Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Baptism, Communion, and the Human Body

Communion and baptism, like the Passover feast and circumcision, are powerful reminders of the work that God has done for His people. They are also material in nature—substantially so. In each case, the actions we take are not merely some sort of mental affirmation, but a physical action corresponding to our verbal affirmation of truth and our commitment of will to the truths affirmed. In baptism, we proclaim ourselves dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ—all by his grace. In the Lord's Supper, we proclaim two beautiful paradoxes: the power of his blood to wash us clean of sin and the power of his body, broken to heal us of our brokenness.

Baptism involves body and water; the Eucharist consists of bread and wine. These are normal parts of our existence put to a spiritual use. The water of immersion and the elements of communion are sanctified: set apart for holy use. Our tendency is to think that they are thus set apart in spite of their mundane nature; I wonder, however, if the reality might lie somewhere in the opposite direction. Is it possible that God instituted these practices as fully physical experiences to prevent us from running off in the direction of Platonic dualism's disdain for the body and glorification of the spirit? After all, if the body is taking part in such important spiritual activities, it too must partake of that same spiritual life. The two cannot be so separate as we Westerners are wont to make them.

Over the past year or so, I have been mulling over the questions raised by these two ordinances—questions that have begun to come to a head in my mind. How we treat them, and what we believe about them, is important. The ordinances are not as important as the good news itself, of course, but they are so closely tied to it that they nonetheless deserve our attention—far more attention than we are typically willing to give to them. While I remain unconvinced that they are worthy of the denominational splits that controversies over them have historically engendered, those splits had at least one thing in their favor: the men and women of that day at least recognized that these are important. Generally speaking, I fear we trivialize them in one way or another—rare is the evangelical church that places sufficient importance on the Lord's Supper, either in stated intent or in practice. Many Baptist churches do well to practice and preach baptism, but all-too-often that is simply a denominational distinctive, rather than a carefully thought through practice of one of the most important aspects of our faith.

Even when the ordinances themselves are done well, I think we often miss some of the heady implications offered by them—particularly in the "ordinance" mindset so prevalent in America today.

There are two dominant views of Baptism and the Lord's Supper: that they are sacraments, and that they are ordinances. In the sacramental view, these acts are understood to be means by which God actively imparts grace into the life of the believer. (Don't go running off the rails here; this is a theologically well-developed view, and when a Lutheran, for example, suggests that God actively gives grace through the elements, he does not mean that we are saved by partaking of the Table.) In the ordinal view, the two are held to be remembrances and proclamations of how God's grace has been given in the past. Baptists (and I) hold to the latter view.

We stand in danger of losing something that is hard to miss in the sacramental view, though. If you believe that when you take the elements, or when you are baptized, God is actively pouring his grace into your life, it is very difficult to lose sight of the goodness of the material world. God acts in and through it in your life in a meaningful way—and if you take Communion regularly, these spiritually significant material acts are regular. By contrast, when we see these actions as simply remembrance and proclamation, we can more easily be fooled by subtle jabs at the physical world. We can be fooled into thinking that our bodies are basically bad, that the earth is most of all in need of being destroyed, and so on.

The reality could not be more opposite. Though twisted and corrupted by the fall, our bodies are good, as is the earth beneath our feet. The earth will be burned up by fire, yes—to cleanse it and ready it for new, holy inhabitants (see 2 Peter 3:1-7, often taken to indicate the world's destruction; actually, it points to a final cleansing by fire to which the "cleaning by water" of the Flood was but a precursor). These bodies we have will fall away for a time, yes—but we will take them up again, renewed and transformed in ways we cannot fully imagine.

In the final reckoning, we ordinance-oriented folk really need to do a better job holding on to our theology and teaching carefully on the ordinances. For while they are not present-day means of grace, they point to a past means of grace that was physical through and through—and also spiritual through and through. Just as the Passover was a remembrance of an act, so is the Lord's Supper—but in both cases, the original was as physical as death itself. Real blood was shed by an innocent, unblemished body, and through it, God's justice was satisfied and his mercy revealed. So too, baptism (like circumcision before it) declares our entrance into the covenant community of God, and it does so physically. Why? Because it points at a spiritual reality that occurred in thoroughly material ways: the death and resurrection of the human body of Jesus Christ. It points us forward to the physical death and resurrection of our own body.

If we actually understand our own view thoroughly, we will be equipped to have just as complete a view of the goodness of this world as our sacramentally oriented brethren. We can point to the inherent physicality of the means of God's grace poured into the world, even as we remember that grace in inherently physical ways. We can look back to what He has done in the world with gratitude, and look forward to what he will do in joyful expectation. But we must get our theology here clear!

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