Chapter 6 Church & Sacraments
Religions Enslave : God wants us Free
Baptism - School for freedom
Communion - Celebration of freedom
Sex - Marriage as freedom to love
Death - Freedom to live or suicide
By far the best course in my theological studies was titled "Church and Sacraments." It was taught at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, England by Geoffrey Bromiley. He later went on to translate the massive writings of Karl Barth from German into English while he taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. I suspect he would be horrified by some of the directions I have taken. What were some of the influences that have been part of my theological pilgrimage?
The first impact was serving as a missionary in India for eleven years, including a furlough at Princeton Theological Seminary. I devoured Roland Allen's Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours, 1912. A major turning point was C.S.Lewis' The Great Divorce, 1945. Dennis Clark gave me a vision of mission (see the review on this site). Pope John XXIII gave me faith that Roman Catholics could indeed change. From Ludwig Wittgenstein I learned to clarify the language-games of each form of life. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, helped me to develop the Model Theology I use to explain, not only the logic of various religions and ideologies, but the alternative interpretative explanatory models within the wider Christian church.
In 1971 Bishop Garnsworthy of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto helped me into parish ministry. I was thrilled when he encouraged the ordination of women and the welcome of children and people of all denominations to Anglican communion. When I was discouraged and had given up on writing, Clark Pinnock brought me back from oblivion and challenged me with new directions in Biblical theology. And currently I am excited and energized by the awesome freedom to write for over 400 "students" who come in to my web site every day.
Along the way many others I cannot recall have stimulated me to change my vision of the church and its sacraments. The old Anglican catechism defined a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and Spiritual grace," and only two sacraments, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, or Holy Communion, were viewed as "necessary to salvation." But St. Thomas Aquinas accepted the seven sacraments listed by Peter Lombard (c. 1100-60) as Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order (ordination), and Matrimony.
In this chapter I will first note other interpretations of the meaning of Baptism, and then explain it as an enrolment to begin learning in the School of the Holy Spirit. Similarly I will look very briefly at other explanations of the Communion Service (the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, Mass), and will then view it as the Christian family gathering and set out some implications of that model. Some call Marriage a sacrament, but partly as a result of the sexual revolution in the sixties, it now seems to me more realistic to view sexual intercourse as an "outward and visible sign" of intimate relationships between men and women. Rather than Extreme Unction, which is usually understood as the ominous last rite for the dying, I want to view death itself as a wonderful means of grace for all people. In each case the changes have enabled me to see more and more God's incredible concern for human freedom and my freedom in particular.
Baptism - School for Freedom
All Christians who practice baptism view it as a sign of God's grace. But what does the sign mean? When I was a student we used to argue three main models of how baptism was effective. One was that the grace of the Holy Spirit was imparted in the heart of the baptized. An extreme position was that if babies died before being baptized they were excluded because of original sin from the full joys of heaven. In a Baptist model baptism was the witness adult believers should give of their experience of new birth by repentance and faith. A third covenant theology explanation that appealed to me for several years allowed the baptism of children on the analogy of circumcision. There are many variants of these, but none of them seemed to make sense in practice.
During the time I was Rector of the Parish of Cavan and Manvers (1971-75) I struggled with trying to explain the meaning of baptism to parents who just wanted their children "done." It finally dawned on me that Jesus and his disciples baptized large numbers of people (John 4:1-2) to enrol them as disciples with a view to teaching them. Jesus apparently welcomed all sorts of unlikely candidates to free them to begin learning in his school. This would explain why baptisms in the New Testament could be immediate, apparently without any previous examination (or the long period of probation that was introduced in the second century).
This open acceptance into Jesus's school of the Holy Spirit meant that there was a danger of some coming in for wrong motives and quitting when they did not like what was taught. And in fact we are told that many of the baptized disciples "turned back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:60, 66). It was a great relief to know I did not have to check on motives, or guarantee that those I baptized would go on as good Christians.
