United Methodists join with the majority of the world’s Christians in celebrating the sacraments of signs of God’s near and present love to us.
“Don’t tell me, show me,” pleads a song in My Fair Lady. To say “I love you” is to say something wonderful, but sometimes we want more than words. We communicate not only by speech but also by action. “Actions speak louder than words,” we sometimes say.
God knows this. In the Bible, God not only says, “I love you” through the words of the law, the prophets, the sermons of Jesus, and the letters of Paul; God’s love is also demonstrated.
God’s love is demonstrated through signs. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manager” (Luke 1:12). The babe at Bethlehem is a sign that God is acting to redeem his people.
God’s love is demonstrated through symbols. At a wedding, words of love are spoken by a man and woman. Rings are also given with the explanation, “The wedding ring is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The rings become symbols to those who wear them of the covenant they have made. To the detached observer, the rings are only pieces of metal. To those who wear they, they are powerful symbols that express, in a visible and tangible way, some of the deepest and most inexpressible feelings in their lives.
A flag, a handshake, a kiss, a cross, a wedding ring–these are the symbols of love that say more than mere words can express. Jesus himself became the supreme visible and tangible symbol, which expresses and reveals God’s love for us.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father…And from
his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace…
No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in
the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
God’s love is demonstrated most powerfully through sacraments. Sacraments are sings and symbols:
Bread–Fitting symbol of hunger and nourishment, human needs and divine gifts.
Water–Symbol of birth, life, refreshment, death, cleanliness.
Wine–Rich and red symbol of spirit, vitality, life, blood.
Paul told the divided church at Corinth, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread?” (I Corinthians 10:17). Elsewhere, Paul spoke of baptism as if we were drowning our old lives so that we might be born to new life:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were
buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that
as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Not only objects like a loaf of bread or a cup of wine can be symbols. Actions can also convey deep meaning. A hug, a kiss, a handshake, kneeling for prayer, applause, a shout of joy–all are ways of letting actions speak louder than words in our worship of God. Sacraments are everyday objects like bread and water and everyday actions like eating and bathing, that, when done among God’s people in worship, convey our love for our God. They are means by which we express feelings too deep for words.
We not only use these objects and actions in worship to show our love for God, God also uses sacraments to show his love for us. Our Creator knows that we creatures depend on demonstrations of divine love. So God uses everyday things we can understand to show us love that defies understanding. God gives us the Christ.
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by
the prophets; but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son.
Jesus, at the end of his earthly ministry, gave us a powerful symbol of love–a meal of loving friends.
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had
given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this
in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me.”
I Corinthians 11:23-35
Jesus also gave his followers a sacrament of his love to share with the rest of the world–Baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Christian faith.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We United Methodists observe two sacraments, two “acts of love” that Jesus gave his disciples; Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion). In these sacraments we taste, touch, fee, know, and experience the grace of God. We know the love of God to be a present reality in our lives.
We believe the sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of
The Christian’s profession and of God’s love towards us. They are means of
grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and
confirming our faith in him.
The Book of Discipline, par.68, page 634.
What do sacraments mean? Admittedly, the sacraments speak of mysteries too deep for words or mere understanding. As one person said of the Lord’s Supper, “I would rather experience it than understand it.” In another sense the meaning of the sacraments is close to the most common, everyday experiences in life.
The Lord’s supper means everything that any meal means: love, fellowship, hunger and nourishment of life, hospitality, joy. These mealtime meanings are given added significance because, at this meal, we commune with the risen Christ who joins us at our table.
Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, birth, power, refreshment, life. These natural meanings of water are given added significance because his baptismal water is given “in the name of Jesus.”
You can think of other acts of worship beside the sacraments that are also acts of love: confirmation, a wedding, a funeral, sermons, prayers, hymns, altar calls. In all these activities, we reach out to God in love, only to find that, in love, God has been reaching out to us.
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.