How to Talk About the Sacraments Without Scaring People Away
May 23, 2014 | Guest
By Nathan Hale
When I came to grips with the primacy of Holy Communion throughout church history, my life changed forever. I struggled to understand the importance of the Sacraments from my decidedly non-sacramental background…and it took years to sort things out in my mind and heart. I’m convinced this was due in large part to a breakdown in communication between well-meaning Sacramental folks and people like my wife and I who were brand-new to the whole idea. Here are three principles that will help us all as we seek to communicate the great blessings our tradition has to offer in its sacramental life.
Define your terms.
When I first started exploring sacramental theology, I had particular difficulty with the idea of “means of grace.” I quickly began to construct my own analogies and metaphors to try and understand what others were talking about. You can’t simply throw around terms like “mystical union,” “Real Presence” and “outward sign of an inward grace” without making the time investment to explain what you mean by those words. Even if the person you are speaking to comes from another liturgical/sacramental context, chances are you have both assigned different meaning to some of the vocabulary you have in common.
You really can’t emphasize grace enough in these conversations. Although there is a profound–and we would like to think obvious–understanding of the Sacraments as “the gifts of God for the people of God,” many from non-sacramental backgrounds struggle with the concept. To them, “means of grace” feel like an added requirement to faith for salvation. Ordinary means of extraordinary grace (there I go with the lingo) is a counter-intuitive concept.
I remember a pivotal conversation early on in my liturgical/sacramental journey. I just couldn’t get why, if I was already justified by virtue of my faith in Jesus, I would need the grace I was being told was present in the Sacraments. Without giving me a lecture on sanctifying grace vs. justifying grace, and without a hint of condescension, a Lutheran friend remarked, “Of course the grace given to you via your faith is enough,but God wants to give you more than enough–grace upon grace.” That’s when I began to get it.
Be willing to walk with others.
If you are unwilling to patiently and lovingly walk with others as they venture into unfamiliar theological territory, you will miss great opportunities to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus to people that need him.
For my wife and I, infant baptism was a difficult issue. We were lifelong Baptists and had deeply rooted theological and emotional objections to the practice. Nevertheless, many faithful Anglicans spoke into our lives gently and patiently. They demonstrated with their words and actions that they cared for us as people and would continue to welcome us in fellowship regardless of our hesitations and level of understanding. Two years and many conversations later, both our infant children were baptized.
Take the time to define your terms, emphasize grace, and practice gentleness and patience. Instead of confusion, division and damaged relationships, you’ll find that conversations around the Sacraments will result in deeper faith and a strengthened Church.
What ways have you found to be effective for talking about the Sacraments?
Nathan R. Hale is a husband, father, minister, writer and musician. He inspires, equips and educates young Christian leaders for a deeper communion with Christ and more effective discipleship.