lay a hand on each shoulder, praying for the Holy Spirit to strengthen, empower, and sustain them. (1) There is a concluding prayer, and the liturgy transitions into the Peace. (1)
Under the umbrella of confirmation is reception and reaffirmation. One is received when they have already been confirmed in another tradition, but their spiritual journey brings them into the Episcopal Church. One is reaffirmed when they feel called to reaffirm their faith - maybe after a long time away from the Church or a season of spiritual growth. To be confirmed, received, or reaffirm one's commitment, candidates participate in a preparation period, usually by partaking in our Episcopal 101 course.
While most ministries in the church do not require confirmation, a few do. Confirmation is required to serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister distributing the common cup, to run for Vestry, to be ordained, or to hold certain church wide offices.
All right, shifting gears. Let’s talk about marriage. I want to start with two beautiful, and historic days that were decades in the making. First, on June 26, 2015 a Supreme Court ruling legalized same sex marriage for all Americans, or rather, finally made marriage available to all couples. Then, five days later on July 1, 2015 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church followed suit, by making canonical and liturgical changes to provide marriage equality within the Church.
In the years leading up to these two events, there began a series of important conversations within the Church about marriage, including:
When we look back to the 1549 Prayer Book, there was an exhortation listing three reasons for the institution of marriage:
When couples want to be married, they are required to sign a Declaration of Intention, which outlines the Church’s current thinking about marriage.
Here is how it reads:
“We understand the teaching of the church that God’s purpose for our marriage is for our mutual joy; for the help and comfort we will give to each other in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God. We also understand that our marriage is to be unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong; and we engage to make the utmost effort to accept these gifts and fulfill these duties, with the help of God and the support of our community.” (2)
This means that marriage is a covenant. Scott and Melody describe it as, “...a sacred promise that involves not only the two people being married but also God and the gathered community…” (2)
The new marriage liturgies from the 2015 General Convention affirm:
Here at Saints James and Andrew, we have a marriage customary to help couples navigate planning their ceremony. (6). Here are a few of the things we point out to couples:
When I meet with a couple, I let them know a few things:
Each clergy person has their own way of doing this. I spend:
This means we spend one session planning the wedding ceremony, and four preparing them for the commitment of marriage. We do that because the ceremony is one moment of one day, and the marriage will hopefully be a lifetime. Sometimes couples need more help sorting through difficult things; in which case, I’ll refer them to a trained professional.
The Episcopal Church has approved three different liturgies we can use for the marriage ceremony. As such, we do not permit folks to write their own vows. That said, we do find creative ways to include people’s intentions in the ceremony when asked.
The liturgy begins by the celebrant greeting the couple and the congregation, stating the intended reason for the gathering, and our desire to ask God’s blessing on this couple. (1) Then the couple declares they have consented to be here, and the congregation affirms they will do all they can to support this couple in their journey. (1)
Then there are readings from scripture, followed by the marriage, where the couple will make a vow that sounds something like this: “In the Name of God, I, take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” (1)
If there are rings, they will be blessed and then exchanged.(1) The couple is pronounced as married, and then the priest proclaims: Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. (1) The priest then asks God’s blessing on this couple’s union, and I was formed with the tradition of wrapping my stole around the couples held hands as a sign and symbol of that prayer. (1) Then follows the Peace. (1) Believe it or not - there is no ‘kiss the bride’ business. But we do tend to work it in at the Peace if the couple would like. The service then continues with the eucharist or to the dismissal. (1)
While we are here to talk about the sacramental rite of marriage, I think I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn't talk about divorce. Something that touches nearly everyone in one way or another.
Here’s a brief history of the marriage canons in the Church:
While that is the history of what has been allowed, what the Church is still not very good at is supporting couples through this painful transition. Rev. Jennifer Philips reflects on this for the Episcopal Church.
“When a marriage comes apart, there is undoubtedly an aspect of sin involved. In some way, everyone has fallen short of the mark, including the supporting community. There is often more than sin involved, though. There may be lack of insight, unforeseeable changes in the people and circumstances, trauma or psychological disturbance, insurmountable incompatibility, mistaken understanding and more. There may be a shared sense of disappointment, grief, anger and brokenness in the congregation that once gathered so joyfully to launch the new marriage. These things are fitting subjects for common prayer and reconciliation, without which[,] one — and most often both — divorcing persons leave their church.” (8)
She goes on to say:
“...it is important to offer a divorcing couple (or even an individual, if the partner is unwilling) an opportunity to communicate the new status to the congregation, acknowledge the brokenness, ask for prayers, share sorrow or joy and begin life afresh. It is equally important for the congregation to be able to communicate its collective love, grief, sympathy, surprise or relief, ongoing support and prayer with its fellow members in the body of Christ. It’s not the divorce we thank God for in such rituals for the ending of a marriage, but the reality of forgiveness, mercy, kindness, communion and new life in Christ. For too long, despite the congregational pledge of support, we in the church have treated marriage as a private matter and its failure as a private shame.” (8)
When a marriage ends, it is our job not to perpetuate cultural shame on the couple, but instead, to stand by their side, and ask how we can support you?
