1st Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:13-17 & Matthew 26:26-28
Reflection: Baptism and Communion
Baptism and Communion…these are the only two “sacraments” the United Church of Canada recognizes – tho it does respect that other faith traditions honour different ones. Does everyone know what a “sacrament” is? A sacrament is a ritual expressing a truth too profound to be adequately expressed in words. It is something so holy that it is only truly understood by experiencing it. Like love it is something you only really know if it has happened to you – and so , like love, it is a mystery. We act out that mystery in the sacraments of baptism and communion.
Let’s deal first with baptism. In the UCC we mostly practise infant baptism. Now the baby doesn’t know what happens to it, but the parents do – and they covenant with the church and with God to raise this child as a Christian – to teach it and support it to live in the Way of Jesus. At the age of 12 or so, children traditionally attend confirmation classes and then are accepted into membership of the United Church.
Such infant baptisms are recognized by most Christian churches, and we recognize baptisms of all Christian denominations. Adult baptisms may be done in our churches if a person has not been baptized at all.
So baptism is a sacrament – a sacred act. But what makes it so? What I just described sounded pretty cut and dried… It’s about that covenant with God – the promises we make to the Divine. It’s about something we call “grace”. In the holy moments of a baptism ceremony we can feel that we are all in the presence of our God. We know – we can feel – that we are in the midst of that Presence – of that Mystery. We experience in those moments the unconditional Love of God surrounding and filling us – unconditional, undeserved, for everyone of us, all the time. Grace. Like the dove descending on Jesus at his baptism – a blessing, a sense of relationship, Grace.
And the second of our sacraments is Holy Communion. As Christians we understand that Jesus is the role model – Jesus is the way-shower – Jesus set the mold. In his last days he gave us a gift – a way to remember who we are and whose we are – and whose Way we will follow. We remember his great work, in the breaking of the bread – symbolic of his body broken for us, and in the pouring of the wine – symbolic of his lifeblood poured out for us – and more than that, we participate in his life and being by sharing in the mystery of being one with him, and thru him being one with the Divine – one with God and with all that is. And so, once again, there is Grace. The UCC has what is called “open communion” – no one is excluded from participating in this sacrament. We come to this table not because we are good or deserving, but because we need to be here – we need to feel God’s great love – we need to know God’s Grace.
There are many layers to these sacraments. We will all spend a lifetime deepening our understanding of these mysteries. But we have the best of teachers, and thru his loving presence we will be spiritually fed. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Hymn #460 VU “All Who Hunger”
2nd Scripture Reading: Mark 16:1-7 & Luke 24:36-47
Reflection: In life, in death, in life beyond death…We are not alone.”
No, we are never alone. These are words from “A Song of Faith” – a church document we will talk more about at a later date. But I want to say it is a modern and very poetic statement of what the United Church stands for. I am personally proud to be a member of such a forward-looking, socially progressive church.
And one of the places this really shows is in how we deal with weddings. Some think we are way to easy going when it comes to marriage – while others praise us for being so open-minded! We encourage couples to tell us what marriage means to them, and what they want to happen in their wedding ceremony. Some even write their own ceremony, though this must meet the approval of the officiating minister, including the vows. And so, many people from other less tolerant denominations come to us for weddings. Some churches will not remarry divorced persons, or marry homosexuals, or couples where one party is not a member of that church. Some couples want ethnic elements included, or even traditions from other religions. I personally did a wedding where I shared the service with an indigenous elder.
We also believe that the church council or Board has a great deal of responsibility for the individual community of faith, and so it makes the final decision about who can be married in that building.
We are all children of a God who is Love, and so the expression of committed loving relationship between two people is worthy of the support of the Christian community. Many marriages these days are done by United Church clergy outside of a church building – in nature or in a home garden, for instance, and often for people who aren’t members of any church.
Marriage preparation, though a really good idea, is often brief as couples are living together for years before they decide to “tie the knot”. So they think they have figured it all out! But learning to live together in covenantal or committed relationship is not easy – I believe it is a spiritual discipline. In marriage we learn how to truly love one another after the honeymoon is over.
And so we marry, and we have children, and we baptize them, nurture them, send them out into the world, retire from our careers, and then what? Eventually, we die. This is the “dispatch” part of our theme. Used to be that everyone had a funeral when they died – in the church, and then got buried in the churchyard. I saw those church yards in England. They are neglected now, and young parents take their children there to play (in London where I was).
These days funerals are not so popular. People prefer a Memorial Service, or a Celebration of Life. They often don’t even want a religious service and so these events may be coordinated by a funeral home director or family members.
Too often, tho, it seems that people are not doing any kind of memorial service because the deceased person said they didn’t want one! We forget that this ritual is not for the person who died, but for those who survive him or her. It is a necessary part of our grieving process and so important for the healing of the loss of a loved one.
What we are also losing is this sense of the continuity of life that Jesus tried to show us in his resurrection story. We don’t really know what happens to us after death, but for Christians it is helpful to believe that something better lies around the corner, and that the whole exercise of living and loving and learning has not been for nothing.
And so within the church we are “hatched, matched, and dispatched” – a light-hearted way to talk about the cycle of our lives within our communities of faith. These rituals and sacraments are important signposts along the way. We mark them to add meaning to our lives, and to celebrate significant transitions and learnings along the way. These events are spiritual , they are cultural, and in some ways they are traditional – and they are living breathing expressions of who we are in this moment, in the context of our times. As we learn and grow thru these experiences, we become the Christ – we approach the great Mystery.
Hymn #703 VU “In the Bulb there is a Flower”