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If ministers serve the incarnate, written, and proclaimed Word, what would it mean to say that they serve the sacraments? Serve the sacramental life of the church by performing ceremonies rightly? Hand out the hubcaps and shot glasses without dropping or clanking them? Maintain a humble attitude to the grace of God that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are intended to convey? Does the notion of “serving the sacraments” have any content at all?

While I suspect it means different things to different communions and denominations, I will contend that a reformed sense of serving the sacraments stems from the decree of the first Jerusalem council. After deciding that the nascent church ought not burden Gentile (men) who turn to God with circumcision, the council sent word to Antioch via Judas and Silas.

At its core the dispatch said “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden. . .”

What a curious and confident word to send, from the Holy Spirit “and us.” Why not simply write “God lay it on our hearts to tell you. . .”?

The dualism of the work of the Spirit and the work of the church finds its way into the Reformed Church in America’s order for the ordination of ministers. The presider asks the candidate: “Do you feel in your heart that you are called of God’s church, and therefore of God himself, to this holy ministry?”

Listen to how the question that gives priority to the external calling of the church over the candidate’s sense of the internal and invisible call of God. The question could be rephrased “Has it seemed good to the church, and therefore the Holy Spirit, to call you to this holy ministry?” (Thus the church – in the form of the Classis – ought never be construed as the body that sets up annoying and nearly impossible hurdles before students as they pursue “their ” calling. But I digress.)

When it comes to the sacramental life of the church, the parallel work of Spirit and church appears in both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism as a “tell.” It has a few different forms.

In the Heidelberg: “as certainly as” (69, 75, and 79), “just as . . so” (73), “just as truly” (73), “as surely as” (75 and 79).

In the Belgic: “as water washes . . . so likewise”(34) and “as truly as we . . . eat and drink . . . so truly we receive.” (35)

What does it mean, then, to be a servant of the sacrament? No doubt it means that ministers ought to preside at font and table without ostentation and with sincerity, to esteem the liturgies and their rites highly, and to educate congregants of all ages as to what God is doing as certainly, as surely as we are pouring water over a baby’s head or lifting bread, giving thanks, breaking, and sharing. We serve the rites themselves (with at least the level of care that Masons exercise in performance of their ceremonies).

But being a servant of the sacraments goes beyond presenting the means of grace in a vibrant and life-giving way. It involves the development and proclamation of a sacramental way of life. That is, a way of life that by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit recognizes that “all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters that give us to see the invisible things of God”. (Belgic Confession 2)

Thus, as surely as we stoop down to look a young girl in her eyes, and learn the name she likes to call herself, and delight in her perspective, so surely does Christ both welcome the child to his lap, and open the kingdom of God to us.

God as certainly gives growth, and the trees clap their hands and glorify their maker, as we lay hands on the maples, nurturing and caring for them as chapters in the beautiful book of creation.

Just as we join hands with fellow seekers of justice, and craft signs, and board buses, and march in protest against policies that create marginalization and division, so too does Christ drive out money changers and stand up to the politicos and religionists in the name of the fair reign of God.

As Christ obliterates the dividing wall separating Jew from Greek, male from female, slave from free, so likewise we deconstruct the walls that the faith of our childhood told us were inviolable, and a vast and delightful creation opens before us.

As truly as we wake up in the morning and (God willing) rise from our beds and walk, put on the coffee, say a prayer, do the morning routine, eat breakfast and get on with our days, so truly is Christ, risen from the dead, going ahead of us to make space for us to breathe, freely and joyfully and without fear, before the face of God.

None of these are classic dominical “sacraments,” of course, but in that they call to mind the Spirit’s constant presence in our lives (call it inner testimony if you will), they are indeed in some sense “sacramental.”

Becoming persons through other persons; edifying the body by means of words that bear witness to the Word; serving the Spirit’s indwelling the daily rounds of life: such is the “holy ministry” for which ministers have been set aside.

After nearly 40 years of meetings, boiler breakdowns, flooded basements, bullies, ssssssllllllloooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww progress in accomplishing the most basic and needed tasks, sometimes it’s good to be reminded that ministry really is a “high calling.”

If you’re a minister of Word and sacrament, and you’ve forgotten, take heart. It seems good to the church – and to God – for you to do what you do. Hopefully it still seems good to you, too.

Paul Janssen

Paul Janssen is the pastor of the United Reformed Church in Somerville, New Jersey.

One Comment

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you, Paul, as always. In retirement, yet still ordained, I’m celebrating what was and wondering now, “out of practice,” what that all means. I miss being the celebrant but am grateful for memorized liturgy and great memories of celebrations.

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