The Body and the Sacraments as a Means of Grace

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We begin this stage in our journey by first defining what a sacrament is. Sacramental practice is rooted in the practices of the earliest Christian communities in the New Testament. Jesus himself established two of the sacraments—­baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)—­as signs of our common identity and as avenues through which God’s grace might be conveyed. Both are richly textured practices in the New Testament and early church with deep theological significance for the body of Christ.

The church coined the word sacrament in the third century by combining the Latin word sacer (“holy”) with the Greek word mystērion (“mystery”). Thus, a sacrament is a “holy mystery.” Originally, the public acts of baptism and the Eucharist were signs of unity between Christians and served as pointers to our solidarity with one another, but primarily serving as an “oath of loyalty” to the lordship of Jesus Christ. However, by the time of Augustine, the church began to move away from seeing the sacraments as an “oath of loyalty” and focusing more on the sacraments as a spiritual sign communicating grace and forgiveness. Augustine was the first to refer to a sacrament as a “visible sign of invisible grace,” an understanding which is later elaborated into “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

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Despite the fact that the word sacrament just means “holy mystery” and has the potential for broad application, the term began to be understood and expressed within the narrower boundaries of specific clerical functions. Sacred signs became restricted to those symbolic mysteries that were conveyed through bishops and priests. Today, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination. During the sixteenth century Reformation, Protestant churches further restricted the sacraments to only those explicitly instituted by Christ. Thus only two sacraments are acknowledged in most Protestant churches: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, sometimes called the Eucharist or Communion. Some Protestant churches have observed that since the word sacrament does not appear in the New Testament (since the term was not coined until the third century), it should not be used at all by churches; therefore, they prefer a more generic term like ordinance.

Despite this narrow application of the term sacrament, Augustine opened the door for a more generous understanding of the sacraments because he did not limit sacraments to oaths and rituals or even to their use as a sign of the church’s unity. Instead, he understood sacraments as an array of acts or deeds in which “physical things” pointed to “Christian mysteries.” In other words, according to Augustine a sacrament can be understood as all the various ways God conveys his grace to us. In this understanding, sacraments are more than just one or two biblically mandated acts; they are bridges that permit for two-­way traffic—­allowing us to express our loyalty and love to God and allowing him to express his love and grace to us. Since the word sacrament simply means “holy mystery,” it should not be confined to meaning only what God does to convey his mysteries to us. Chapter 2 explored many wonderful ways this happens through the “means of grace.” In this chapter, we broaden our understanding of the word to also include all the ways we point the world to deeper spiritual realities.

Augustine made an important distinction between a “thing” and a “sign.” A thing represents anything that has manifest existence, whereas a sign points to something else beyond itself.3 Augustine generously listed over 300 such signs that pointed to holy mysteries, and almost anything that served as a channel or signpost of grace could, potentially, be viewed sacramentally.

It is not the purpose of this book to insist on a particular understanding of the sacraments. If you are in a tradition which does not use the word sacrament (perhaps calling them ordinances), or you are in a tradition which only applies the word sacrament to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, what I share in this chapter can still provide theological food for thought. Don’t get caught up on the term since we are simply looking at the various ways God extends his grace to his people as well as to the world in summoning everyone to himself. In chapter 2 we used the phrase “means of grace” to explain that God’s grace is conveyed through our physical bodies. We hear the gospel with our ears, we take the Eucharist with our mouths, we baptize bodies, we smell incense with our noses, we lay hands on and pray for the sick, we ordain someone for ministry with our hands, and we travel on our feet to feed the hungry or assist the immigrant. All of these means of grace are conveyed in physical ways through the human body.

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The purpose of this chapter is to expand on this further and to explore how God uses our bodies not just to be receivers of his grace but to carry it further as a sacramental sign to the world. The gospel always finds some form of embodiment. And it is our bodies that make mission possible as we “incarnate” or embody the gospel before the world—­as living icons of God’s love, grace, redemption, and judgment.

The Bible is really one single story; it is God’s rescue of the human race. All the other stories of the Bible—­the exodus, the battles of Deborah, Jonah coming out of the big fish to proclaim the gospel to Nineveh, the weeping prophet Jeremiah in the pit—­are all tiny mirrors or “reflections” of this one great story of redemption. But this story continues to be embodied in every generation and is reflected in the lives and stories of the people of God. We often scramble the message of the story and reflect it poorly. Like the distorted mirrors at the carnival, the church has sometimes reflected a crude caricature of Jesus Christ in the world. However, God has providentially chosen and sent the church into the world to bear witness to his glory and the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ.

The sixth building block in our theology of the body is the recognition that our physical bodies are beacons or signs to the world as we embody God’s saving purposes and his holy love. Our bodies are “mobile temples” that sacramentally represent God in the world. Just as our bodies point to Christ, and Christ’s resurrected body points us toward our future resurrected bodies, so God calls us to be missionally present in the world as a “means of grace.” We are a sacramental presence. Practically, this means we sacrificially give ourselves to bring the gospel to a lost and dying world. The whole missionary enterprise begins with God “on mission” to rescue us, but it continues as God calls his redeemed people to join him in this mission—­to be “on mission” with him to reach the world.

The two core sacraments of the church, baptism and the Eucharist, are the primary means through which God bodily summons us into the divine mysteries of the faith, and both have important implications for mission. In the administration of these two sacraments, we are transformed into a sacramental presence in the world. We will begin with a brief exploration of the two sacraments ordained by Christ and then consider how these two sacraments are the means through which God transforms our bodies into his sacramental summons to a lost world.

This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan). Through these pages, you will:

  • Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
  • Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
  • Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture

The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.

Also available are the Video Companion and Video Study Guide for participants. In these eight (30 minute) sessions, Timothy Tennent presents the core teachings of the larger book. The Video Study Guide includes condensed narrative from the video presentations, outlines of the videos, discussion questions, and recommended reading. Together, these resources will help groups engage with the material at a deeper level and challenge us to consider the implications of the Bible’s teaching on the human body for discipleship.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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