{This worship service included the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper}

             A popular complaint among teenagers in high school and college goes something like this: “How will studying this stuff help me in my life’s work? Why do I have to memorize this piece of information, or take this dumb class?  What does it have to do with anything?” For example: “Why are they making me take French? I’m going into banking, in the United States. When will I ever need French?” Or: “Why should I learn long division? I plan to have a calculator with me anytime I need to do math, ever.” Or: “Who cares what’s the capital of Venezuela?”

And many of us continue thinking along those lines when we’re long past the days of exams and required courses: If you can’t show me exactly how and why something will contribute to my well-being, or help other people . . . don’t tell me I should be doing it.  I want to know the details first; I want to know how it’s going to help. Don’t give me vague promises about it being good for me in a general sort of way; tell me, step by step, how it helps, what’s good about it. We want scientific documentation, or irrefutable logic. Before I put an effort into something, I want to know exactly how and why it’s going to help.

Well, I’m afraid those of you who think along those lines may be a bit disappointed today. Because today we’re talking about the sacraments, and observing the sacraments, those two rituals or actings-out-of-things which the church has been doing for nearly 2000 years: the sacrament of baptism, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And there is an element of the mysterious in the sacraments; they aren’t purely logical, thoroughly documented, objective truth. We can shed some light on why we celebrate our sacraments the way we do, some of the components of the observances, but not explain completely their significance as a whole – why they are considered a central mark, a core characteristic, of the Christian Church, along with proclaiming the Word of God. There is an element of the mysterious in the sacraments.

In fact, the Greek word in the Bible which ends up getting translated as “sacrament” is “mysterion,” which we can hear has something to do with mystery. The word “mysterion,” James White explains, has to do with the secret thoughts of God, those things God understands but which are not completely accessible to human understanding, at least not yet: God’s secret thoughts, God’s reasoning. In the sacraments, God discloses part of Godself, part of those secrets, to us, in ways we admit we don’t completely understand.

Not completely understanding, then, we follow God’s direction. Our sacraments are initiated by God, through Jesus Christ, as we read in the Bible. Jesus gathered the first disciples around after he rose from the dead, shortly before he ascended to heaven, and directed them: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” The instruction is clear: we are to teach what Jesus has taught us, and we are to baptize – Jesus said so. Jesus also gathered the first disciples around him before the crucifixion, and he said as he broke bread and passed a cup, “Do this. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this to proclaim my story, until I come again.” Jesus said so.

The sacraments, then, are things instituted by God; disciples are told by Jesus to carry them out, along with: proclaiming the good news of his coming, and teaching one another, and caring for one another’s needs, and loving one another. What distinguishes these two particular actions, what makes them sacraments, is that they are symbolic actions, an acting out of what God has done for us, of God’s grace. They are more like skits, like drama, than those other direct actions. The things we do stand for something else.

One aspect of baptism, for example, is the water’s washing – the water stands for our being washed clean of whatever sins we commit and repent of. We hear the words that God forgives us; we see it acted out in baptism’s washing. The hope is that we’ll remember better the truths we’ve learned about God and what God has done for us as a result of the symbolic actions; they make more of an impression than someone just stating something. John Calvin, the “founding father” of the Presbyterian form of church, said the sacraments are needed not to “confirm God’s sacred promise to us, but to establish our faith in that promise, for our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped up on all sides and sustained by every means possible.” Sacraments . . . are among the props.

Sacraments are something described as “seals” as well as symbols and signs. They seal in us, like sealing an envelope, the truths we’ve learned; they reaffirm them, they make us remember better. Sacraments are like a handshake after a deal has been negotiated: the words which have been spoken or written comprise the deal, but the handshake is an action which follows to make it more solid, which confirms it. Sacraments are like wedding rings: the vows have been spoken before, the promises made, but the placing of the rings are actions which make the words more meaningful and memorable, and seeing the rings later remind us again of the promises made. Augustine defined a sacrament as “a visible sign of a sacred, invisible thing.”

But the sacraments go beyond just helping us remember, as valuable as they are that way. Celebrating the sacraments, we are told, also strengthens our faith, just as taking in food and water strengthens our bodies; they feed us, nurture us. This symbolism is most apparent, of course, in our Lord’s Supper: a small bit of food, but a strengthening of our faith, in some mysterious way.

Sacraments are also an occasion for reaffirming our response to what God has done for us. As part of baptism, we state our faith, that we believe, and we promise to turn away from evil and toward God, and we promise to encourage the newly-baptized in their faith. As part of the Lord’s Supper, we pledge our obedience anew; the closing line is “we pledge ourselves to serve you.” The sacraments are also occasions for us to renew our promises.

And the sacraments strengthen our ties to one another, as well as God. We celebrate them in the worshipping community; we make promises to one another; we feel closer to one another if we engage in the sacraments regularly together. They create ties within the Christian community.

The sacraments are carried out with the basic materials of life: water, bread, drink – the things which sustain life. As those three are essential for physical life, so the sacraments are critical for our Christian life. And each sacrament is full of its own particular symbols. Listen, for example, in our baptism prayer for how important water has been throughout Biblical history. Or consider the significance in the Lord’s Supper of eating and of feeding, as John Calvin did: in baptism, he wrote, God has received us once and for all into the family; now, fulfilling the duties of a loving parent, God continues to nourish us throughout the course of our life by providing our meals: the Lord’s Supper. There are reasons for each of the particular parts of our sacraments, why we do each little piece.

So we can explain why we do them the way we do, the function of the specific symbols. But as to a full explanation of why God chose these two particular sets of actions in general, why these ceremonies are considered best, as opposed to some others . . . well, that’s where we’re back to our mystery. The church has testified to the importance of the sacraments for 2000 years, and we believe as a congregation in their significance, and perhaps you feel their effect sometimes, feel differently from before after you have participated. We believe they are effective, in their reminding, their acting-out, their strengthening; their bringing forth our response.

But as to a logical,             scientific, objective explanation of the final details of how they are effective, the best we can probably do is to say with Calvin, a man who normally thought through and tried to explain everything: “I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. I rather experience than understand it.”