Evangelism and Sacraments: Telling Well the Story

The Story cannot be told without reference to water: The waters of creation, the flood, the Red Sea, water from the rock, Jesus in the Jordan, the pool of Bethsaida, a basin for washing feet, bloody water from Jesus’ side, “the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne.” No, the story cannot be told without water, and all that water issues forth from a life-giving font, the baptismal font.

Neither can the Story be told without reference to meals: the garden’s food for Adam and Eve; at the oaks of Mamre, a meal for three; in Egypt, a lamb is slain, a meal shared, and the angel of death passes over; manna; Ruth and Boaz; five loaves, two fish; a rabbi, his disciples, a Passover; at Pentecost, many “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” Week by week, the Lord’s Table, a communion table, is set with all that food.

The Story. Water and food.
Evangelism. Sacraments.

What is ‘evangelism’? “Evangelism,” says missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin, “is the telling of good news.” It is not “some kind of technique by means of which people are persuaded to change their minds and think like us.” To evangelize, he explains, is to “be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of [a] neighborhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus. … Christ’s message, the original gospel, was about the coming of the kingdom of God, that is to say, God’s kingly rule over the whole of creation and the whole of humankind. That is the only authentic gospel” (Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian: A Reader, Eerdmans, 2006, 144-145).

What are sacraments? Following John Calvin, the Reformed tradition has ever affirmed that sacraments “bear the same office”–the same duty, role, or function–as the Word proclaimed, “namely, to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace” (Institutes, 4:14.17)

Word and sacrament. Spelled like “fish-‘n’-chips.” Word-‘n’-sacrament offers and sets forth the good news of the redeeming work God has accomplished, is accomplishing, and has yet to accomplish in Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not for nothing that evangelism and sacraments overlap in this way. What follows are four ideas about that overlap, intended for constructive conversation within worshiping communities.

How We Know We Belong

The sacraments themselves, in their celebration, seal to God’s people their evangelistic mission, appointing and summoning, renewing and encouraging them in it. Yes, God Triune does this sealing of mission, this appointing, summoning, renewing and encouraging, but (to channel Calvin) God deigns to use sacraments as instruments to do it.

With the font’s waters, God marks us as God’s own, adopting us in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This adoption is “a new birth” (John 3) a spiritual birth, and it affords new life. What a comfort that we should be, as the Heidelberg Catechism begins, “not our own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” How do you know you belong? What manifests this to you? Is it not the indelible watermark of baptism?

This gift of belonging is not to be presumed upon. It comes with a high, holy calling. The belonging and calling given us in baptism is the same as that given Abraham and Sarah, to whom God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The belonging and calling given us in baptism is the same as that given Jesus in the Jordan–Jesus, the descendant through whom peoples of all nations are radically blessed. According to Luke, Jesus is baptized, the heavens open, and a voice pronounces his identity: “You are my Son; the Beloved” (Luke 3). The Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to prepare him for his calling. Leaving the desert, “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus takes up his mission, teaching and healing. His approval rating on the synagogue circuit is high. On a Sabbath in his hometown, he reads from Isaiah to proclaim the divine mission, his mission. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads. In his missional message, Jesus illustrates the scope of God’s missional endeavor. His hearers’ own well-known history testifies that the Lord has always been “deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of Israel’s neighborhood”; so deeply and intimately as to show, clearly, to everyone, “that no one is outside the range of God’s love” (Newbigin,  Evangelism in the City).

Surely there were Israelites with leprosy, but God cures Namaan, a Syrian, having him wash in the Jordan, their river, their font. Surely there were Israelite widows about to be consumed by the famine, but God sends Elijah to a Phoenician, to prepare for her a life-giving feast.

In Baptism, we are – as many Reformed liturgies declare – sealed by the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Sealed by the Spirit: So in Christ with Christ, we, too, declare, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” To bring good news to the poor: to dignify them with hearty meals, fresh clothes, and safe shelters. To proclaim release to captives: to provide community and employment to those released from prison. To proclaim recovery of sight to the blind: to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with disciples who suffer dementia. To let the oppressed go free: to purchase Fair Trade, to provide safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk to tell their stories. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor: to, in Newbigin’s words again, “be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of [a] neighborhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus.”

Baptism seals to us our identity and calling as evangelists. The church internalizes this not only when the water is administered but also when its meaning is invoked. A summons to live into baptismal identity and to live out baptismal calling fits when folk are ordained as office bearers or appointed as Sunday-school teachers. It fits when folk are commissioned for service in the world, whether for 18 months in a remote Brazilian village or for 18 Thursdays in an urban church’s tutoring club. As one Reformed worship book (Worship the Lord: The Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America) emphasizes for such occasions, “all who are baptized receive a ministry to witness to Jesus as Savior and Lord, and to love and serve those with whom they live and work. We are – all of us – ambassadors for Christ. We are – all of us – participants in his ministry of reconciliation.”

