I am somewhat of a hybrid when it comes to my sacramental theology. On the one hand, my penchant towards skepticism has me leery of any sort of “magical” view of the sacraments. My skepticism of sacraments isn’t the idea that God could act through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but the automat-icity we attribute to the relationship between the ritual actions and God’s presence and action; it is “magic” in the sense that our actions somehow automatically correspond to a power that we do not control. On the other hand, if one reads the accounts of the New Testament, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not construed as merely ritual but that one is participating in a reality with Christ. To take a reductively ritualistic view as a Christian would entail a form of demythologizing that I find deeply uncomfortable.
My theological and exegetical reflections over the past couple of years have had me looking into the nature of the “apocalyptic” for Paul. By apocalyptic though, I don’t mean end-of-the-world scenarios that we use the term today in popular culture; this is not the meaning of apocalyptic in most Biblical Studies and theological circles. Rather, if we are to frame it in terms of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, apocalyptic, or revelation as it is translated there, is a work of God that is so dramatically different from the world in which it is made known; it is something that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined. God’s revelation can not be reduced to what is presently true in the world of our senses or that we can derive from our unaided imagination and reasoning. Revelation calls forth people into a wisdom that is different from what presently it. Beyond that, it is something intended for human glory; there is a distinctly future purpose of the revelation that God made known to Paul. In addition, this revelation takes the shape of Jesus, as the Lord of glory. Put differently, for Paul, apocalyptic revelation takes its launch point in the past in what is known in Jesus Christ, calls people in the present into a way of being that can not be explained by what precedes, and points towards the future in the eschatological glory.
What if this nature of apocalyptic revelation frames Paul’s understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
Regarding baptism in Romans 6:1-12, I would make the argument that there is good evidence that Paul was familiar with Jesus’ own baptism, but it isn’t explicitly expressed. Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism looks backwards to the past of what happened in Jesus, who was put to death and raised against. Thus, baptism is understood in a backwards direction. But yet, for Paul, being baptized with Christ entails a future where one will be raised as Jesus was raised. Then stuck in the middle of the past Christ event and the future eschatological event is the present reality of Christians to be free from and dead to sin so that they can live for God; this way of life is not in accordance to the present age, as Romans 12:1-2 later express.
Then, we can take a look at the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. It recalls the evening in which Jesus communicates a hermeneutical insight into the purpose of His death. But it isn’t simply looking backwards, but for Paul this points towards the future as “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But then, there is the present circumstances in which Paul reminds them they should act and operate as a community, not excluding others, so that they can be one as the bread as the body of Christ is one. By being united, they would eschew the practices of social status and presumptive “wisdom” from the surrounding culture that separated them, bring them forth into a new community. Again, we see the outlines of past remembrance, future expectations, and present transformations into something different.
What then does this communicate about the sacraments? The power of the sacraments stems from what it is rooted in in remembrance of the past and where it is pointed towards in expectation of the future. It is a ritual action, but it is a ritual action that attunes us and joins us in the work that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do. Because God is at work and the sacraments are grounded upon and expecting of this work, then the sacraments have a power upon us in the present that spans beyond the mere psychology and sociology of ritual. Thus, sacraments do not have a special power or infusion of grace that is had independently, but they are acts of participation in the grace that God has provided in Jesus Christ and is continuing to give in Holy Spirit.
Also, I would suggest it is significant that there are only two ritual actions that are given this type of significance in the New Testament, even though there are other rituals such as foot washing. It is these two rituals that are apocalyptically sacramentalized that participate in the grace that transforms us into the love of God via baptism and the love of neighbor via the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and Lord’s Supper are the two acts that call us to the very heart of God in our love for Him because He loves us and in our love for others because He loves them; thus a covenant community is being formed where God is rightly worshipped and people are rightly joined together. It is here the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom is being realized in the now, but this inbreaking still points and works towards the not-yet, future, fullness of glory where we see Jesus as He is and we are joined together in perfect union with peace and righteousness.
Therefore, sacraments are not automatic, pseudo-magical infusions of grace that the Church has indiscriminate power to effectively use that sacramental theology can blur into, but nor is it merely a human response to God that denies anything substantive happening beyond psychological and sociological dynamics. In the sacraments it is our response to what God has done, transforming us in grace in dramatically novel ways in the present, looking forward to what God will do. Thus, sacraments are a participation in the work of God through time and history. However, their power is grounded in the rituals being connected through faith to the work that God is doing.