Explain the role and the significance of the sacraments in the Methodist Tradition:
I, as a United Methodist, recognize as biblically-based the two sacraments of communion (also referred to as the Eucharist) and baptism. They are called sacraments as they are seen as the holy and sacred rituals that affirm our beliefs as followers of Christ as the Savior, as well as tell part of our heritage as Christians. Each one is seen, as our founder, John Wesley taught, as being means of grace from God to humankind.
In baptism, the child is presented by the parents, who proclaim their belief in Christ and as part of the body of Christ, as well as hand their child to the church to help raise the child in accordance with those beliefs. The prevenient grace that is offered to all people from the time of birth, is then illumined, and the Holy Spirit that is open to be experienced and accepted in all human life, is acknowledged. The child will later on have time to confirm the initiation into Christ’s church, but the actual initiation is seen as occurring at the time of baptism. By being baptized, we believe that the sins for which Christ died, and the salvation that brings “new life”, like the resurrection itself, is brought about by the physical and tangible element of water and the Spirit. The water symbolizes our recognition of Jesus as Christ, of our need and reliance on Christ, of our communal stance as Christians, and our obeying God as commanded. The water also washes us of the sins we carry and acknowledges our salvation through Christ.
Likewise, it is at confirmation, that we reaffirm our faith, renew the covenant of eternal life as given by God to all believers, and acknowledge in front of others what God is doing in our lives, while baptism is the entrance door to salvation.
The significance of baptism is as holy and unique today as it was in ancient times. It allows the people to hear and see, once again, that our religious beliefs are unique, that they are centered in Christ, and that we put our whole salvation into the hands of our loving Lord. This sacramental time allows the pastor to remind all who are around the ceremony, as to what we believe, that we are willing to stand and declare, and that we rededicate our lives to that which is the will of Christ while we journey on in faith. This means even more in a country that is becoming less Christian-based every day and gives great incentive for each individual to think about the act of recommitting their service to Christ, and not selfishly to themselves, on a regular basis. For we know we have the free will to reject of the gift of grace from God, but that never-the-less, we accept it, expect to have a relationship with God, and will attempt to live in the likeness of Christ. These things are taught with purpose and should be modeled with a responsibility in any Methodist Church, if you ask me.
The Eucharist is our second sacrament and was seen as one of the most important acts we could do, by John Wesley, who taught that we should take communion as often as possible. As Wesley taught, the Eucharist is an ordinance from God to be obeyed, but also a holy sacrament that points a human beyond itself. In this sacrament, we confess our sins, and confess that we have not lived and loved God, or others, the ways we should. We come together then to not only confess and ask forgiveness of our sins, but to pass the peace and forgiveness we seek for ourselves, on to others, before retelling the story of the night before Jesus’ death. This story lays the foundation for our going out and joining the first disciples in recalling what Jesus’ death and resurrection taught us, did for us, and how he saved us. For as the bread and wine represent, and take on the essence of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, they point beyond to God’s grace and mercy for us. Communion transforms God’s grace into an experience which thereby allows us to know God and love God. This, in turn, aids us to live out the commandment of loving one another. In full, this unseen grace becomes seen when taken and lived out, as we are not left where we started before taking the sacrament of Holy Communion.
As a pastor, I believe it is imperative that the congregation understand the tradition, the recollections, and the gift that comes from taking communion. Taking communion gives God that one more opportunity for the heart and mind to come to God as one and for God’s hand to reach out and touch, in an ever more special way, each of God’s children, together as one.
Communion allows us to stop and think again about this renewal as servants and ministers for God, in all that God is already doing in the world, and to recall that we have done nothing, and can do nothing, to make ourselves worthy of this gift. We do have the ability to show our awareness and thanks for God’s gift in Jesus Christ by sharing the Word, witnessing, and working to serve God’s people. Again, as a minister, I am a model and teacher, as well as a learning disciple myself; walking along with my fellow believers.
We are called back to our baptism and to the covenant God made with us through the water and the Spirit, then forward to recalling that Jesus told us to celebrate his death and resurrection by taking the bread and the cup, in remembrance of him. We also are calling upon the mystery of the Holy Spirit to come and create the bread and wine into the bread of life and the blood of salvation, once more, such that the world sees us as the body of Christ, redeemed by His atonement. These messages must remain clear and in the forefront of the teaching believers. Without them, we lose some of who we are and become complacent, without reason, and are more closely related to a “moral social group” than a devout group of Christians who place value in their history, so together, may have vision for future ministry.
The significance of this sacrament is thereby many-fold, as it reminds us all that our lives should be centered in Christ and that such centering should be of utmost significance to us as Christians. It is much like a creed, which, according to Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson , in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, takes the faith that is normally a personal and individual matter to believers these days, and fastens it to the body of believers as a whole. It declares not only that this is our confession, our belief, our faith, but that our belief in God has consequences that we faithfully respond to God by. Much like a creed and the sacrament of baptism, the Eucharist helps us interpret the scripture, guides us in Christian practices such as liturgy, and helps narrate the Good News of Christ.
Referenced and further suggested reading: Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (New York: Image Doubleday, 2005), 41-44 and 58-63.
The above was part of a paper that I was asked to write during the ordination process of The United Methodist Church. It is my opinion only, written several years ago, but one wherein I believe many questions are addressed about baptism and communion. It is not that other elements that could not also be addressed, or are not valid or appreciated, but this is a small taste of what I believe as a Methodist. I share it with you, as many people from different denominations ask me questions about these two topics, especially at Easter and Christmas. May you be blessed with a little background as to the thoughts and history behind this part of theology, if only for a moment in time! Blessings, Pastor Dawn