Tag Archive | ordinances

Sacrament

[I’m skipping a few chapters — as I’ve said before, I don’t have much helpful to say about the spirit or gifts of the spirit…]

Sacrament and Sacrifice

To me, the sacrament is a beautiful reversal of the ancient order of sacrifice.

Blood sacrifices are ubiquitous in human and religious history. Most often, these sacrifices were performed as a way to ritually feed or otherwise appease the gods. The first chapter of Leviticus lays out the method of sacrifice. It repeatedly mentions the idea that the sacrifice is to be a “sweet savour” to the LORD, reminiscent of the origins of the practice of blood sacrifice.

The sacrifice is directed toward the god. It is something that it demands of its people. By sacrifice, the subjects of a god are able to extract favors or at least hold back its wrath.

The sacrament — at least as I understand it — reverses this logic. In the traditions that I am familiar with, the officiator breaks the bread and pours the wine (or water) at the altar. Rather than the offering being consumed upon the altar by fire (perhaps thought of as the incarnation of the god on earth?),  it is distributed to the congregants.

The sacrament is directed outward toward the people. It is offered to all. Through the sacrament we are fed and reminded of the bounty provided to us.

The outpouring of God

In Luke’s version of the events of the Last Supper, Jesus says of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (NIV).

The radical theologian, Thomas Altizer got himself into some controversy when he began to preach the death of God. But there is something beautiful about his thought. Altizer explored what it might mean for God to truly have been sacrificed. Christians are fond of reciting, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son….” But this doesn’t seem like much of  an offering if it is only temporary — just as long as it takes for Jesus to be installed on the right hand.

I think we run a risk of cheapening Jesus’ sacrifice by focusing on the fantastic, unimaginable glory that he gained as a result. This seems to turn the sublime sacrifice into merely an exchange. I am a little uncomfortable with the lyrics of the sacrament hymn, “Jesus Once of Humble Birth”. The hymn juxtaposes Jesus’ humble past with his glorious future. We  sing,

Once he suffered grief and pain;

Now he comes on earth to reign!

As if his grief and pain were done away with! The God that appeals to me is the God who suffers in the present tense. The Jesus that returned to the disciples still bore the scars of his mortal life. In the powerful words of modern scripture,

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, I partook…

Here we have a God who remembers that suffering and is transformed by it. We read that Jesus will indeed return to reign, but  he comes not as a conquering warrior drenched in the blood of his enemies. His robes are red with his own blood. Even the propagandistic tone of Revelation turns somber when we are suddenly confronted with a Jesus that takes the form of a “Lamb as it had been slain.” As another has paraphrased, Altizer taught that the incarnation of God was an act that poured the sacred irrevocably into the profane and was thus obliterated. We maybe are reluctant to follow him that far, but I think we have ample support for the idea that God’s experience on earth was transformative in some sense.

The God who Changed

I am haunted by a few lines from Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” In the second stanza, after the narrator has been consumed by leopards who gnaw on his bones, God commands the bones to prophesy and they sing these words:

Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied

At the sacrament table we are called upon to remember the “greater torment” of Jesus’ love. A love that exists in the world with all of its attendant sorrow and disappointment, and more importantly, we are called upon to spread that love.

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Baptism

One of the primary reasons given for the Restoration is the necessity of ordinances performed under the proper authority. This earth is a probationary time (so we are told), and one of its main functions is to give us an opportunity to receive the ordinances of the gospel. These ordinances set us on the path to exaltation, and baptism is the gate.

I feel a deep ambivalence about ordinances (an ambivalence that is probably responsible — at least in part — for the long gap between my last post and this one). On the one hand, the idea that there is something essential about performing certain rites and rituals during our brief time on earth is strange. Although Mormons get around some of the more problematic logical issues with requiring ordinances for salvation by allowing for vicarious work for the dead, this solution comes with its own problems that I’ll talk about in a future post.

There is still something deeply strange about the gospel plan as its been described to us. Speaking of the temple endowment, Brigham Young said:

“Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941], p. 416).

I can’t imagine any contemporary member of the Church defending this quote in it’s most literal sense. I don’t think that most members of the Church actually believe that there will be angels guarding the door and checking to make sure you have some arcane knowledge of the ‘key words, the signs and tokens’ necessary to enter the Celestial Kingdom, but this doesn’t seem to prevent us from thinking that the other ordinances of the gospel work in an analogous way.

Is there something supernatural about the fact of being baptized that is so crucial it must be performed vicariously for every person that hopes to receive exaltation? I do find some beauty in the notion that we turn our hearts to our ancestors and bring them one by one through the stepping stones of the gospel path, but at a certain point the logistics get so overwhelming that one begins to wonder.

On the other hand, there is something beautiful about a community of believers coming together to welcome a new soul into their fellowship. The old spiritual says it best: “Shall we gather at the river?/… /Gather with the saints at the river/ That flows by the throne of God.” (see this beautiful rendition).

My favorite scripture about baptism is in Mosiah 18:

[N]ow, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

The idea that ordinances are ‘outward signs of inward commitment’ is a little cliche, but I think there is real power in it. Being able to point to a particular moment in time when something momentous happened is a powerful motivator (this makes child baptism a little problematic, but that might be a topic for another post).

At its best, baptism represents a turning point in a life, and an initiation into a new community.

The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times

I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’

The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:

Revelation

I’ve talked about revelation before, and despite my own difficulties in this area, it makes a lot of sense to me that God would be talking in some way to the people who are leading the church.

The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.

Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.

Authority from God

My last two posts dealt with priesthood in greater detail. Any organization needs leadership, and as I said before, the ‘House of Order’ idea seems obviously true.

But the manual tells us,

That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.

I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.

Church organization

The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.

Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.

First principles and ordinances

I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.

Ordinances performed for the dead

I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.

I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.

Spiritual Gifts

This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.

Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.

So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?