How Much is Enough?

I was recently weighing in in a conversation about the practice of intinction. If you you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to dipping the Communion host into the chalice to get the wine rather than drinking directly from the cup. The question was, is this a valid practice?

The answer is a little more nuanced than you might expect because there are a couple of issues going on the same time. The first is: how much wine (or bread) do you need to constitute receiving the sacrament? The other is: is this in keeping with the Lord’s command regarding the sacrament?

Often, when theologians start digging into questions like these it is out of a desire to nail down all aspects of the sacraments and how they work. Sometimes questions like this come from a desire to find out just how little I can do and still be considered a worthy recipient of the sacrament, but not always. From a pastoral perspective, the question of whether a bed-ridden person who can only handle a tiny bit of food can receive the sacrament might be of vital importance. Seen from that perspective, it’s worth discussing how the Bible describes the sacraments.

Both of these questions are answered by answering a slightly different question: where is the grace of God found? Luther takes a similar view to St. Augustine and even quotes him by saying, “when the Word is added to the element or natural substance, it becomes a sacrament.” The physical element is a major part of the sacrament, whether you’re looking at the water for Baptism or the bread and wine for Communion, these are the things God has bound His grace to. This is why we call the sacraments the means of grace. So, when we try to answer this question the issue is really just, “did you receive the physical element and was God’s promise attached to it?” If you heard Christ’s promise that this is His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in connection to the bread and wine, and you received that bread and wine, then you have received the grace that comes with them. In that sense, intinction works just as well as receiving the wine from the chalice. The quantity I receive does not reflect the quality of God’s grace, for His full and complete grace is present in any amount I receive.

This issue also plays into our understanding of baptismal practices. Some church bodies will argue that the only proper form of Baptism is immersion. The Biblical depictions of Christ’s own Baptism are not even clear as to whether He was immersed, but leaving that aside, the same questions are relevant. What is His promise attached to? The water. Did you receive the water with the promise attached? If so, then you received the sacrament. In this case, the promise comes through the Triune name of God, marking you as His own. Whether you are immersed or whether you are sprinkled, the power of God’s grace comes through any amount of water and it is sufficient for all of our needs.

Next week I’ll explore a bit more of these different ways of conducting the sacraments.

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