Last week I talked about how the sacraments teach through all five senses. With Thomas in the upper room, Jesus does not merely speak to him, He allows Thomas to touch Him as well to further reinforce the Gospel message. Christ truly has risen from the dead. Jesus wants Thomas to be confident in the words proclaimed to him and backs that promise up with His physical presence.
This reinforcement of the written and spoken promise of grace and eternal life is another fundamental purpose of the sacraments. Anything that inhibits our confidence in God’s forgiveness and mercy ends up destroying one of the primary functions of these means of grace.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking is one that often gets short shrift. The thought usually goes something like, “If I can call this baptism/Communion, then that’s what it is.” Luther would disagree. One of the points Luther hit over and over again is that human inventions count for nothing. Only what rests on the certainty of God’s Word has any power to help us. That means for the sacraments to accomplish what they are designed to do, they also need to conform to God’s Word. The further away they drift from what we know the sacraments to be as described in Scripture, the less confident I can be that they are truly acting as means of grace.
This can happen in a number of ways, both in the conduct of the rite and the physical elements used. I remember a seminarian friend whose cousin was baptized in a non-Lutheran church. Sadly, the pastor of that church baptized the little boy, “In the name of this holy community.” Since this does not follow the command of God to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I have very little confidence that God’s baptismal promises have come to rest on that little boy. The pastor and the congregation as a whole did that boy a terrible disservice that can only be rectified by doing the baptism according to Christ’s command.
I believe the church body in question had a pretty low view of the sacraments and likely didn’t believe anything of eternal significance took place there. However, this sort of thing crops up even in the Lutheran church and other church bodies that hold a high view of the sacraments. One place in particular is the use of grape juice in Communion. Usually the rationale is that alcoholics won’t be able to partake because of their addiction and so we offer an alternative. I understand and appreciate the quandary there. Alcoholics are in need of the grace and strengthen offered through Communion as much as any other sinner. At the same time, there is no one who looks at a cup of grape juice that will call it wine. The fact that it specifically isn’t wine is the entire reason churches suggest including it. If Christ is binding His body and blood to bread and wine, then grape juice becomes an intentional divergence from His promise. That means my ability to assure someone they are receiving grace through this eating and drinking is significantly diminished.
I have also heard a pastor describe doing a baptism in absence of water. If there is no water readily available, he suggests using own saliva instead. Unfortunately, the same problem holds here as well. No one is going to look at that and think of it as water. Saliva does indeed have water in it, but that is not how we think of it.
To be sure, God may very well choose to still act through grape juice and saliva. He is Almighty God and He can do as He pleases. But, He has made no such promise known to me. Even if He does opt to work through those things, if my conscience is still unsettled because I lack the confidence in what I am doing, then the purpose of the physical element is still lost. Jesus appears in the upper room to remove doubts, not let them continue unabated.
These are just a few ways in which doubt can be introduced into the sacrament, but there are many more and I cannot address them all. All I can offer is the guideline that the closer you adhere to the words of Christ, the less doubt there is that God is present and active.
It is on this note that I will ascend my soapbox for a moment and decry the use of wafers. When Jesus celebrates the Supper with His disciples, He breaks bread. It doesn’t say which kind of bread, but it is most assuredly bread. Both leavened and unleavened bread have solid Scriptural backing to support their use in Communion. However, if you asked any Christian to list the top ten things that come to mind when you say the word “bread,” wafer won’t make the list. The only reason we think of it as bread is because the church has told us that’s what it is. It looks very little like any sort of bread I’ve seen anywhere else. It doesn’t feel, taste, or smell like bread. As common as it might seem, I would rather eat a slice of Wonder Bread. For as common and basic as it is, I look at it and know it is bread. I have to chew it, which means I have to take a moment and engage it. It has taste, smell, and texture. In short, there is no doubt in my mind it is bread. Obviously, you could do something a bit higher quality. But nevertheless, just about any bread you use will be more fitting of Christ’s command than a tiny, almost inconsequential, wafer. As my previous post indicated, the sacraments are the most important place to be bringing out the richness of God’s creation in conveying His grace. Let it come through in abundance.