Sacraments for the Christian Life

by Ellen T. Charry

Ellen T. Charry is Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article is from the Christian Century, November 15, 1995, pp. 1076-1079. Used by permission.


Christians need to be re-Christianized, to have their true identity in Christ made palapable. The sacraments embody this.

Christians are people who acknowledge that they belong neither to themselves nor to the age, but to God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. They are out of step with a society that prizes individuality and autonomy. They are at odds with a culture in which power over persons and property gauges success and garners respect. Unlike their secular friends, Christians do not aim to be self-created or self-directed. Instead, they are directed by God, whose call to live a holy life dedicated to the rescue of others is laid bare in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Christian life is lived in freedom from the norms and expectations of the world because Christians live by divine standards; it is lived in celebration because they claim to live in the reign of God. Christians learn the dimension of that reign by following Jesus around Galilee as he healed, fed, forgave, confronted and taught. Then they dedicate themselves to honoring it.

Reclaiming a vigorous Christian identity is a countercultural act in a culture that no longer grasps the beauty of a disciplined, centered and divinely directed life. A Christian chooses a life that scrutinizes self and society through the Christian filters of the triune God who became incarnate, died on a cross and remains present to a community gathered for holy living. What could make less sense to a world torn by dissension and strife? A decision for Christ and the Christian life becomes a courageous, perhaps even an irrational act.

Yet Christians are as weak and forgetful as anyone else. They become distracted and confused by the call of the world and need to specify and focus their Christian identity. Christians need to be re-Christianized, to have their true identity in Christ made palpable so that they can take it with them when they venture into the marketplace, into the public arena and into the private struggles of their lives.

Most are not up to living the Christian life alone. They need the company of others who aim for a distinctively Christian way of life in a broken world. They need to taste and touch together. Fortunately, the church has the means of focusing Christian minds and upbuilding the community: the sacraments.

Sacraments are concrete actions by which Christians may be marked, fed and touched by the Holy Spirit so that the reality of God and the work of Christ become embedded in the body and psyche. Sacraments recall God’s promises and presence to the worshiping community, binding it together ever more tightly and to clearer purpose. The Holy Spirit is the specific agent of Christianization in the sacraments, binding Christians into the trinitarian life in baptism, and feeding them on the dramatic reenactment of redemption played out through the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eucharist. As Basil the Great put it, the Holy Spirit reaches down from the divine majesty to graft believers into the Holy Trinity by dwelling in them.

Being grafted into the Trinity may be stated christologically without denying the trinitarian implication spelled out in later Christian theology: I am defined by the wisdom and power of God revealed in the death of Christ. I am sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. I die and rise with Christ to new life. I am clothed with Christ to fight the powers of sin and death.

These different formulations all share the view that grace is not simply divine graciousness upon which one throws oneself, seeking mercy rather than judgment, but also divine power that illumines the believer with the divine dignity that directs personal life. The grace conveyed to the believer in sacraments is the presence of God symbolized by water, oil or food, from which the believer takes strength and comfort.

On the occasion of my baptism, a friend wrote: "Try to remember deliberately once a day that you were and are baptized, that your life is underwritten by God and that in a sense this grandest position in life has already been achieved. You can never go higher than simple baptism. In a sense, this is a release from striving. What was sought for long and hard has not been found, it has found you."

Baptism centers a Christian’s life. First, this sacred washing purifies the baptized for a new life dominated by belonging to God. Forgiveness of sin demarcates the past life from a new life of freedom and joy.

Second, the baptized are always in the presence of God and carry the seal of the Holy Spirit around with them. They are ennobled and dignified by the presence of God, and live as signs of God’s self-communication through Jesus. The baptized know that they have been blessed by the divine presence. Their baptism has inaugurated a life of thanks to God.

Third, the baptized are empowered. No matter in which direction they turn, the dignity of God impels them to be agents of reconciliation and empowers them for self-control. They must be alert every time they touch another person’s body, mind or spirit because God now resides in them.