I realize this has been a lot of information, and if you’d like to explore either of these topics in more detail, please see the resources posted with the sermon on our website or speak to Molly or myself. Amen!
So I want to take a look at the underlying roots and historical development of the Eucharist and at the basic meanings of the elements of the liturgy as we practice it today.
All four of the canonical gospels tell us that Jesus shared a last supper with his closest circle of disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that it was a Passover meal, while John locates it before the Passover.) The chronologically earliest testimony we actually have to what we now consider Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist comes in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, written about twenty years after Jesus’ death. In the letter, he gives us the words we repeat each time we celebrate the Eucharist:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor. 11:23-26)
The meal Jesus shared with his friends – whether a Passover meal or not – followed established patterns rooted deep in Jewish tradition. They are the same patterns we repeat today. The Jewish sabbath meal took place after the liturgy of the word in the synagogue (in which the family would have listened to scripture, shared in prayer, and likely heard a sermon). After ritual ablutions, assembling at the table, participants in the sabbath meal thanked God for bread, broke it and shared it along with the common dishes making up the meal.1
After the meal the diners shared a cup of wine that was first blessed by the father, who called the group to stand in thanking God: “Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” after which an extended recitation of remembrance and gratitude would follow.2
The fact that several of the resurrection appearances took place in the context of a meal reinforced the breaking and sharing of bread becoming a crucial way for the disciples to remember Jesus and his presence with them. Within the New Testament period the meal moved from the Jewish Sabbath to “the Lord’s Day”, the first day of the week, and the ritual of sharing the bread and wine became separated from the meal as numbers grew and accommodating crowds with a full meal became impractical.3
Numerous other elements of today’s eucharistic liturgy developed during the period of the early church: the presider began with the salutation “God be with you”; readings, a psalm, hymns, and a sermon often followed; the deacon led prayers “of the faithful”; and the service of the word concluded with “the kiss of peace”. As the liturgy of the table began, a table covered in a white cloth was brought forward and offerings presented from the people in attendance. The celebrant (and any other priests present) laid their hands on the bread and wine, and then offered a Great Thanksgiving to God with arms raised, entreating the descent of the Spirit. At the close of the eucharistic prayer the bread and wine were distributed to members of the congregation present, and after the service, deacons left to take the bread and wine to community members who had not been present.4
In the following centuries a variety of developments took place as aspects of the liturgy were formalized. Sacramentaries, or collections of eucharistic prayers and prefaces specific to particular occasions and seasons appeared; processions were added; excess consecrated bread and wine were kept in reserve for communion for the sick.5
In the 9th century and after, major shifts began to take place. The mass began to become less participatory for the people. It continued to be spoken and sung in Latin, which was less and less understood by the faithful. Screens or veils separating the congregation from the altar were erected in some churches, and portions of the Great Thanksgiving were said inaudibly by the celebrant while the choir sang elaborate settings of the Sanctus. The Eucharist moved from something celebrated by the people to something done for the people.6
These developments contributed to a sense of fear and awe associated with the Mass. The use of wafers replaced real bread to ensure that stray crumbs of sanctified bread could not be dropped and overlooked. The priest began placing the consecrated wafer in the communicant’s mouth for the same protective reason. The receiving of wine was discontinued. During this period the practices of kneeling and genuflection during the key parts of the service came into practice. Altars were moved against the wall and seeing the elevation of the bread and wine became more important than receiving it. By the end of the 15th century churches began having to enact legislation requiring members to receive communion once a year.7
And then came the Protestant Reformation, which we spoke about a couple of months ago. Luther, Zwingli and their colleagues sought to “purify” the service of the Eucharist, returning it to what they believed to be a more authentic form by removing what they considered to have been add-ons and restoring such elements as the Prayers of the People, as well as the receiving of both bread and wine. The service was to be spoken in the language of the people.8
As you might expect, if you recall what we said earlier about the Reformation in England, there were controversies. It has been said that virtually no one other than its compiler, Thomas Cranmer, was satisfied with the 1549 first edition of the English Book of Common Prayer. Too conservative for some, too liberal for others: what else is new?
