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Exploring Worship: Part Two, Word and Sacrament

Throughout the centuries, public worship in Christian churches has involved balancing different ideas and priorities that are sometimes in tension with each other. In the first article in this series, we looked at the question of form vs. freedom and formal liturgies. In this article, we will examine the balance between Word and Sacrament.

Acts 2:42 summarizes the life of believers in the church in Jerusalem: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (ESV) The breaking of bread almost certainly refers to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, so here, from the earliest days of the church, we see preaching and celebrating the sacraments as part of the life of the church.

The Question of Sacraments

At this point, someone is going to object to the use of the term “sacrament.” There are a number of possible objections here, but two are fundamental. The first is that the term “sacrament” implies that they are a means by which we obtain salvation; the second is that physical objects cannot convey spiritual grace.

Concerning the first, while sacraments in Catholicism are believed to convey both saving grace and sanctifying grace, Protestants who accept sacraments think about them differently. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone; we are also sanctified by grace through faith, but one way that this happens is via the sacraments. The sacraments are a means of grace that strengthen our faith and are made effective by our faith. They are not independent of faith nor salvific on their own.

Concerning the second objection—that physical objects cannot convey spiritual grace—that is an assumption based on a worldview that was not shared by the biblical authors or by most Christians throughout history. It is based on an idea called the Fact-Value Distinction, or what Francis Schaeffer called Upper and Lower Story Thinking. The core idea is that the physical world is the world of facts, defined as things that are empirically verifiable.

Anything that isn’t empirically verifiable is a matter of values, opinion, faith, taste, etc. These are not facts and are not objectively real. Grace falls into this second category, and it thus cannot mix with things that are objectively real, such as bread and wine. For most people in the modern Western world, this is a matter of common sense, and so by and large they reject or minimize the role of the sacraments as means of grace. It seems too much like magic or superstition.

Scripture, on the other hand, paints a very different picture of the world. The visible (empirical) and invisible (non-empirical) worlds are deeply intertwined, such that the invisible can affect the visible and the visible the invisible. Angels and demons are both active in our world, and our actions can affect the invisible world as well. And of course, the most extreme example of the way the visible and invisible worlds are tied together is in the Incarnation, where God became human, the uncreated entered creation, and the invisible was made visible. In such a world, why would we find it incredible that physical objects can convey grace?

There is much more that can be said here, but in the space of this article, it is impossible to even survey all the various understandings of the sacraments much less discuss the Scriptural foundations for them. For present purposes, we will simply note simply that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul considered the Lord’s Supper to be a very serious matter. Through it, we have fellowship with the body of Christ, and taking it in an unworthy manner is hazardous to the point of death. Whatever your theology on the Lord’s Supper, it is obviously very significant in the eyes of Paul.

The Eucharist in the Early and Medieval Church

The early church took both Word and Sacrament very seriously, although they handled them differently than we do today. Much of the instruction in the Faith was done outside of the worship services proper. In worship, after the public portion of the service, those who had not completed their catechetical training were escorted out, and the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord’s Supper; the word is Greek for “Thanksgiving”) was celebrated. Communion was closed in part for the protection of the communicants: if they were not properly catechized, they might take it in an unworthy manner and thus eat and drink damnation on themselves. However, closed Communion was also for the protection of the community: Christianity was illegal and sporadically persecuted, so they kept the Eucharist closed to keep spies out.

Once Christianity became legal and then the official religion of the Empire, this practice withered away. Nonetheless, the Eucharist remained at the center of the service and was far more important than preaching or teaching. Over time, however, despite the centrality of the Eucharist, Catholic laity did not typically participate in the sacrament; they only watched. The priests celebrating the Mass took the bread and wine daily; the laity only received the bread, and only once per year on Easter.

They still attended Mass weekly, but the service was conducted in Latin which few of them understood. Parish priests rarely preached, though starting in the thirteenth century Franciscans and Dominicans began to pick up the slack where they could. Worship was thus mostly a spectator sport, with little to no comprehension on the part of the people of what was being said. The lay people frequently conducted business during the service, gossiped, etc., but at the critical point in the Mass when the bread and wine were believed to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ, bells were rung to alert people that the miracle was about to happen and to tell them to look at the altar. Once that was over, they went back to whatever they had been doing until the end of the service.

This doesn’t mean the people were not serious about their faith. Many common people knew Bible stories and saints’ lives. They went on pilgrimages, prayed to God, Mary, and the saints, had priests bless their fields and businesses, joined confraternities—religious service organizations dedicated to devotional practices or good works—and engaged in a host of other religious activities. And in the Eastern Orthodox world, services were in the language of the people, so unlike in Western Europe, they could understand the liturgy.

Word and Sacrament in the Reformation

With the advent of Protestantism, this nearly exclusive emphasis on the Eucharist began to change. As noted in the previous article, Luther translated the Mass into German, making it accessible to the people. Not surprisingly, given that the liturgy came from a modified Catholic Mass, Lutherans celebrated the Eucharist at least weekly, and the laity were encouraged and expected to receive the elements. At the same time, the use of German in the service and the need to educate the laity on the new religion made preaching far more central in Luther’s churches than it had been in Catholicism. Luther’s greater emphasis on preaching and on Scripture thus began to redress the balance of Word and Sacrament in his services.

For Zwingli, on the other hand, the worship service needed to center on preaching. This meant removing art and musical instruments from churches and stripping down the liturgy to just the essentials to keep the preached word central. His churches did celebrate Communion, but they only did so quarterly. For Zwingli, the Lord’s Supper was important, but his rejection of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements in favor of a spiritual presence of Christ—he did not accept a simple memorial view of the Supper, contrary to popular belief—meant that the sacrament did not play as big a role in his theology or practice as it did for Luther.

Calvin likewise tended to put a great deal of emphasis on the sermon, though he had a different, higher view of the Supper than Zwingli did. Because of his understanding of the relationship of sacraments to the Word, he argued that it was improper to celebrate any sacrament without first proclaiming the promises of God through preaching. He would have preferred weekly Communion, but the city government in Geneva overruled him in favor of Zwingli’s practice of quarterly Communion. This became the norm more broadly within the Calvinist tradition despite Calvin’s clear preference for celebrating the Supper each week.

The importance of preaching in Calvinism can be illustrated by the fact that meetings of the French Reformed Churches in the sixteenth century were commonly called prêches (sermons). The English Puritans likewise focused on the sermon and rejected weekly Communion. As was the case with their less formal liturgies, this practice passed into many American denominations through the influence of Puritanism and of revivalism, though many denominations increased the frequency of the Lord’s Supper to monthly.

Liturgy and Sacramental Theology

As a general rule, the more a tradition emphasizes formal liturgy, the higher its view of sacraments and the more central the celebration of the Eucharist is to worship. Less formal liturgical traditions tend to have a lower view of sacraments. Even within the Calvinistic tradition, this remains true. Thus, Presbyterians use liturgical guidelines rather than a formal prayer book to organize their worship, placing them between the Baptists’ informal liturgical structure and the Anglican high church tradition; they also tend to have a higher view of the sacraments than do the Baptists, who reject the term sacrament altogether in favor of “ordinances,” though not as high a view as the Anglicans.

As we think about our theology of worship, we need to determine the proper balance between Word and Sacrament and consider its relationship to the liturgical forms we use. But there are still other practical and theological questions we need to consider as we look at our approach to worship. We will continue that discussion in the next article.

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