The Sacrament of Gratitude

April 4, 2018 by Joe Small

The sacraments have been referred to as “means of grace.” The term has fallen out of theological fashion because it is ambiguous and open to misunderstanding. Are Baptism and Eucharist instruments of grace? vehicles of grace? conveyors of grace? elicitors of grace? symbols of grace? reminders of grace? Do sacraments do something, or do they mean something, or do they indicate something, are they solely something?

These are not abstract questions. Uncertainty about the relationship of Baptism and Eucharist to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, contributes to puzzlement in congregations and their members (and their pastors?). Eucharist – eucharistia – means “thanksgiving”:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give God thanks and praise.

What are we thanking God for? In a nutshell, for the grace of “God with Us – Emmanuel” – in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the Christ. Calvin tells us that the sacraments picture what the word declares: that the content of the promises in Jesus Christ, or simply Christ himself, is the matter and substance of the sacraments (Inst., 4.4.6.). In Augustine’s way of putting it, sacraments are “visible words,” that show the fulfillment of God’s promises. Baptism and Eucharist make faith rest more firmly on the foundation of the Word proclaimed (4.14.16).

Brian Gerrish sums up the matter: “Word and sacrament, correctly understood, fit naturally together. On the one hand, the sacraments make the promises clearer to us; on the other hand, they stand in constant need of the word to make us understand their meaning.” Congregations that reduce baptism to a chummy ritual of welcome, and the Lord’s Supper to a silent ritual of individual reflection, veil sacramental proclamation of grace, and diminish sacramental gratitude.

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