Churches that practice infant baptism are in the anomalous situation of having to catechize the baptized who may have little understanding that they participate in the trinitarian life. I grieve for a lost opportunity whenever I attend a baptism in which the preacher fails to preach on the meaning of the event. Those who were baptized as infants have a right to know what happened theologically: they were "glued" to the maker of heaven and earth by the Holy Spirit.

Participation in the Eucharist revivifies the power of baptism for daily strength and comfort. I once met a woman who told me she became a Christian because she needed a God she could eat, take into herself and be continuously transformed by. Daily strengthening in the Christian life begins with being reminded that through dying and rising with Christ, we belong to God. In re-enacting the Last Supper we participate again in that dying and rising first undertaken in baptism, when we were washed to begin life afresh. In the Eucharist we are fed and sustained in that life, even though our heads turn back to the world and we fall into sin and death.

The gift of the Eucharist concretizes the mutual indwelling of Christ in the disciples and of Christ with the Father, and therefore the indwelling of the Father and Son in the faithful. "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23). The bread of life is truly manna in our wilderness, reminding us of God’s love for us and rekindling our gratitude so that we return to God.

Luther put it strongly in his 1527 treatise, This Is My Body: "To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful mortal[s] makes spiritual, holy, living [persons]."

Christians are bound together by feasting at the Lord’s table. True, they are bound together by sharing in potluck suppers too, but there is a difference. In the parish hall, they share themselves, the work of their hands, their hospitality at a table set for one another. But the Lord’s table is set by God.

In this shared meal, Christians become sisters and brothers in Christ. In this moment, they venture out from behind the screens of privacy and solitude, out of the fragmentation that characterizes their lives. The Eucharist is the great Christian equalizer. All come hungry, yearning to be fed of God; all leave filled, fed on God’s love. Whatever divides them from one another dies away. No one’s need is greater than another’s. No one’s pain is deeper than another’s. No one’s sin is fiercer than another’s. Issues of race, gender and inequalities of wealth and power cease to exist at the Lord’s table. Here Christians are knit together by their hunger for God and God’s satisfying that need for each and all. Such unity, fleeting though it may be, is a taste of the Christian hope for the time when, as Julian of Norwich put it, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

A third sacrament that belongs with baptism and Eucharist for the continuous strengthening in Christian identification with God is penance. This was eliminated by Protestants during the Reformation, and Protestants thereby lost individual opportunities for self-examination, reassessment and recommitment in a sacramental context. Group confession of general sinfulness lacks the edge that confession of specific sins offers. Perhaps the deletion of marriage as a sacrament has also diverted Christians from seeing marriage as life in God.

Christians who are bound together sacramentally understand that they are responsible for one another and for one another’s sins, more than a few of which have corporate dimensions. The admonition to the church in Ephesus still serves well: "So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." Christians’ solidarity and mutual responsibility are made plain in the pastoral offices of baptism, marriage and ordination. In some liturgies the whole congregation places itself at the disposal of those being baptized, confirmed, married and ordained by taking vows to support these persons in their new life and ministry. Perhaps during Lent Christians should volunteer for peer review to see how well they have carried out those vows.

Conversely, being under vows suggests that Christians submit themselves to correction and discipline by the church. The Christian life also directs how treasure and power are to be used. Can we talk about eucharistic living in corporate boardrooms, in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue? There is no absolute privacy in the Christian life.

Christians must work out knowledge of God as the source of direction for their lives and their various circumstances. What means of livelihood are appropriate for Christians? What entertainments befit those who live in the shadow of the cross of Christ? How should they handle failure and rejection, or power over property and persons? A strong sacramental life will call them back to make God their starting place. The dignity and graciousness of God will influence their mind and behavior.

The drama of sacraments as occasions in which the power of God comes to dwell in the believer can become obscured when a church takes its rites for granted or forgets the radical nature of Christian identity. In order to overcome that complacency, Christians must understand the radical nature of the Christian life. Theirs is a daring undertaking; they need an active sacramental life.