As I sit with my mom as she recovers from surgery, I’m reminded of the value of Communion for shut ins. Those who are part of the Body of Christ and yet physically unable to participate in the community in any formal way are still those for whom Christ died and to whom He offers His sacramental gifts.
Though it isn’t the fault of shut in Communion, its practice, and other sacramental practices like it, give rise to questions in the hearts and minds of congregations. The thought process probably goes something like this, “Well, if this is all we really need to do Communion, what’s the point of doing anything more than that?” The question usually stems from a desire for efficiency, or, more usually, convenience. If we can do less work and still get the same benefit, then why bother doing more? There ends up being no value to the extra work and it just takes more time and effort to do it.
Laity, elders, and even pastors will ask these questions. It isn’t surprising they might do that, since even Luther talks this way from time to time. In Luther’s Baptismal Booklet, he says, “Bear in mind, too, that in baptism the external ceremonies are least important, such as blowing under the eyes, making the sign of the cross, putting salt in the mouth or spit and clay in the ears and nose, anointing the breast and shoulders with oil, smearing the head with chrism, putting on the christening robe, placing a burning candle in the child’s hand, and whatever else has been added by humans to embellish baptism. For certainly a baptism can occur without any of these things, and they are not the actual devices from which the devil shrinks or flees. He sneers at even greater things than these!” It looks obvious that Luther has no regard for all of these “externals” and that baptism can go right on without them.
And so churches can and do pare back on their sacramental rites to the bare minimum. Clearly, if Communion can be given to shut ins without all of the pomp and circumstance you might expect in a more normal church service, then what is to be gained by all of the extras? The same question can be asked of baptism. If a pastor can baptize a child in a hospital sink, why bother doing a baptism in church and with everyone around and all of the liturgical rigmarole? Let’s just do what we need to do and be done with it.
However, that isn’t what Luther is arguing for. That isn’t the point he is trying to make at all. He is dealing with the Catholic view of things which was always leading people to think they hadn’t done enough to please God. More must be done. More must always be done. Luther wants people to look at what God Himself actually says, to hone in on that and put their trust and confidence in His words. A baptism in the kitchen sink is still just as valid as one done in church and one who had baptized that way can be just as confident in the power of God’s grace there as any other baptized person. Luther’s words sound the same, but they are aimed at an entirely different problem.
In fact, Luther’s contemporary, Karlstadt, was known for throwing out all the “extras” and Luther denounced him for it. Luther knew that the extra rites and rituals in the sacraments and the liturgy may not be required, but that didn’t mean they were pointless. None of it, the sacraments included, were done because God got something out of it or because it earned us something. It is all there for us, to help us learn and grow to be more Christ-like, to be better disciples and apostles. We may not need all of the prayers, hymns, and other things that surround the sacraments and flow through the liturgy, but what we do need is to grow in our faith and to learn how to better love the Lord and love our neighbor. All of those elements, if used properly, can help us do that. Cutting them out, especially in the name of supposed benefits like convenience, often does more harm than good.
When bringing Communion to shut ins, the usual practice is to take some the elements used in worship on Sunday, so those members can be a part of the same celebration to the extent they are able. It isn’t ideal and we acknowledge that it isn’t, but it is the best we can do given the limitations. The same can be said for an emergency baptism at the hospital. There is much to be gained from having a baptism within the service and seeing the sacrament in connection to the life of Christ. However, when the need is more immediate, it is better to do what we can than to do nothing at all.
This becomes the key difference from the convenience mindset. Shut in Communion and emergency baptisms are valid and good, but they are also the exception. They are not meant to guide our thinking on sacramental practices because they are not how the sacraments are meant to be received, in isolation, cut off from the rest of the Body of Christ.
The sacraments have a lifetime’s worth of instruction for us. Even our baptism, probably received when we were infants, is still at work teaching us throughout our lives. To go for the minimum is to say there is nothing more for us to receive from them but the minimum. God has so much more for you than the minimum. God does not give frivolous gifts. Instead, always be looking at how to bring the richness of the sacraments out more fully, not for God’s sake, but for ours. So that we may better absorb the lessons God is giving to us in them.