IT is evident that there is a wide-spread neglect of the entire sacramental system of the Gospel among thousands of sincere and earnest Christian people. Not only do they fail to have their children baptized, but it is not at all unusual to meet scores of adults who have never received Holy Baptism. You will find, if you ask them about it, that they have fallen into the habit of regarding it as a mere form and ceremony, possessing no practical relation to the Christian life. We do not refer simply to those Christian bodies which do not believe in infant Baptism and neglect it on principle, but rather to a growing disesteem of the sacred right of Baptism among many Christian people. Then when we come to consider the attitude of many so-called Christians toward the blessed Sacrament of the Holy Communion we find the case far worse. A number of the Protestant bodies and Protestant Churches about us celebrate their Communion only once in three months, while many are taught that a monthly reception is quite sufficient for all the demands of the Christian life. This lamentable disregard of the Sacraments results not only from the divisions into which the Christian communities are divided, but it is also caused, we feel assured, by an utter failure on the part of many to understand the real meaning of the Sacraments, and the place in the Christian economy which they are intended to occupy.
We shall endeavor, therefore, in this chapter to look into the nature of the Sacraments and to refresh our minds by getting a glimpse of their dignity and importance in the whole scheme of Christian doctrine as revealed to us by the express command and institution of our Lord Himself and clearly practised by the Christian Church during the many centuries of its life before the divisions which took place at the Reformation.
A Sacrament has been defined as an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ Himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof." While the grace given is inward and spiritual, it is none the less real on that account. A Sacrament that has been ordained by Christ is the means or instrument whereby we receive the inward grace, and it is the outward and visible pledge to assure us that we have received it. By the word grace so frequently used in Holy Scripture we mean sanctifying power; a certain divine influence exerted on the hearts of men, such as the preaching of the Gospel, the reading of the Scripture, prayer, meditation, or public worship produces. In our Book of Common Prayer we thank God for the means of grace. It is that influence which disposes us to yield obedience to the divine laws, to practise the Christian virtues, to bear trouble with patience and resignation, to perform our duty with courage and fidelity. In short, it is the invisible, but real spiritual power which God employs in conveying to us His undeserved mercies and benefits. It is evident that God's grace is not confined to His Sacraments, but is conveyed in many ways. At the same time, as a merciful condescension to our weakness and as an encouragement and assurance to our faith, He has ordained His Sacraments whereby we may be sure His grace will be given in response to our obedience.
Moreover, there are two parts in a Sacrament--namely, the outward visible sign and the inward spiritual grace. These two parts have been, by Christ's express command and institution, knit or tied together. The outward sign and the inward grace complete and form the Sacrament. Of course, our divine Lord could have dispensed with Sacraments altogether. He does not hem in and limit His free grace to them. That grace often overflows such ordained channels. But nothing in the New Testament is more evident than the solemn and impressive emphasis He lays on the two great sacraments Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, which He ordained for our use and spiritual sustenance. Baptism and the Supper of our Lord, wherever they can be had, are made obligatory upon all believers in Him. During all the nineteen centuries of Christian history the observance of these two simple Sacraments, commanded and instituted by the Master, has been an invariable mark of discipleship.
How the grace of God does its regenerating and sanctifying work in Holy Baptism; how, by the same grace, the bread and wine, spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper, become the Body and Blood of Christ are mysteries, not contrary to the reason of man, but for the present beyond his finite comprehension. It was Nicodemus who was amazed when our Lord declared, "Except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." He exclaimed, "How can these things be!" Our Lord by way of explanation appealed to nature. He reminded him that the wind bloweth where it listeth, and that he heard the sound thereof, but could not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. So is every one that is born of the spirit.