The faithful were to receive the elements kneeling, with the bread placed in their hands, and they received from the common cup, as well. The fierce controversy over what Christ’s presence in the elements of communion meant – more about that later - was reflected in a rubric, in that first book. The posture of kneeling to receive was a gesture of thanksgiving, it instructed, and not intended to imply “adoration of the sacramental bread or wine” or “any real or essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood”.9
Our first American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was published in 1786 and closely reflected the Anglican Prayer Book of that time; it was revised in 1892 and 1928, the version of the Prayer Book that many of us grew up with, although none of the revisions to the practice of the Eucharist in those books was substantial. The period of lively liturgical reform in the Episcopal Church began in the 1970s: again, probably many of us can remember the almost hysterical outrage stirred up by the trial “Zebra Book” (because of its striped cover) that appeared in 1973.
For a liturgy whose language and practices changed only incrementally in four hundred years, we have come a long way since the 1970s. The last General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 passed a resolution encouraging experimentation with diverse liturgical language to be “more inclusive and expansive” and better reflect “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and the growing insights of our Church.” (Resolution 2018-AO63) As you know, here at James and Andrew we rotate through the four eucharistic prayers from the 1979 Prayer Book along with six additional prayers from American, British, Canadian, and New Zealand Anglican sources.
So that’s the historical background. It seems important to observe that in our modern post-Reformation world, Christians observe a considerable variety of practices in the service of the Communion. While we Episcopalians celebrate Eucharist weekly (so long as we have a priest available to preside and consecrate the elements), some denominations share communion less frequently. Some churches use grape juice or water, rather than wine, and some administer the wine in individual cups, rather than sharing a common cup as we do (at least in the pre-pandemic world.)
Who can receive the sacrament is also a point of divergence and disagreement, including in our Episcopal Church. Many denominations require that worshippers be baptized (or complete instruction or another initiation such as Confirmation) before receiving communion. It is still the official policy of The Episcopal Church that only baptized persons receive the bread and wine at the Eucharist. As you know, however, in this parish we declare each week that “This is God’s table, and all are welcome, no exceptions.” We are not alone in our practice of “open communion,” but we do so only because our Bishop permits it. Some Dioceses and congregations in the Episcopal Church are resolute in allowing the sacrament only for those who have committed themselves to Christ through Baptism. Proposals relating to the practice of open communion have come before the Church in recent General Conventions, and Convention has repeatedly opted NOT to take on discussion of policy change.
The service of the Eucharist follows a set form rooted, as I have said, in both Jewish tradition and the apostolic church. I don’t know whether you’ve had the wonderful experience of attending eucharist in another country or culture. Many years ago I went to a Lutheran service while visiting with a friend in Helsinki, Finland. I couldn’t understand a word, and I knew exactly what they were saying and singing. Despite the complete language barrier, I felt totally at home. It gave me a new awareness of what it means to be part of the universal Body of Christ.
The word “eucharist” itself, from the Greek eucharistia, means “thanksgiving”: in the gathering for Eucharist, God’s people both express our gratitude to God and are blessed, strengthened, and renewed by encountering God in the hearing of God’s Word, in receiving the bread and wine, and through experiencing being part of the gathered community.
Let me say it again: in the Eucharist we are blessed, strengthened, and renewed by encountering God in at least three ways
Let’s talk a little bit about what is probably the trickiest and most mysterious part of it all. What is essentially going on in our remembering and re-enacting Jesus’ Last Supper, and in our consuming the elements of bread and wine?
Very early in the Church’s history Christian leaders began to refer to the bread of the Eucharist as “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ”10, and for much of its history before the Reformation, the Church taught that when the Eucharist is properly celebrated, the elements of bread and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ at the time of the fraction (or breaking of the bread), even though in physical appearance they appear to remain unchanged. This change in substance is referred to as “transubstantiation”, and remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
At the other end of the spectrum, some Reformed churches see the Eucharist as a purely symbolic memorial re-enactment, a way of remembering, as Jesus commanded, his self-sacrifice, just as a family might ritually remember a departed member by using her favorite tablecloth each Thanksgiving.
Somewhere in the middle, other churches believe that Christ is “spiritually present” in the elements of the sacrament even though the substance of the bread and wine remain physically unchanged. “Consubstantiation”, a doctrine which Martin Luther espoused, holds that the bread and wine, at consecration, BOTH take on the “real presence” of Christ while also retaining their original form as bread and wine.
