The last two Sundays we have looked at the two Sacraments which are observed in the Presbyterian Church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Today I’m going to talk about five other church practices, which are regarded as Sacraments by the Roman Catholic Church but not by Protestant denominations. The sermon title comes from what John Calvin called them, “the five other ceremonies.” The question is not whether they are valuable practices in the church, but whether they are of the same level of importance as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I recognize that this is not a burning issue for most people today unless you have been Catholic or have Catholics in your family or have attended a Catholic school. I do think, though, that awareness of this debate and understanding our church’s position on it, is of importance.
My purpose is not to poison your attitude toward the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church of today is not the Catholic Church of the 1500’s, and it is an important part of the worldwide Christian family and is doing many valuable things. I had a wonderful visit with Chris Luplow this week, who was willing to share with me the role he saw the seven Sacraments play as he was brought up in the Catholic Church. I learned a lot, and one of the learnings is that as usual there is more in common than there is different in the actual role of these practices.
A common theme through most of the Reformation movement was the desire to simplify and eliminate many of the things they felt had been added on and were unnecessary. Reducing Sacraments from seven to two clearly fits that simplification theme. The Reformation motto proclaimed this focus loud and clear: Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, and to the Glory of God alone.
A word about the importance of each, because they are very relevant to the discussion of Sacraments. Scripture alone – the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the only guide we need to faith and practice of Christianity. The Catholic Church gave equal authority to the writings of the early church fathers, and the Pope was regarded as infallible in the decrees he issued to the church.
Faith alone and Grace alone – a critical passage for the Reformation was from Ephesians: By grace we have been saved by faith alone. Salvation is a free gift, not something one has to or can earn. This was a critical issue at the time of the Reformation because the Catholic church was selling what were called “indulgences” to pay for building St. Peter’s Church in Rome. These documents proclaimed that for a certain sum of money the pope would forgive your sins, or would help the soul of a dead loved one escape the prison of purgatory and go to heaven.
Christ alone – is all sufficient. There is no need to pray to Mary, or to the saints. There is not even a need to pray through a priest. We all have access directly to God through Christ.
To the glory of God alone – the light is not to shine on the church and its majesty or on the Pope or on the relics which are reputed to facilitate miracles. The Reformers wanted to remove the elaborate artwork and the relics and the fancy outfits and anything which distracted worshipers from focusing upon God alone. Some even insisted on having no musical instruments. Worship space should be simple and the symbols present should lead us to focus on Scripture alone, grace alone, and Christ alone, and all we say and do should be for the glory of God alone.
In baptism and the Lord’s Supper the Reformers found visible signs of an invisible grace. There were two essential criteria: Anyone can participate in these sacraments. Both were instituted by Jesus. “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them all that I have commanded you.” “This is my body, broken for you; my blood poured out for you – do this in remembrance of me.”
We receive the sacrament of baptism once only, and it speaks to us of the cleansing and redeeming love of God which is constantly present and active throughout our lives. We receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper repeatedly as an act of remembrance and gratitude and nurture. The focus is not on us or on the elements, but on grace alone through Christ alone as revealed in the Scriptures alone, and done to the glory of God alone.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches had and still have seven Sacraments. The Catholic Church divides them into three groups. First are the Sacraments of Initiation, which are Baptism, Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper), and Confirmation. Confirmation, of course, is the point at which people profess the faith for themselves which others have professed for them previously in baptism. In the Catholic Church it follows a year long intensive study and confirmation must be done by a bishop. Confirmation is an important thing in our church as well, but not a sacrament. My guess is the Reformers rejected it as a sacrament because Jesus did not institute it in the Scriptures, and because the focus is on us – we have studied, we have learned, we have responded, it smacks of trying to earn salvation rather than receiving it as a free gift of grace.
