Ecclesiological Sacramental Theology

Underlying much of what I have said in the previous lecture is a conviction that sacramental theology must be worked out in the context of ecclesiology. This is not to say that it is at the expense of Trinitarian theology or Christology or soteriology; ecclesiology is an intersection point for all those concerns, as each locus is an intersection for all other loci. But the church is the practical setting for the performance of sacraments.

In order to grasp sacraments, in short, we have to abandon the modern (and in some ways traditional) understanding that religion is interior, individual, and private. Sacraments are clearly public and external rites, performed by communities of believers, and that setting has to be worked into our fundamental sacramental theology. We should not, as I?ve argued elsewhere, attempt to do sacramental theology with a ?zoom lens,?Efocusing narrowly on the ?elements?Eand what happens to them. We should adopt a ?wide-angle lens,?Eand attempt to assess what the sacraments say about the church and how they operate in the church.

To understand this ecclesiological setting for sacramental theology, we should recognize that ancient communities other than the church had ?sacramental?Epractices of their own. Many communities ?Eboth political communities like the city and private clubs of various sorts ?Ewere partly defined by their meal practices and their entry rites. In receiving baptism and the Supper as the sacramental practices that defined the church, the early Christians were setting their community up over against the communal organizations of the Greco-Roman world. Sacramental practices were thus central to the church?s definition of herself over against the ?world?Eoutside.

To control my discussion, I will look at the sacramental teaching in a single NT letter. 1 Corinthians contains Paul?s most extensive comments on the Supper, and also includes a number of references to baptism. What does baptism teach about the corporate character of the church? First, Paul introduces baptism as a criterion for judging the community life of the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1). They are found wanting. Their divisions and factions belie their baptisms. They were all baptized into the name of Jesus, and yet they are adopting different masters and lords and owners. Baptism here is a sign of the unity of the church.

Second, Paul refers to baptism more obliquely in 1 Cor 6, where he reminds the Corinthians that they must renounce sin in various guises. Baptism is not only a washing from the defilements of the world, but also a claim of ownership: You are not your own, therefore honor God with your bodies (cf. Rom 6).

Third, Paul offers a typology of baptism in 1 Cor 10, connecting Christian baptism with the Exodus from Egypt. Baptism is here a transition between one world and another. It is not, clearly, a transition that guarantees favor with God.

Fourth, Paul says in 1 Cor 12 that baptism through the Spirit binds the baptized together into one body. Baptism is applied to a noble Roman Senator and to a dirty pleb, and through that water the social distinction between the two is dissolved. They become members of one body ?Enot identical, but inescapably bound together. Paul goes on to say that the church is a community where the weak and helpless and unseemly are honored. Baptism manifests that feature of the community.

Paul?s teaching on the Supper occupies a good portion of two chapters (10-11), and these chapters are set in a larger discussion of meat sacrificed to idols (beginning in ch 8). Several conclusions can be drawn from Paul?s teaching here about the Eucharistic community of the church. First, the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols was both religious and political. Little meat was available except from temples, and so refusing to eat meat sacrificed to idols would have meant becoming a vegetarian. Further, one of the privileges of citizenship was participation in the feasts of the city, which were religious festivals involving pagan sacrifices. Refusing to eat meat sacrificed to idols meant renouncing one basic privilege of citizenship. Participating in the meal of the Lord means renouncing other meals. The Supper demands a separate people.

Second, Paul says in 1 Cor 10 that the bread that the church breaks together is a sign of their unity with Jesus and with one another. It is a sharing or communion in Christ, and makes them sharers in one another as well.

Third, this point is reiterated in 1 Cor 11, where Paul uses the Supper (as he did baptism in ch 1) as a criterion to judge the Corinthians?Econduct. They are belying the Supper by their divisions at the table.

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