Episcopalians and other Anglicans hold most closely to this Lutheran theology (though we do not use the term “consubstantiation”), asserting that Christ is “really and truly present”11 in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Anglicans have quite steadfastly declined to attempt explanation of what this means or how it occurs: we remain happy to celebrate the mystery.
In the Eucharist God gives us God’s self. In a way that our words cannot articulate or our brains fully grasp, the God who took on flesh in the life of Jesus is again offered to us, becoming part of us, nurturing our spirit as the physical grain and fruit of the bread and wine nurture our bodies.
Richard Norris, 20th century Episcopal theologian, talks about it this way:
“Jesus took the ceremonial actions which were customarily performed [at the sabbath meal] and explained them as signifying his forthcoming death. His body was to be broken, like the bread, and his blood was to be poured out, like the wine. What was about to happen would not just be another unhappy dying. It would be a death through which God would create a New Covenant with his people…..
People who take bread and wine and give thanks over them for the New Covenant which God has made with humanity in Christ, perform an action through which they enter into Jesus’ dying and the new life which came through it…
The bread and wine, given to God in thanksgiving, is God’s way of speaking Christ to us…. In being joined to Christ, they enter into Christ’s life.”12
The Eucharist IS, at its heart, mystery. It is gift and blessing to us. It signifies our unity with God and one another despite our doubts and confusions and differences. It expresses our hope that through the receiving of Christ in the sacrament we may ever more fully enter into the life of the resurrected Christ and be God’s love in the world. Amen.
It is a sacrament that is almost universally recognized across the many, varied branches of the Jesus Movement. In the fifth century, St. Augustine defined a sacrament as, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” 1 Depending on who you’re talking to there are two, seven, or even countless sacraments - but we’ll save that thread for another day.
The origins of baptism stem from many faith traditions with ritual washing, and Jesus would have grown up knowing baptism as a Jewish ritual. It was understood as a cleansing, a washing away of one's sins. I’d invite us to think about sin as those things which distract us from living the life we are called to live, leaving us feeling separated and far from God.
John the Baptist, as his name would suggest, popularized the ritual cleansing of baptism, as a means of reorienting hearts, souls, and minds towards God. People would travel from all over in order to be baptized by him. Yet John was clear with his followers, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” 2
When John baptized Jesus, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove, proclaiming Jesus as God’s own.3 The ritual of baptism was adopted by Jesus, and in turn, the early Church, which you can read about in the Book of Acts. Baptism shifted into a ritual that required an extensive, three year period of study and preparation, which would culminate in baptism at the first cockcrow on Easter morning. 4 Immediately afterward, the newly baptized would partake in the Easter Eucharist for the first time. 4
Initially, bishops presided at baptisms. The establishment of Christianity by Constantine brought with it an increased emphasis on the idea of original sin, which needed to be washed away in baptism. 4 This created a sense of urgency, which led to infants and children being baptized, greatly reducing the preparation period. It became impractical for bishops to preside at so many liturgies, and soon priests predominately presided at baptisms. 4 & 5 It is worth noting that in potential life and death situations, baptism does not even require clergy. Any lay person can take water and baptize the one who wants to be baptized.
Baptism has come to symbolize a great deal:
Unfortunately, throughout the Church’s history, there has been some truly unfortunate, and harmful theology around baptism. In particular, teachings about what happens if someone should die without being baptized. I can’t tell you how many conversations Molly and I have had with folks over the years, who are anxious that a loved one, often a grandchild, is not baptized. A fear has been instilled by the institutional Church over the course of centuries, that should a child not be baptized, they would not get to experience resurrection life. This teaching stems from fear, and church leaders using fear to ‘grow the church’. These are the very behaviors and teachings that have left generations of folks questioning and rejecting the institutional Church. Every institution has its shadow side, and that is part of ours; it does not reflect what we know about God’s nature throughout scripture.
Scripture shows us repeatedly that our God is a God of transformative, unconditional love. Whether one has formally been marked in baptism, each and every person in this world is adopted, cherished, and loved by God. It can be hard to remember - about ourselves and others - but we are each beloved, beautiful, and broken children of God. There is a place for all of us at God’s Table. No exceptions. Baptism is not something one should do out of fear - fear of hell or heaven, fear of being outside the hands of God, fear of being left out of a community. Baptism at its best is an intentional act of love, a choice to walk this life with a community. A choice made in freedom, not to avoid an eternal ‘timeout’.