The second grouping of two are the Sacraments of Healing, and they are Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. Their role is to address the concern I talked about last week, the idea that baptism washes away your previous sins but after baptism you need other help to stay in a state of grace.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation involves going to a priest and confessing your sins to him. The priest then gives absolution to your sins and gives you a penance to perform in contrition. The Reformers saw this as an attempt by the clergy to control people and make the clergy class indispensable. They insisted that no one had to go through a priest to get to God, that everyone has an open door to go to God through Jesus Christ. It also had the feel for them of trying to earn forgiveness by going through this ritual and performing acts of contrition to get back in God’s good favor.
Though we do not regard it as a sacrament we do understand the critical need for reconciliation. Part of our worship every Sunday is confession – personal and corporate, because we sin as individuals and in the groups of which we are a part. We remind ourselves of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, then we sing a song of praise and gratitude for the gift of reconciliation. An old saying is that before confession, our sins are what separate us from God, and after confession they are the bridge that unite us to God. They separate us from God because, like Adam and Eve in the garden we are ashamed and afraid to face God. It is when we remember the grace and love of God that we remember how foolish that is and come home to God.
And of course all of our traditions should remember that Jesus would say to first go to the people we have sinned against and be reconciled to them, then come to church.
The second sacrament of healing is the anointing of the sick, which seems largely to have focused on the end of life with what is known as “extreme unction” or last rites. It serves as a last opportunity to be “right with God” before death and experience the reassurance needed to face mortality. One of the big problems with this as a sacrament is that many times death occurs quickly with no opportunity for this to happen so it can leave loved ones fearful that the person did not check off all the necessary boxes to go to heaven.
The third category of Sacraments in the Catholic Church is Sacraments of Service, and again there are two: Marriage and Holy Orders. These are both called Ordinances in the Presbyterian Church. They are very special occasions, but not Sacraments. I think the reason is that not everybody can participate in them. Not everyone gets married, and indeed in the Catholic Church priests are not allowed to. Nor does everyone get ordained to a church office. There are three in the Presbyterian Church – deacons, elders, and ministers – and there are several more in the Catholic Church.
The Reformers saw more of the clergy wanting to have control over people’s lives in having marriage as a sacrament. They could control who you marry by accepting or not accepting the person you want to marry by whether they are Catholic or not. And they can control your ability to leave an abusive marriage by refusing to annul a marriage. And they have attempted to control the size of your family by telling you that birth control is not allowed since procreation is the purpose of marriage.
So those are, as Calvin says, “the other five ceremonies.” At the time he wrote his Institutes on the Christian Religion the seven sacraments had been part of the church for hundreds of years and were just accepted unquestioningly. So there are fifty pages in his book explaining why the five should not be regarded as sacraments. He argues that they were added by men, not instituted by Christ, and that their purpose was to put the focus on church and clergy rather than on God. He says they were not practiced by the early church as Sacraments, only the two. He says Sacraments should be “testimonies of divine grace toward us,” and that everyone should be able to experience them.
The official response of the Catholic Church at that time came at the Council of Trent, and said, “If anyone says the sacraments were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, or that there are more or less than seven, let that person be anathema. If anyone says they are not necessary for salvation (though all the sacraments are not necessary for every individual), let that person be anathema.” Anathema means cursed and excommunicated from the church.
Well, I hope this little series on the Sacraments has been of some benefit to you and has helped with understanding how the Presbyterian Church views them and practices them. I hope you will embrace the ecumenical spirit of the Presbyterian Church with regard to this. Unlike many churches, we do not require people to be rebaptized in order to join our church. In fact, we won’t do it. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. We do not require people to be Presbyterian to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and we do not ask that you refrain from taking communion if you are visiting in another branch of the church. Rather than being the most divisive of issues, we believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper should be the two most inclusive and visible signs of the church in all places, though it may be practiced in many ways.
Scripture alone. Faith alone. Grace alone. Christ alone. To the glory of God alone. The last hymn we will sing today is sometimes attributed to John Calvin and certainly expresses the determination of the Reformers to keep the focus on God alone. The last stanza says, “Our hope is in no other save in thee; our faith is built upon thy promise free; Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure, that in thy strength we evermore endure.”
To God alone be the glory. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 27, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church