Indeed, it might be well for us to dwell a moment on our Lord's appeal to nature as illustrative of the method of divine grace. There are men who find it difficult to accept the sacramental system of the Church because they cannot understand the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, religion in general is a stumbling-block to many, for the reason that it is full of mystery,. They cannot understand it. But it is at least worth while for us to remind those to whom the mysteries of religion present such difficulties, that religion is not the only realm where mysteries abound. This world of ours wherein we dwell is full of mystery. Who can explain the process and growth and development of a rose? Where does it get its fragrance, its marvelous color, its enhancing beauty? The very bread that sustains our bodies; who has yet unraveled the mysteries that enter into the vegetable life which produces it, or explained the hidden secret, or chemical processes of physical nourishment? We know some of the phenomena. There is first the blade, then the ear, and then the full corn on the ear. The life beyond and back of the phenomena is still a mystery. Yet we do not hesitate to take the food prepared for us, despite all the mysteries as to its source and its preparation. Our Lord speaks of the Holy Communion as the bread which came down from Heaven. Again, we do not hesitate to sow and reap, to walk in the light of the sun, and utilize that strange and impalpable force in nature known as electricity, and other powers of the universe, though we know not what they are. By appealing to the marvels and mysteries of His beautiful world God built up the faith of His servant Job, and made it easy for him to accept the miracles of His grace. He said to him, when he was in doubt, "Gird up now thy loins like a man, for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding, canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?" Matthew Arnold says somewhere that the greatest miracle in the world is the rising of the sun. To a man who believes in God at all as the maker of this wonderful cosmos, with its laws of symmetry and beauty, it should surely be comparatively easy to confide in the efficacy of those divine medicines of the soul which the great Physician who created the soul and knows its needs has ordained in His Sacraments for the healing of its spiritual maladies.
Were the Sacraments nothing more than mere signs and symbols, and the act of receiving them merely an act of obedience, it would still be our duty to follow the command of Christ. But when there is attached to the outward and visible sign, both in the case of Baptism and of the Holy Communion, on the sure pledge and gracious promise of Christ Himself such unspeakable blessings, it is amazing that men should hesitate.
Thus we have in the Church, to be evermore lovingly and gratefully received, the two Sacraments which our Lord Himself instituted. Holy Baptism is the wonderful act of God's love by which He bestows upon us His own life, and we are born of water and of the Spirit. We are born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God. His last great commission to His Disciples was, "Go ye, therefore, into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe such things as I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." And then, on the last night before He was crucified, you will remember how He took the bread and the wine, and, blessing them, solemnly instituted the Lord's Supper. Every Christian receives the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist because his Saviour, almost as His last command before His death, said, "This is my body," and "This is my blood, do this in remembrance of me." In the Holy Communion the outward part is the bread and wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received. The inward part is the body and blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper. The Sacraments, as you will see, therefore, are means and channels of God's grace, and not mere signs or ceremonies. God's part in Holy Baptism is spiritual regeneration, or the new birth into His Kingdom, the Church. God's part in the Holy Communion is the body and blood of Christ, really imparted to us in a heavenly and spiritual manner.
The right to administer the Sacraments belongs to the regularly ordained ministers who have been set apart for that purpose. But while the administration of the Holy Communion has been regarded as the exclusive privilege of those to whom it has been given by ordination, such is not the rule about Holy Baptism. On the contrary, it has been the custom of our Church to allow lay-people also to perform that initial Sacrament in cases of emergency. Lay Baptism has been recognized as valid, probably because of the fact that this Sacrament is universally necessary to membership in the Church, and, moreover, because infants as well as adults are proper subjects for Baptism.
In the last resort that which is essential to a valid Baptism is the application of water to the person to be baptized, together with the invariable use of the words prescribed by our blessed Lord, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."
In the case of adults repentance and faith are required before receiving that Sacrament, while for infants, who by reason of their tender age cannot exercise faith and repentance, these prerequisites are promised in their behalf by their sponsors, which promise, when they come of age, themselves are taught to perform.
For the same reason, inasmuch as Baptism is not essentially a priestly function, but also a ministerial one, our Church has generally recognized as validly baptized the members of other religious bodies whose ministers have not been Episcopally ordained.
The Church, however, has always followed the invariable usage of the past in regarding the administration of the Sacrament of the Holy Communion as the exclusive prerogative and duty of those in Holy Orders; and it is not the custom of well-instructed Churchmen to receive that Holy Sacrament save at the hands of those who have been, according to the canons of the Church, solemnly ordained to officiate in this service.
The invitation to come to the Holy Communion is extended in the Church to all who truly and earnestly repent, and are in love and charity with their neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways. We draw near to the table of our Lord, riot because we are free from sin or because we claim to be worthy of so great a privilege, but for the reason that we need His pardon and His peace, and in humble obedience to His own tender and loving invitation to all who are weary and heavy laden.