The only real requirement for baptism is a desire to be baptized. A desire to be part of this universal Church that spans across time and space, and a desire to proclaim your intention to the world in thought, word, and deed: I want to walk through this life with faith, hope, and love; to be a part of the movement that will help God’s dream for this world come into fruition; trusting in the knowledge that we are all children of God.
In the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, people of all ages can be baptized. When infants and young children are baptized, it is their parents and sponsors who are making these promises on their behalf, committing to raise the child in faith. Then when they have grown up and become young adults, they can decide whether or not to choose this path for themselves in a confirmation liturgy.
Once upon a time, it was common for baptisms to take place in private, outside of Sunday worship. I am know many of us, myself included, were baptized privately. Then, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church shifted our theology of baptism to more closely reflect Jesus’ original intent; moving baptism into the context of communal worship. Lauren Winner, in Girl Meets God, emphasizes the importance of baptism taking place in the context of community.
“The very point [of baptism] is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by [themselves]. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf…When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises.” 6
The promises we make in our baptism are big, bold, and beautiful ideals for us to strive to live into. The only way we can really live into them is in the context of community, and by remembering the words we say when making these promises: I will, with God’s help. 7 Not I will (period); but, I will (comma) with God’s help - which includes the help of our community.
Let’s take a brief walk through the baptismal liturgy. 7 It begins after the sermon, when the candidate and their sponsors are invited to come forward. The liturgy begins by the candidate affirming it is their desire to be baptized, and the sponsors affirming they will do their best to support this person in their spiritual journey. Then the candidate answers three questions that are focused on turning away from Satan, a name that represents the power of evil in our world and the sinful desires that can separate us from God. After renouncing these powers, the candidate then answers three questions affirming they will put their trust in Jesus Christ, our Savior and guide.
The presider then turns to the congregation and asks the community: Will you as a community do everything in your power to support this person in faith?
We respond with a very loud: We will!
But, this isn’t like signing up to help with the next church fundraiser. This is a community promise to walk beside, care for, and support this person in their spiritual journey. It’s answering the phone when our fellow community member is going through a tough time; it’s being surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents to the children and teenagers of this community; it’s sitting at the bedside of a dying church friend. While we are here to transform the world by the power of God’s love, it all begins in our weekly, community worship. We are grounded in that community worship, before going out into the world each Sunday to walk in love. This is not a promise to be taken lightly.
At this point in the liturgy, we are now all standing together, as we are able, as a sign and symbol that we are in this together, both as a local parish and as the universal Church. Together, the soon to be newly baptized and the community affirm the promises of our baptism. Over the course of our lives, we will repeat these promises hundreds of times, and we will never cease to need that reminder of who we are and how we have promised to live.
The Baptismal Covenant takes the shape of question and answer. We begin by affirming the Apostles’ Creed, which has been associated with baptism since the early Church. Each of these three statements begins, I believe. In this instance, I believe, does not mean we are intellectually subscribing to an idea; rather it means, ‘I give my entire heart to this reality’. 6. The creed summarizes the basic teachings of our faith: that God created everything; that Jesus Christ lived; our faith in the Spirit, the universal Church, the communion of saints, that our sins are forgiven, and the promise of eternal life.
We then make six promises:
Then the presider offers prayers of thanksgiving over the water. As Marion J. Hatchett, writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, the water of baptism recalls: “...the waters of creation, the exodus, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and portrays the font, in the classical manner as a bath, a womb, and a tomb…”. 4 This is followed by the baptism, which means ‘dip’; as baptism was often a full immersion experience, dunking the candidate three times. 4. Full immersion baptism still happens all the time, though in our tradition we tend to have more folks opt for a small bit of water poured over their head three times.
One Easter in seminary, our parish priest brought a cow trough into the front of the church for a full immersion baptism, well decorated with linen and surrounded by easter flowers. It was beautiful to watch the candidate be dunked in their white robe, but some of the longtime Episcopalians had a bit of a kanipshin that there was a cow trough in their sanctuary. I haven’t done this to you yet - but no promises.
As the water is poured out, the presider says, “...I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” 7. This baptismal formula comes from the Great Commission in Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” 8
Following the baptism, a prayer is said thanking God for what has just happened, and asking the Spirit to sustain and nurture them. The presider then takes an oil of thanksgiving blessed by the bishop, known as chrism oil, and says, “...you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen.” 4 & 8 Then the newly baptized is welcomed into the household of God.
This has been a mere cursory glance at baptismal belief and practices. There is much that was not covered, and if you're interested in learning more, please speak to Molly or myself.
As we prepare for a baptism next Sunday, I would invite us all to do some reflecting this week:
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector