Here is a way of thinking about sacraments that is congruent with the 21st century because it takes seriously both the way that the world works and the way that words work.
- Baptism is an embodied metaphor
- Communion is an enacted parable
- Weddings are performed symbols
Let’s be clear about the difference between a sign and a symbol.
A sign is a signifier that points to a reality beyond itself. A symbol is much bigger – it is a sign that participates in the reality that it points to.
Sacraments are enacted symbols. In this way, they are both signs that point to a greater reality and they are performed signifiers that can never fully reveal or contain the antecedent they are attempting to signify. Sacraments are both significant artifacts of the church and they are gifts and graces (charis) that both form and inform our faith and practice.
In this sense, sacraments are symbols that participate at some level in the reality that they point to. When we are at the table, we are re-membering the body of Christ as the members of the body. It is beautiful symbolism. When we stand in the waters of baptism we have entered the body – like the waters of birth, we are now born of both water and spirit. The same is true for the wedding ceremony – the two become one in the company and community of witnesses. Wearing a wedding ring is an enacted-embodied-performed symbol.
Sacraments and corporate worship are then a parable of the kin-dom. Jesus used parables (not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings) to slide underneath the listener’s defenses in order to interrogate the ‘way things are’. Jesus did this to subvert the unjust status quo and turn upside-down the listener’s presumptions about the way things are and the way that God wants them.
Said a different way: Parables are often misunderstood. Not just the meaning of the parable – those are often elusive – but the very nature of parables. Many have been told that parables are ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning’. This is not true!
Parables are better thought of as ‘earthy stories with heavy meanings’. We error when we think that what Jesus was talking about was pie in the sky or the great beyond.
Parables cause the listener to investigate their assumptions (the Samaritan is the ‘good guy’?) and change their mind (literally: repent).
This is the prophetic ministry of the church – to imagine the world a different way and to image what that looks like to the world around us.
The next time you are preparing to come to the table, or enter the waters of baptism, or attend a wedding … remember that you are participating in an embodied metaphor, an enacted parable, and a performed symbol.