I could also explain that the parable of the Sower was a picture of what happened to those who were enrolled for baptism. It answered the question, "Why do so many get miffed and drop out?" It also answered the question, "When were the twelve apostles baptized?" This would have been right at the beginning when Jesus welcomed them as his first disciples, and then they were introduced to life in the Spirit. Soon they would have been involved in baptizing and teaching others (as in John 4:1-2). And in the great commission Jesus told them to go out, enrol by baptism those who wanted to learn, and then teach them as much as possible in his church (Matthew 28:19-20).
As a result I wrote Go Make Learners, 1981, which set out a discipleship model of baptism. I tried out this model at St. James' Church, Kingston, Ontario, and explained that I would baptize anyone who wanted to begin learning the Christian faith. I also baptized children if the parents assured me that they wanted them taught. But I refused to encourage the idea that baptism was a means of removing original sin from their offspring. And there was no point in enrolling children in a school if there was no intention of having them taught. I then tried to give as much instruction after baptism as possible, and trained others to do this.
When Clark Pinnock and I jointly wrote Unbounded Love, 1994, we had a chapter that we titled BAPTISM : Invitation Love. As a Baptist he preferred to use baptism as the sign of enrolment when children were ready to exercise their freedom to begin learning from the Holy Spirit. I explained that children are ready to begin learning from the Holy Spirit as soon as they are born.
We might compare the difference to a sign (school crest on the blazer) that is given when a child is enrolled by the parents in a private school, and the sign (commencement diploma) that is given when a young person is free to go on to College. I don't think it makes much difference in practice whether we use baptism as a sign of beginning to learn or a sign of a young person or adult making a commitment to learn by the Spirit. In either case baptism is a sign of our freedom to continue learning by the Spirit for life. And the grace imparted is the freedom to enjoy all that the Holy Spirit has for us by way of the fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit. So in any case baptism is the Lord's chosen way of freeing people to learn and grow and enjoy all the grace that God has for them.
What is not acceptable is the idea that you can be baptized Anglican or Catholic, Presbyterian or Baptist. As Paul made clear "There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism is the Lord's personal invitation to learn from him in his church. Nobody has a right to hijack it for denominational purposes.
Communion - Celebration of freedom
In the previous section I described some changes in my understanding of baptism. I also found myself moving out from between two models of what happened in the Holy Communion Service. In one view eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood nourished us internally with the grace of the Holy Spirit. In another model the bread and wine were a reminder of Jesus body broken on the cross and his blood shed for our salvation. As this was grasped by faith we are sanctified (made holy) and changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. Obviously these two models are caricatures of the much richer experience of the communion service that Christians have always enjoyed as they share in the bread and wine.
Realizing that models never give the whole truth, and they certainly cannot capture inner heart experience, I now work with a model of being freed by eating together. This was already to some extent true of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. In our day the essence of Rotary Club membership is being present at the weekly lunch. The difference for us is that it is the Messiah Son of God who is present with us as host is more like a King at the banquet table with his courtiers.
As he left them, Jesus wanted the disciples to keep meeting as a close-knit family. And as I thought about this I realized that a family is constituted by eating together. Before being adopted into a family a child has to ask, "Mrs. Brow can I come and eat supper with you?" Once he is adopted, he can eat with the family any time as a right. In the case of friends, the word companion comes from eating bread together (Latin com panis). And in a family it is those who regularly eat together who are most conscious of their family. That suggests a model of changing the world, and individuals in the world, by inviting all and sundry into a family where they are freed to become one by eating together.
