They are rituals as old as Christianity itself. A pastor takes bread and cup, recounts God's saving activities, gives thanks and serves the people. A person, often an infant, is immersed or doused with water and becomes part of God's family.
Communion and baptism are the two sacraments in The United Methodist Church; they happen thousands of times every year. In these moments, United Methodists claim that God's grace is present. But how? What is that grace doing, and what is it doing in/for/to us?
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for Discipleship Ministries, said that for John Wesley and for Anglican theologians before him, the sacraments were an instituted means of grace.
"In other words, Jesus said, ‘Do these things and the Spirit will be active in these ways in your life,'" Burton-Edwards said. "Jesus left these for us as a means of continuing to abide in him and abide in the grace and the love of God."
Abiding is the work of the sacrament of Holy Communion, he said, while baptism is initiatory, bringing us in to the body of Christ. Here, grace is both prevenient – that is God "wooing us (into relationship with God) without us even being aware of it," he said, and justifying.
"Part of our ritual is, and has been for a very long time, that we would be cleansed from sin" in baptism. "That cleansing from sin is through justifying grace," or bringing one's self into a right relationship with God, which then leads us to the third form of grace, sanctifying.
Sanctifying grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to make us holy, Burton-Edwards said, "to move us toward perfection in love in this life."
Because God first loved us
God's grace is not only biblical, it's everywhere, said the Rev. Karen Westerfield Tucker, professor of worship at Boston University's School of Theology.
Referring to 1 John 4:19, "We love because God first loved us," she said. "All grace is prevenient; it is God's actions toward us because of our inability to save ourselves."
Westerfield Tucker noted both By Water and the Spirit, a document first adopted by The United Methodist Church in 1996 about baptism, and This Holy Mystery, a statement about Holy Communion adopted by the 2004 General Conference, note "God is the only ‘initiator and source of grace.'" Westerfield Tucker served on the committee that developed This Holy Mystery.
How grace "works" through the sacraments is a subject upon which the Wesleys – John and Charles – chose not to speculate and neither have subsequent United Methodist teachings, she said. "This is not a theological cop-out, but an indicator of trust in God's promises."
John Wesley was less confident about an adult's ability to receive justifying and sanctifying grace at the time of baptism, she said, since a person might have conscious or unconscious obstacles set against it.
"Yet," she said, "God's grace was always given, even though a person might become aware of it or appropriate it at a later time. United Methodists can affirm that God's grace is ‘most surely and immediately available' because God's promises are true. God can always do as God chooses, but God has shown again and again to the church that the sacraments are sure means, or channels, of grace."
Trust and action
Trust is an important aspect of grace, agreed the Rev. Mark Stamm, professor of Christian worship at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
"Jesus' command was ‘do this' in the sacrament of Holy Communion," Stamm said. Experiencing grace during this sacrament is a matter of trust, he said, because, as it is recorded in Luke 24, Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread; the risen Christ "shows up in the Eucharist," he said. "You can't control the risen Christ, just follow him."
When people gather for the Lord's supper, he said, God's grace is not just available for individuals. "During Holy Communion, we rub shoulders with people we wouldn't otherwise be with," Stamm said. "God has a great sense of humor to do this. God brings us together and says, ‘Deal with it.'"
The grace experienced in Holy Communion moves Christians to act on their faith, Stamm said. "Grace is known in the things that we do," he said, "such as working at reconciliation. Grace is encountered as we proclaim the story of redemption."
This Holy Mystery states that God's grace at Holy Communion "forms the church into a community of evangelism that reaches out to preach, teach, baptize and make new disciples of Christ (Matthew 28:19-20)."
Stamm noted that for United Methodists, Christ is a "sure and real presence" during Holy Communion. The ritual is not merely a memorial.
The grace experienced at baptism also stretches believers, Stamm said, because it is God who is at work.
"We are initiated into God's holy church," he said, "and we are united with all the church. God's invitation has always stretched far and wide, to people of all ages and in all times."
Stamm said he knows a church "gets it" when he visits a church and finds a person who "doesn't fit in" but has a home there. "God is the one acting and who adds us to the church. Once a person becomes a sister or brother in Christ, they are that, now and forever."
Gifts to the universal church
"Sacraments give dignity to our humanity and, by the grace of God, lift our humanity Godward," said the Rev. Gina Campbell, visiting professor of worship at Wesley Theological Seminary and the Elder of the Chapel.
God in Jesus Christ knew that we needed to touch, feel, taste, see and hear God, she said, and thus, God invites us into an experience through the sacraments. Grace transforms us. How, exactly, is a mystery.
"We receive the sacraments to become sacramental people," Campbell explained. "I don't know how that works. I do know that I come and receive (the elements) so that I become what I receive. That's the whole Wesleyan notion about going on and going on. That's my thinking about the sacraments; it's like layers of sediment upon sediment; it builds and increases.
"Our hope, then, is that we become ‘perfect in love,'" she said. "We become the love that claims us in our baptism, the kind of love that nourishes us at the table, the kind of love that unites us to the communion of those who have been saints of God, always and everywhere, and become that body of Christ that does justice and loves mercy."
When Campbell hears Jesus' command, "Do this in memory of me," she said it becomes, for her, a "thin place, (a place that has) been so prayed over that the veil between heaven and earth seems very thin and time falls away. To me, this is a place where all those human categories that we hold fall away and it's a thin place.
"One thing I teach in every class, because I don't think (United) Methodist folks hear it enough, is that Wesley's whole confession of grace is the gift of our church to the Christian community," she said. "The complexity of it, the depth of it, the on-going-ness of it, there's just a beauty in the way Wesley thought about grace and the way he gave it to us. It just breaks my heart when you go places and you don't hear it. ... Grace gives us assurance for our life that we forget at our peril."
The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is an elder and member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, where he serves as managing editor of the UMConnection.