A summons to live into and live out our evangelistic best is inherent to the feast, too, the meal by which God sustains us in our new life. Some communion prayers recount the Son of God’s earthly life with missional emphasis: “O God, he lived as one of us. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, opened blind eyes, broke bread with outcasts and sinners, and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom.” Some communion prayers summon God for the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament, voicing a subtle but profound missional turn:

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ. By your Spirit make us one with the living Christ, and with all who are baptized in his name that we may be one in ministry in every place. (The [Presbyterian] Book of Common Worship, p. 129).

One with Christ. One with all in Christ. “In order that Christ and all in Christ may be one in ministry in every place.”

At the Table, we receive food for the journey, the only food of our souls: the body and blood of Christ. This is lembas, J.R.R. Tolkien’s elven waybread: One small bite will sustain us. Get up, says the angel of the Lord to us as the angel once said to Elijah, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too much for you.”

Rhythm of Our Calling

Let us imaginatively accent the sacramental, evangelistic ‘beats’ in each movement of worship: gathering, Word, response, sign, and sending.

Clayton Schmit of Fuller Theological Seminary published a book on missional worship titled Sent and Gathered (Baker Academic, 2009). Putting “sent” before “gathered,” Schmit emphasizes (as we do here and now) the mission of God’s people. God knows this mission is not safe. So at the close of worship, God has the last word – to usher us into our vocation and to encourage us in taking it up. Calling and comfort. The very calling and comfort sealed to the church in baptism. This prophetic exhortation and priestly blessing are the Word of the Lord, sacramentally wet words and therefore worthy of being voiced from the font:

Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, who formed you:
Do not fear for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name: you are mine.
When you pass through the waters.

God’s people are a sent people because they are a gathered people. The blessing with which God sends us is the very promise for which God gathers us. We are feeble-minded, forgetful folk, so God gathers us – Sunday by Sunday, season by season, year by year – to tell us and to show us who we are because of Whose we are.

God gathers us. We do not gather ourselves and then strive to make God present, hoping God’ll show up. Such an understanding bespeaks God’s grace. Rather, as Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a 20th-century Reformed theologian, puts it: “[It] is God who calls the Church to worship that God may give Himself to the Church and take the Church into His embrace” (“The Theological Meaning of Common Prayer,” Studia Liturgica 10 no. 3-4  (1974), p. 125) These days, it is pastorally imperative to own the reality that not everyone whom the Spirit compels into a church’s Sunday morning gathering has ever been part of the church – or maybe they are in fact part of the church but not yet knowingly.

In the reading and preaching of Scripture, God rehearses the story of the world’s redemption in Christ. Von Allmen reminds us that a preacher does not “invent” a message for her Sunday sermon. She runs ahead of God’s people into God’s Word, receives the Word, and faithfully delivers it to the people. Through her mouth, God does God’s own work, addressing us and putting us in the middle of the story: “In Christ, I have redeemed you. What Christ accomplished is accomplished in you, you being in Christ; thus you are able to participate in what Christ by the Spirit is accomplishing in the world now.”

God’s Word invokes response. Reformed theologian Eugene Heideman suggests that “our intercession on behalf of the Church and the world is our first act of service in response to God’s grace.” Intercession. Prayer. For the world and for the church; for the church for the sake of the world. Such prayer is itself a living-into and living-out-of our baptismal identity, for in such prayer we participate in Christ’s priestly ministry.

The offering follows the prayers, a coupling of profound missional significance. In the act of offering, we quite literally put our money where our mouth is: We have prayed for the homeless, and now we share of our abundance so that a faith-based nonprofit can sustain its vocation on the city’s streets. In God’s economy for making all things new, the church is God’s answer to the church’s prayers. The coupling of intercession and offering cultivates in us this very awareness of our story, now as God’s story. We participate with not just money but with time, intellect, and skill. What if we invited folk to bring to worship the tell-tale clothing or tools of their trades, that they might tangibly offer their vocations to God? Perhaps they could bring their gear forward, to place it at the table or font.

Opening The Table

In celebrating the sacraments evangelistically hospitably, might we embrace the ambiguity of anamnesis?

Here is a thought experiment, working with liturgical-theological ways of expressing God’s mysterious work in the world. Here is an idea about the Invitation to the Table offered to discussion about open-table communion practice.

The Lord’s Table is set with a feast of remembrance, communion, and hope. Remembrance: anamnesis. In a great prayer of thanksgiving, God’s people remember the redeeming work of Christ. Such remembering is not a matter of recalling historical detail as a student might for a test. It is remembering an event, knowing, even experiencing, that our being and destiny, as James B. Torrance puts it, are caught up in that event.

When Jews celebrate Passover, this is the remembering they do with respect to Moses and deliverance from Egypt. Though not alive at the time of the exodus, they tell its story as their story, in the first person plural. The Lord’s Supper is our Passover  meal. In this feast, we remember the redeeming work Jesus accomplished in his person as if we were present, because by the bond of the Spirit, we were, in his very person; in this feast, we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, recognizing, as the apostle Paul makes clear, that his death to sin is our death to sin, and his rising to new life is our rising to new life.

Anamnesis is an eschatological collapse of time. The past rushes in on the present, the present on the past, and the future cyclones in on both. In one ancient eucharistic prayer, Christians voice remembrance of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension, “and his glorious and awesome second coming.” How can we remember something that has not yet happened? Anamnesis.

In worship, in Word-’n’-sacrament, we inhabit this collapse of time. So in celebrating the Lord’s Supper evangelistically, might we embrace the temporal ambiguity of anamnesis? Consider this invitation to the Table:

Friends, Christ is host at this table. All who are baptized into Christ, who love and trust Christ as the one through whom God is making all things new and who come hungering and thirsting for the good gifts that Christ himself offers here are welcome to partake of this feast. If you are baptized but your trust is wavering, or you’re unaware of your hunger and thirst, don’t withhold on that account. Come, trusting that Christ longs to nourish your soul, no matter how faithless it may seem to you. If you are not baptized, know that there is great rejoicing in your presence here this morning: We give thanks to God for the trust and faith you’ve shown just in showing up here. If the Spirit is compelling you to encounter the living Christ at this table, through the gifts of bread and cup, then the Spirit is just as surely compelling you to encounter the living Christ in the waters of baptism.

All are welcome to come forward. Even if you are not inclined to partake of bread and cup for whatever reason, still, you are welcome to come. When you reach the servers, simply place a hand to your heart. No one will think it strange. No one looks for your gesture except the servers, who will extend to you the peace of Christ, rejoicing to God for your presence here.

Friends in Christ, come! Come, for all is ready!

Glad hospitality holds Meal and Bath together, still giving Bath priority.

We press the experiment further, into the ambiguity of anamnesis: Surely there will be those who are not baptized who will feel compelled to partake of the feast. Could it be that in our churches’ pastoral care we come alongside such folk not to reprimand but to encourage, not to shame them into giving up their practice or to take away the bread and cup outright, but instead to say, “Thanks be to God! for the work of the Spirit in your life. Tell us your story. And have you heard what has been said, that if the Spirit is compelling you to partake of the feast, then surely the Spirit is also compelling to be reborn in the bath? What do you think of this? Could we mutually understand that as you come to the feast, not yet having been baptized, that you will remember your baptism even though it has not yet happened? Could we walk together to the living water?”

In worship, we inhabit eschatological time. Could we embrace its ambiguity? Could we open our minds to this but not so widely that our confessional brains fall out? The idea requires further theological consideration, and the practice would require great pastoral chutzpah. Could we move into the post-Christendom present and future with renewed sacramental awareness?

Daily Sacrament

What regulates our mission, our vocation, our lives? With respect to our prayers, von Allmen shows us that the premier prayer Christians offer is their communal Sunday prayer, offered on behalf of the church and the world. All other prayers , whenever and wherever we offer them, individually or communally, are echoes of and preludes to that premier moment of prayer, premier because our inherently communal union with Christ and our mutual participation in his priestly ministry are so palpable to us and to the world in that moment.

Communal Sunday worship: This is the context, too, of our premier encounter with the Word, such that our daily devotional reading of Scripture, whether in solitude or with others, is an echo of and prelude to the proclamation of the Word on Sunday. This is the setting of our premier experience of cleansing (in baptism) and nourishing (at table). Might we experience, deliberately, our daily meals, and the cleansing that precedes them, as echoes of and preludes to our experience of the sacraments? The meaning of our daily encounters with Scripture, water and food begins and ends in Word-’n’-sacrament. Seeing this, we may apprehend that our story is ultimately nothing apart from God’s story, that God’s story is our story.

Imagine a physician whose practice is to pray – for herself, for her surgical assistants for her patient – as she scrubs for the operating room. While rinsing, she remembers baptism and contemplates how, in her medical vocation, she is living into her baptismal identity and living out her baptismal calling, participating in making real the hope for healing and wholeness first sealed to her by Christ with the living water of the font.

Imagine Because of Winn-Dixie is Kate DeCamillo’s narrative feast about the feast, whether she intended it so or not. It begins in a grocery – where India Opal Buloni rescues a dog. Or does the dog rescue Opal? The dog is, as Opal calls him, a “Less Fortunate,” around whom gathers a host of “Less Fortunates” for a feast of newfound belonging. Opal is there. And her father, the Preacher. Miss Frannie Block. Amanda Wilkinson. Sweetie Pie Thomas. Dunlap and Stevie Dewberry. Otis. Gloria Dump. And the reader.

We’re all “Less Fortunates,” every one of us, who need to hear, be bathed in, and be fed by the Good News of both Testaments that “no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus.” That’s the crux of the Good News, well-told by Word-’n’-sacrament.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: paul bica