Liberation Theology exploded out of Latin America with books by Juan Luis Segundo, 1968, Gustavo Gutierrez, 1971, and others. Writing out of a concern for the poor and oppressed, they wanted Christians to engage in the work of liberating people by political action. An extreme was a kind of Marxism in Christian clothing. But it seemed to me that Marxism was never able to create genuine love for others. It only created class struggle
A far more powerful impact was made in the Roman Catholic Base Communities of South and Latin America. When oppressed people were given the freedom to worship and study the Bible the Holy Spirit freed and energized them to solve their own problems and fight for their rights to justice. A similar impact was seen in Pentecostal congregations that mushroomed in the barrios of very poor people. The liberation that occured moved large numbers out of despair into hope and prosperity. This reminded me of what happened when John Wesley organized his converts into class meetings which empowered the early Methodist movement.
When we include the experience of eating together as part of our worship we have a model of transformation by family creation (see chapter 4, Philemon).. That now seems to me to be the purpose that is symbolized in the bread and wine of the communion service. And in fact when untouchable outcaste people in India are freed and welcomed to eat at the table of the Lord, the spiritual impact is powerfully beautiful. They now have the freedom (not given by some denominations) to be welcomed as family in a congregation of the church in any city of the world.
This is why I tried hard to discourage an individual model of "making my communion." And I don't like the service being made into a very serious solemn occasion only once a quarter. It should be more like a happy family gathering or a kindergarten. There are still people who want to come to as short a service as possible, receive the bread and wine, and leave preferably without having to talk to anybody. Hopefully in time they will learn to enjoy "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16). I also like an opportunity in the service for people to express their praise and thanksgiving. And the preaching and teaching needed to nourish the community does not have to be restricted to a full time professionally trained preacher. The time of prayer for others in the family and in the world (again with input from members of the congregation) should not be a formality.
The restoration of the family greeting at a weekly communion service (the kiss or hug of peace, as in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14) was for me a major step in the right direction, as was the freeing of the children of the family to eat with us. In chapter 4 I pointed the revolutionary implications for my own preaching (and the world-wide church) of Paul's teaching on the body. I now view the communion service as the gathering where the gifts of the Spirit are divided and encouraged. The recovery of the ministry of healing in the communion service has also become important for me.
When all these ingredients come together in a joyful service I am excited and freed to worship as I picture the family of heaven gathering around the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 1:4-6, 5:-9. 12. 10, 19:7-9). Paul wrote "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). And where this is a common experience in a congregation, people enjoy coming to the church gathered in that place instead of finding it a tedious bore. As we noted in the introduction to this chapter, that is a very different kind of freedom from the monistic experience of merging one's personality in the Absolute.
Sex - Marriage as freedom to love
The traditional view of all denominations in the universal church was that marriage is a sacrament that prepares a couple for the intimacy of an indissoluble sexual relationship "till death do us part." Where Christian young people waited for the marriage to begin with a joyful church celebration, there is no evidence that they regretted this minor delay. But sadly this was interpreted to mean that church people could condemn a girl who got pregnant before marriage, and embarrassed parents should send her away to have her baby elsewhere. The result was that many young people wrote off the Christian faith as hypocritical and immoral. I certainly had to change my attitude as a result of the sexual revolution of the 60s.
When I took charge of my first parish it was obvious that most couples had engaged in sexual intercourse long before their engagement. In some cases they wanted to get legally married before their first child was born. Others submitted to their parents' insistence on respectability. Some wanted the fun and excitement of dressing up and inviting their friends to a great party. And more and more couples began living together more or less openly.
Roman Catholics tried to maintain the indissolubility of a church marriage by maintaining that those who had been married in a civil ceremony, or in another denomination, were not married at all. But soon priests began to admit even a Roman Catholic marriage could be annulled. Eventually a woman's marriage could be annulled (as if it had not taken place) when she already had three children!
As I struggled with these inconsistencies, I worked at the language-games for marriage and betrothal in the Bible. Marriage was the beginning of sexual intercourse. And there is no record of a priest, rabbi, judge, or minister of any kind "performing" a marriage. It was sexual intercourse that began a marriage, not marriage that makes sexual intercourse moral.
Till very recently betrothal was the legal contract that could be made (often several years before) to set out the legal rights of each of the uniting parties and their families. Joseph and Mary for example were betrothed (Matthew 1:18), but Joseph "had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matthew 1:25). A betrothal contract was essential for royalty, but for millions of poorer people in every country there were no assets to settle. They just began living together "without benefit of clergy" and people viewed them as husband and wife.
I then realized that a church marriage could incidentally result in a marriage contract, but that was not what marriage was designed to do. The contract can be settled just as easily in a lawyer's office. And many people these days don't think they need a contract to live together. More and more it is governments and lawyers who count a period (say two years) of living together as establishing legal rights in case of a break up or the death of one of the parties.
When I used to speak to a couple who felt guilty about "living in sin" I was able to assure them of forgiveness. But soon I found that most couples who wanted a church marriage gave the same address, and they were obviously living together and not feeling guilty about it at all. So I began explaining that their marriage had begun as soon as they began eating and living together.
A turning point was talking to a Queen's University student who told me he had lived with a different girl each of his three years at university, but he assured me that one day he intended to find the right person, get married in church, and have children in a lifetime marriage. He was obviously shaken when I told him he had been married to each of these three women, and divorced them when they went their own way for the summer vacation. He admitted that in each case the girl had been hurt, and it had felt like a divorce.
That confirmed my impression from the Bible that it was the beginning of sexual intercourse that should be viewed as a marriage. Paul even said that half an hour with a prostitute was a rudimentary marriage that was quickly aborted (1 Corinthians 6:16).
That certainly implied that sex was not a game to be engaged in for fun. We should view the beginning of sexual intercourse as a sacred commitment to a lifetime together. That meant that from God's point of view it was not marriage but sexual intercourse that was a sacrament ("an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace" - the Old Church of England catechism).
This model also enabled me to deal with the rapidly growing problem of divorce and remarriage. A divorce is the adulteration of a sexual relationship that usually began with the hopes (at least of one party) of a loving life together. So we can see that divorce may be necessary in some cases of abuse, but it is always a disaster. It is like a sea captain running his ship on the rocks in a storm. After the shipwreck he has to take the legal and emotional consequences of what has gone wrong, but he can still hope to command a ship again. That was the model Mollie and I worked at in a joint book titled Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, 1993 (written in Abu Dhabi when we observed the quite different definition of marriage and divorce among the local Arabs).
That enabled me to retrieve a church marriage as a way to express a commitment to a lifetime partnership with the support of one's family and friends. And the essential was looking to the Holy Spirit to create the love that the couple long for. And I have already defined God's kind of love as caring for the freedom of the other. This model frees the Christian church from its previous habit of hypocritical condemnation. We do not have to investigate the failures and sin which have preceded the marriage ceremony. Rather we offer it as a means of grace to free the couple to draw on all the rich resources of the Holy Spirit for a happy marriage and the raising of children.
Death - Freedom to live or suicide
For centuries Roman Catholics thought it was important for the dying to be given the last rites (the last unction). This was on the assumption that sins after baptism needed to be removed by the sacrament of penance (after confession to a priest). But sins committed after the last confession needed to be forgiven and cleansed away by an anointing with oil before the person died. But we have already seen that God is not interested in condemning us. What counts is our heart direction (as in John 3:19-21). If we would be happy in heaven, it is ours to enjoy for ever. We do not have to earn it, or have someone give us as last unction.
Since the day of my conversion from atheism (October 7, 1947) I have never doubted the fact that Jesus rose from the dead and he will take care of my resurrection in due course. But there has been a major change in how I picture the timing. I was taught to think of being laid in a grave to await the resurrection of the dead for the last judgment. Instinctively I felt uncomfortable with the idea of going into a kind of cold storage till that time (already delayed two thousand years). People tried to explain that there is no consciousness of time when we go asleep, and that God is outside time.
