What is a Sacrament?


We begin our sermon series "'Questioning' the Sacraments" by answering the question, what is a sacrament? But is this the right question? Actually, the problem isn't the question but the word sacrament. Our catechism says a sacrament is a sacred act, and that's true. But this starts us looking at a sacrament as something we do when in fact a sacrament is something God does. The word sacrament' is not found in the Bible. The word "mystery" is. When the Bible was translated into Latin, Jerome got to the Greek word mustearion (mystery) and translated sacramentum (sacrament). There's a difference between mystery and sacrament. A musterion is a divine secret, something only God can reveal, i.e. that Water gives eternal life, Words forgive sins, and Bread and Wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus. A sacramentum is a sacred rite that man does.

After centuries of use we're stuck with the word sacrament. We won't go too far a field, however, if we remember that in a sacrament God is the one acting. The rite, the thing done, is instituted by God. More accurately it's instituted by God in Christ. We aren't interested in the sacraments such as circumcision or Passover that God instituted for His Old Testament Church. We're interested in what God in Christ instituted for all nations. These sacred acts were all instituted by Christ in close connection to His suffering, death, and resurrection. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus instituted His Supper. On the evening He rose, He instituted Absolution. Before ascending He commanded Baptism.

These 3 sacred rites are called holy: holy Baptism, holy Absolution, and Holy Communion because the holiness Christ won for the entire world by His suffering and death on the cross is distributed to individuals by the these 3 means. No one has Christ's holiness except by means of these 3 things.

How does this holiness get distributed? By means of a command and promise. A sacrament is a sacred rite instituted by God in Christ in which He commands us to do something and attaches promises to it. Christ commands apply water in the name of the Triune God and promises that the person is reborn of God. We do and they are. Christ commands, "Forgive sins in my name" and He promises they are forgiven." We speak forgiveness and sins are absolved. Christ commands us to take, eat His Body/Bread and take, drink His Blood/Wine and promises salvation. We dine and we live.

What makes a sacrament is the command and promise of God, i.e. the Word of God. A sacrament is not made by ceremony, ritual, piety, or faith. A sacrament is God's secret, a mystery, which we only know because He has made it known to us by His Word. If our Lord had commanded us to pick up a piece of straw and promised that our sins would be forgiven, that would make straw picking up a sacrament.

But there is no divine command or promise to pick up a straw, so this excludes straw picking up as a sacrament. This same standard of God's command and promise excludes other things from our calling them a sacrament. For example, marriage and the office of the ministry are divine institutions, but God attached no promise to forgive sins to either being married or being a pastor, so we don't count either as sacraments. Again, anointing the sick and confirmation are things the church has done for centuries, but since there is no divine command to do either and no promise to forgive sins attached to them, we don't consider these sacred rites as sacraments.

Defining a sacrament as a sacred rite commanded by Christ with a promise to forgive attached to it, our Confessions list 3: Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper. Sometimes, particularly in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, a promise in general attached to a divine command is looked at. This is where the statements listing ordination and prayer as sacraments are found. Ordaining pastors into the ministry is commanded by God, and so is prayer. And God does promise to act through the ministry of pastors, and He promises to answer prayer. So the Apology allows that these could be called sacraments.

Later confessional writings don't s speak this way. Why? Because of the conflict with the Reformed faith which says God doesn't need or necessarily use visible means to work in the lives of His people. The Reformed love to talk of the Spirit doing this, God telling them that, or what they feel Jesus is doing in their life. Over against them Lutherans emphasized God working through, visible, tangible, elements. How do you know God is at work in your life? Where is God at work in your life? Here in these Waters of Baptism; there in that Bread and Wine on that altar.

Unfortunately, this emphasis on what can be touched led to not regarding Absolution as a sacrament. The confessional writings only once that I can think of call prayer and ordination a sacrament. But Absolution is several times explicitly called a sacrament and listed with Baptism and Communion. The bi-pod of Baptism and Communion are certainly stable for building a Christian life, but everyone knows a tripod is even sturdier. More about this in March.

Here let us focus on the fact that the Almighty God delights in dealing with us sacramentally. God delights in wrapping up His promise to forgive sins, give new life, and save for eternity in things that can be handled by flesh and blood hands. We are preparing to enter the season where God wraps Himself in flesh and blood so that He can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, and even tasted. God didn't leave His Word echoing into the void of space; God didn't leave us staring up to heaven not sure whether He had spoken to us or it had thundered. No, the Word became flesh and pitched a tent (That's what it literally says.) among us.

When God in flesh and blood had completed His work of fulfilling the 10 Commandments and paying for our sins, He didn't leave our flesh and blood without comfort. No, He promised to be among us always. He promised that in Baptismal water we would put Him on. He promised that in the voice of the pastor, we would hear His voice, and in the Holy Communion He would again be among us in His flesh and blood to heal ours for all eternity.

But what have we fallen men done? We haven't delighted in what our God does. This is seen on both the clergy side and the laity side. On the clergy side pastors steal sacraments from lay people. Pastors who won't give Baptism to babies or priests who won't apply it to actual sins saying Baptism is only good for sins you're born with are stealing. Pastors who direct people to God in heaven for forgiveness rather than to the mouth of a man on earth are robbing people of Absolution. Pastors steal Communion by telling people it's not a real communion of the body and blood of Jesus to their mouth but an empty sign or symbol.

That's how pastors scorn the sacraments God delights in. Lay people do it the way of Ahaz in our reading. God commands Ahaz to ask for a sign as high as heaven or as deep as hell, and He promises He will give it. But what does Ahaz do? He claims not to be good enough to do what God has commanded or receive what God has promised. When you refuse to take comfort in your Baptism because your sins are too dirty, when you don't think my absolution forgives your sins because you haven't felt bad long enough, or when you think you're not pious enough to receive Communion, you aren't currying favor with God, your wearying and angering Him. But that doesn't stop God from being in your Baptism, in my Absolution, or on this altar.

In these 3 things is where God wants to meet you. Stop looking at them according to their outward form. The Large Catechism says this, "The sacraments.should be regarded not according to the gross, external mask (as we see the shell of a nut) but as that in which God's Word is enclosed." This holiday season not one of you is going to refuse to crack a pecan because it's rather unattractive and even dirty on the outside. Because you know what's inside, you'll crack that nut. Those who regarded Jesus just according to His outside, Son of Mary, from Nazareth, a Carpenter stumbled over Him. You are doing the same thing if you regard Baptism as just Water, Absolution as just words, and Communion as just Bread and Wine.

These 3 are the miracles of the New Testament Church. You think that an exaggeration? What greater miracle is there than rebirthings someone into everlasting life? What greater miracle is there than saying words of forgiveness on earth that are as valid and certain in heaven as if Christ said them Himself? What greater miracle could there possibly be than having your God break into your time and space with His Body and Blood? Raising someone from the dead only for them to die again, curing cancer only for them to get another disease, or seeing Jesus in a vision that fades quickly away aren't greater miracles than these.

Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are great miracles that we should revel in, treasure and use. In our Smalcald Articles this is what we confess to believe. "God is superabundantly rich in His grace: first through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world, Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth through the power of the keys [Absolution]. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren."

Did you catch that? Here we list 5 means of grace. Why so many means for giving the same thing? Think about it; at Christmas you will get your kids or grandkids more than one present. You do that because your love is superabundant. If on Christmas, the child says, "I'll just open one," the child would be a King Ahaz. Your feelings would be hurt because your gifts are rejected. You want your loved ones to have and use all of your gifts. So with our God. He could have wrapped up forgiveness only in Water, only in Words, or only in Bread and Wine, but He did it in all of them because His love is that abundant toward you. Unwrap and use all of His gifts everyday, particularly on those days God feels far away from you. Because His intention is always and ever to be Immanuel; that is, God with us. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Advent Midweek I (20061129); Isaiah 7:14