Finally I am getting back to a series of posts on Baptists and Sacramentalism. In this post I want to give some reasons, taken from Clark Pinnock’s chapter in Baptist Sacramentalism: Studies in Baptist History and Thought, as to why Baptists should recover some sense of the Sacraments. (Make sure you read the previous post to consider the range of meanings of sacraments.)
First, because “as humans we are embodied and symbol-making beings, it is a priori likely that God’s presence and self-communication will be sacramental and involve a merging of spirit and matter. It is likely that God would give himself to us in a variety of concrete ways.” Though Len Sweet is a Methodist, I think his definition is a helpful way of thinking about sacraments. He says that sacramentals communicate grace. Sacraments convey grace. If that is the case, God communicates grace through the Spirit to us in ways that we can best experience that grace. At the same time, the Spirit may cause us to experience that grace in ways we don’t normally expect or even want. For instance, we may not think to consider a sacramental of failure or suffering. Yet those are ways in which the invisible Spirit of God can be made visible, and in doing so, we experience the grace of God and the sustenance of the Spirit through visible and palpable means.
Pinnock also notes how worship has been impacted by the loss of the sacramentals. Worship is “weakened by a loss of the sacramental dimension, a loss of mystery, of liturgical beauty and of traditional practices.” Modernity’s demand for physical causation and its disregard for divine action can render Christianity powerless, not expecting God to be present or move with power. With that, we have, I fear, replaced an expected move of God with the rock concert emotionalism of contemporary Christianity. God only moves when we have a “great time” in worship. The still small voice is absent because of the cheering and hand-clapping. The mysterious is missing. There is little room for the possibility of signs and wonders, miracles, and healings. We need to embrace the mysterious Spirit who shapes material creation and empowers resurrection. The Spirit is not some “holy ghost” who never deals with the material, never creates real effects, never manifests itself and never transforms concrete situations. The Spirit deals with the physical just as Jesus did. Therefore, the presence of God can be conveyed by the Spirit through the physical.
We can experience the grace of God through the Spirit in suffering, failure, or in fellowship. We can experience the grace of God through the reading of scripture, the setting of the sun, or the bread and wine. Grace does not come through the act itself, but in experiencing the Spirit by means of the sacramental.