In our Word of the Week, Pastor Rob Sauers takes a look at the sacraments – what they are, and what their meaning is for us today. The word is not found in any English Bible. It comes from the Latin word Sacramentum which was used in a number of places in the Latin Vulgate (the Bible used in the Roman Catholic Church for many years) to translate the Greek word mystērion. This is where we get our English word “mystery” and, in fact, in the Eastern Orthodox churches, the sacraments are often called mysteries. The word mystērion is often used in the NT to describe the unseen things of God. The word has this general application to “signs” of grace – dreams, visions, miracles, the prophetic word, and ultimately, the Incarnate Word. In 1 Timothy 3:16 we read: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” It is in connection with the Incarnation – the Word made flesh – that the sacraments were defined by the early church. The 4th Century Church Father Augustine referred to the sacraments as visible grace. By the 12th century, the Catholic Church defined the sacraments as those things that were either explicitly or implicitly instituted by Christ and came up with 7 – Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony, and extreme unction (anointing with oil). However, it is clear from Scripture that two of these rites stand out from the rest as special means of grace and so in the Lutheran Church, we celebrate two sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
When we talk about the sacraments in the Lutheran Church we speak of those sacred acts that have three characteristics: (1) A sacrament is instituted by Christ. (2) A sacrament has earthly elements – that is, Christ tells us to use something on the earth. For example: water, bread, wine. (3) A sacrament gives spiritual blessings – like forgiveness of sins, spiritual life, and eternal salvation. We can see how Baptism and the Lord’s Supper each have these characteristics as described in Scripture. Baptism was instituted by Christ in Matthew 28:19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It has the earthly element of water and it is a means of grace that gives spiritual blessings. In Acts 22:16 we read “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” And so we see that Baptism washes away our sins. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper has all of these characteristics. We see all of these present in Matthew 26:26-28 – “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So we see that the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Christ, we see the earthly elements of bread and wine mentioned, and we see that it is for the forgiveness of sins.
Now, for many of you listening, you probably learned this definition of the Sacraments when you were in Catechism classes. You’ve probably been baptized and you receive the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis. But how often to you stop and really think of what special blessings these means of grace really are? If you’re like me, probably not often enough, and so I want to conclude our study of this word by talking a little about the wonderful blessings we have in the sacraments. Think of your Baptism. It’s so much more than just an event that happened at one point in time – for many of you, at a time when you were just an infant and can’t even remember it. You Baptism has a lasting effect on your entire life. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Like a college basketball player at NBA draft time, the Lord has selected us to be a part of His team. Those of us who have been Baptized are wearing His uniform. That uniform gives us an identity. We are children of God whom He made members of His team not because of our playing ability, but solely because of His grace – because He has clothed us in His uniform. Think of what a difference that makes in our lives. We can awaken every day and tell ourselves, “I am baptized!” And Paul tells us what a meaningful reality that is in Romans 6:3-5 – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Because Christ has made us His own in Baptism, we have eternal life to look forward to. What a blessing! Now unlike Baptism which is done once with that lasting effect we’ve just talked about, the Lord’s Supper is done repeatedly throughout our lives. When we receive this Sacrament, we can focus on those words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Our Savior is coming close and getting personal with us. It’s more intimate than our corporate confession and absolution. In the Lord’s Supper, our Savior whispers the sweet words of forgiveness in our ears. He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Life in this world is a struggle. Our faith needs the strengthening which the Lord’s Supper gives. So let us receive our Lord’s Supper often and remember His blood shed on the cross for us and receive that forgiveness of sins. In the world in which we live today, we are tempted at times to ask, “Where in the world are you, God?” Many people look for an inner voice or to their feelings and emotions to find God. But we have something more sure than that. We have His means of grace. We have His Word. And we have His Sacraments which show us that Jesus has kept His promise to us when He said in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And so, we give thank to our God for the wonderful gifts He gives us in His Sacraments.