But I preferred to go with Paul's "for to me, living is the Messiah, and dying is gain . . . I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with the Messiah, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (Philippians 1:23). That must mean we do not have to await the last judgment when we die. We go straight to be with the Lord in the heaven he has prepared for us. And I kept thinking about Jesus' words to the thief on the cross "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (the Persian word for an enclosed garden obviously connected with Eden, the garden of delights).
The problem was solved when I realized that the status of the Old Testament dead was changed by the resurrection. Those who died had been pictured as imprisoned in their graves, the abode of the dead (Hebrew sheol, Greek Hades, wrongly translated as "hell"). Jesus had predicted that "the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation" (John 5:28-29). That is not to suggest we are saved by good works. The righteous and the wicked are distinguished in the Old Testament by their heart direction, as in John 3:19-21).
This connected with the words in Peter's Epistle. "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-19). The old translation of the apostles' creed says "he descended into hell" but newer translations get it right with "he descended to the dead." And the moment Jesus died he apparently went and emptied sheol of its contents, so that "The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised after his resurrection. They came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52-53 with the English punctuation slightly changed) while Jesus' corpse was still hanging on the cross.
This means that immediately after Jesus' resurrection sheol was emptied of its contents for ever. There is no intermediate state for us to sleep in cold storage awaiting a future resurrection. Obviously this makes a huge difference to the comfort we can give to the dying. It is one thing to say "you will sleep in peace when you die to await the last judgment." Far better is our good news "The moment you die the trumpet will sound for you as our risen Lord welcomes you triumphantly to heaven with him."
I have also begun to teach that Jesus corpse was laid in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, but the Messiah did not want it to remain there to be venerated. What happened on Easter day was that he disintegrated that body, leaving the grave clothes to drop in the empty tomb. I agree that is not the traditional interpretation, but it solves a lot of problems. And I have told my family that I am not concerned with how they dispose of my old body when it has died. I will already have my resurrection body that is suited for life in heaven. And that is what is important.
I have described how C.S.Lewis' The Great Divorce convinced me that God does not judge us to condemn some to eternal damnation (John 3:17).. He gives us the awesome freedom to make our own judgment to respond to God's love or prefer eternal darkness. "This is the judgment (krisis), that light is come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light . . . . but those who do what is true come to the light" (John 3:19-21).
In a joint book with Clark Pinnock he wrote "Hell cannot be an everlasting vindictive torment." Instead Pinnock prefers what is called "conditional immortality or annihilationism." The view takes Paul literally when he says the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The idea is that humans were made mortal, with everlasting life as a gift, not a natural capacity. As a result I am now convinced that heaven is ours because of the love of God, but humans are given the freedom to prefer the termination of their own existence - final and irreversible death" (Unbounded Love, chapter 8). And that awesome freedom denies any suggestion that our loving God sends anyone to eternal damnation..
In The Last Battle C.S.Lewis has a wonderful picture of the enemy warrior who had served the god Tash all his life. But Aslan welcomed him because his heart was in the right direction. This illustrates the fact that people can be brainwashed by a false religion, but ignorance does not send them to burn in the fires of hell.
In Russia for seventy years many were drilled to give a Marxist explanation, but their heart experience was often similar to those who still called themselves Christians. Right now Muslims who had been trained by the mullahs to give an explanation in terms of jihad, now wonder if that is really what they want to believe. Recently Protestants have discovered that many of their Roman Catholic friends share the same experience of the Bible and prayer, though some of their explanations (as we saw under Thomas Aquinas) are still puzzling. On the other hand there are Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, who give an explanation of their faith which we would have to analyze as belonging to a Unitarian model similar to Islam. But I no longer have to condemn people by their labels, and I am freed to consider how God views their heart longings .
For our final chapter we now look at how these theological changes, which have impacted me in the past fifty years, free us in various ways to enjoy a personal relationship with God.
Chapter 7 Prayer