We didn’t get to celebrate Easter at church the way we wanted, because of the coronavirus pandemic. We probably won’t get to celebrate Christmas at church the way we would like to, either. But we still celebrated Easter, and we’ll celebrate Christmas, too. Those two holidays mark the “bookends” of the Christian faith. Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, when God became a man in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. And Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, after He paid for our sins by dying on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Christmas is the beginning of the Easter story, and Easter completes the story begun at Christmas.
The word Christmas means literally “the Christ mass”. It is the service at Christmastime in which liturgical churches celebrate The Eucharist, or what we call The Lord’s Supper. The word mass comes from the Latin word missa, which means “dismissal”. At the end of the service the priest would say “Ite, missa est” (or, “Go; it is the dismissal”). In time, that word came to mean the entire church service.
I was born and raised a Baptist. As a boy, I heard things like: “Baptist born & Baptist bred; and when I die I’ll be Baptist dead!”; “If I find one hair of my head that’s not Baptist, I’ll pull it out!”, and other memorable quotes from Baptist preachers. I really like what Evangelist B. R. Lakin once said, though: “I used to be proud of being a Baptist ‘til I found out how many of us were in the penitentiary!”
There are Baptist distinctives, and I do believe them. If I didn’t, then I’d go join a group that did teach what I believe. I don’t think denominations are necessarily a bad thing. Genuine Christians can acknowledge each other as real followers of Christ, and still disagree over matters of church government, how baptism should be administered, and exactly what the Holy Spirit does, etc.. And when we disagree on things like that, it’s probably best for us to find a group of other like-minded Christians with which to worship and work. It’s like athletes who love baseball, playing on different teams, with different coaches, practicing in different ways, but all for the love of the game. Only, with us, it isn’t a game, and it’s all for the love of Jesus.
One of the things Baptists believe has to do with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We believe the Bible teaches that these things are symbols. They are powerful symbols, picturing in vivid, physical ways the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; but they are symbols, nonetheless. So, most Baptists refer to them as ordinances, because the Lord ordered or ordained them. We normally don’t refer to them as sacraments or means of grace. In other words, being baptized or taking the Lord’s Supper will not save you or make you a Christian. You must believe in Christ from your heart first. Only then will baptism and the Lord’s Supper have any real meaning for you, as they remind you of the One who died for you and rose again.
But maybe we should re-think the word sacrament. I still don’t believe that baptism or the Lord’s Supper is a “means of grace”, in the sense that God saves us through them. But does the Bible teach that we only need God’s grace to be saved? Don’t we need God’s grace to live for Him every day? And isn’t a powerful, visual reminder of His love for us also part of His grace to us? Of course, it is.
Understood in that way, there are other things, too, that are means of grace: gathering as a congregation to worship (however limited that might be); reading the Scriptures; praying; and hearing the Word of Christ proclaimed and the Scriptures explained. All these things, too, have been commanded by God as the practical means by which we might be strengthened and sustained in our Christian lives. If you want a “plan for discipleship”, there it is. All of these things, from the beginning of the Gospel until now, have been and still are the means by which God communicates His grace to us, the means by which He strengthens us spiritually.
In each of these things—praying, reading the Scriptures, gathering to worship, listening to the word proclaimed and explained, being baptized, taking Communion, and commemorating Christ’s birth and resurrection at Christmas and Easter—God gives to us His Presence in a special way. These things don’t save us; Jesus saves us, when we put our faith in Him (Acts 16:31). But each of these things communicates to us the Good News of God’s love to us in Christ. And in that sense, they most certainly are sacraments.
That’s why Bible study isn’t just an intellectual exercise. That’s why a congregation isn’t simply an audience, church services aren’t simply entertainment, and a sermon isn’t like teaching school. That’s why baptism and the Lord’s Table are not just symbols: they are promises from the Father of the new life that awaits us with Him. And that’s why Christmas and Easter aren’t just holidays. In each of these things, God is there, by His very Presence reminding us of His love for us. In each of these things, we can sense His Presence; in each of them, we can feel His smile. In each of these things we can hear the Father whisper: “I love you!”
When you were a child, did you ever get tired of hearing your father tell you that he loved you? In these “ordinary”, familiar things that Christians do on a weekly basis, the Father is constantly telling us that He loves us. These things can strengthen our hearts; they can communicate to us His grace. They will most certainly help us become “disciples indeed” (John 8:31 KJV).
In all these things, God is speaking to us of His love for us. It’s not His fault if we aren’t listening.
This Christmas, even if we don’t get to celebrate it quite like we’d like to, let’s make sure we’re paying attention to the means of grace, the things God uses to speak His love to us.
Merry Christmas! And,
Soli Deo Gloria! Pastor David