The social power of sacraments

February 24th, 2016

One guy in the retirees’ Sunday school class was a know-it-all. He was excellent at shutting down discussions with his theological pronouncements. He would hold court about the political issues of the day. Everyone admired his intelligence, and he certainly knew the Bible backwards and forwards. He was good at teaching — but not very good at listening. Still, the folks in the Sunday school class tried to be loving and welcoming, even if he was domineering.

One Sunday morning, he was in charge of the lesson about Maundy Thursday. He brought in a biscuit wrapped in a paper napkin and some grape juice. He said to the group, “As you eat this bread and drink this juice, I really want you to think about what you’re doing.”

“You can’t do that,” said one of the members of the class, who happened to be my grandfather.


“You can’t do that. Only an ordained or licensed pastor can serve Communion.” My grandfather spoke from first-hand knowledge. He had served as a student and local pastor decades before.

The man blustered something about the priesthood of all believers and said, “It’s just symbolic,” but my grandfather wasn’t having it. He saw the move for what it was: a power grab, an abusive manipulation of the sacrament in order to claim authority over the group. The man was trying to become their priest. Frustrated in his attempt to create his own mini-church within their church, the man eventually stopped coming.

Until my grandfather told that story, I still had some conventional misunderstandings about religious rituals kicking around in my head: that we probably make too big a deal out of symbols and rituals, that the pomp and circumstance surrounding liturgy are distractions from the more “theological” and practical parts of ministry. In my youthful idealism, I dismissed denominational rules about clergy and sacraments as holdovers from a more authoritarian and hierarchal past. Any baptized believer should be able to preside over the sacraments, I would have said. While I recognize that people of some other Christian traditions may function effectively without ordained pastors and strict rules about sacraments, my grandfather’s story helped me grasp the meaning of the phrase “sacramental authority,” because I understood then that the sacraments can be abused. They can be used to gain or exert social power. Paul indicated that he knew sacramental authority and social power were intertwined when he reprimanded the Corinthians for putting too much stock in their baptismal pedigree (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). In the same letter, he also takes them to task for abusing the Lord’s Supper (11:20-26).

When a group of people ordain or “set apart” someone to have priestly authority over them, they are placing their trust in a leader of their community. This is one reason why, in the United Methodist Church, the licensing and ordination process takes so long. We require candidates to have extensive theological and practical education, to demonstrate good character, to have some kind of field education or ministry experience. We vet them thoroughly, because along with sacramental authority goes a good deal of social and spiritual power.

That social and spiritual power does not exist for the glorification of the pastor. It only exists to be distributed to others. The body of Christ in the bread and wine empowers us to be the Body of Christ in the world, broken and given away. The waters of baptism unite us in an egalitarian family with every other Christian, where social distinctions fall away (Galatians 3:28).

Instead of being given away to empower the Body of Christ, sometimes sacramental power gets used as a tool for selfish purposes. When John Wesley famously refused to serve Communion to his ex-girlfriend in Georgia, he was abusing the sacrament, and acting much like the blustering teacher in my grandfather’s Sunday school class. He paid the price. The community rose up against the young Wesley and he slunk back to England.

We don’t expect those presiding over our sacraments to be completely perfect (look up the ancient Donatist controversy for some historical perspective), but we do expect them not to abuse the sacrament. I’m grateful for that story of Wesley’s failure. It shows that the founder of Methodism was able to grow beyond his youthful image of himself as a “gatekeeper” pastor. It was only after he faced his own failures and insecurities as a pastor and a Christian that he gained the confidence of his salvation, which gave him the spiritual power to become a leader. His brokenness allowed room for the Holy Spirit to transform his life, and he went on to empower laypeople to become fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ.

That’s what we need from people who break the bread and wine for us: pastors who are not afraid of their own brokenness, who see in the sacrament a way for God to pour out spiritual power on God’s people and perfect them in love. When pastors stand before the table and declare that it is not their table, but God's, or when they pour water over a new believer’s or an infant’s head and declare they are part of God’s new and diverse family, they are using their role to empower others and to bring glory to a God who pours out power on all God’s people.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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