The Church: Rites and Rituals
Major Texts: Rom. 6:3-8; I Cor. 11:24-26; Matt. 26:26-28; Matt. 28:19, 20; John 13:1- 17.
This week the lesson looks at religious ritual. In every place and society, to some degree or another, there is ritual, ceremonies or actions that are performed, either in public or in private as a means of demarcating some event or significance. Some of these rituals are commonly know as “rites of passage,” ceremonies by way of which a person is seen to move through the various stages of life. Some of the rituals are quite simple, some may be very elaborate. But they all perform the same basic function. they create a marker point within time that enables people to cement the particular passage they have passed through in their memories. And rites also notify the community or public that a person has gone past some particular point in their life.
Before looking at the three rites discussed in this lesson, it is worth looking the development of rites within the Christian faith. Of particular interest is the emergence of the word “sacrament” as the word most commonly used to describe religious rites. This word began as a descriptor of the oath a Roman soldier would take declaring his obedience to a commander’s order. By medieval times, this word had acquired also the idea of something supernatural as when grace gets infused into a person’s soul when a sacrament is taken. During the Reformation, the word sacrament came to be seen as tainted so another word was adopted, the word ordinance. The origins of this word had links to things that were “ordained” as in established or instituted by someone in authority. In Christianity, that person would be Jesus so Protestants would go on to limit their rituals to only those that they had scriptural evidence for most directly from the teachings and actions of Jesus himself. They also stripped the ordinances of any supernatural, grace-infusing capacities and argued that they are merely symbols, rituals that have no merit of their own except that they portray in action a transaction that was to have taken place within the believer by faith. Rituals could serve to cement commitments or remind people of their ideals and hopes.
The question that arises now has to do with what rites are appropriate for Christians today. The Protestant answer was that there are three rites that should be practiced still - baptism, foot washing, and the Lord’s Supper or Communion. We will look at each of these in some detail.
Baptism is a very old rite, one that pre-dates Christianity by a long time. Its origins are lost in the mists of antiquity. But it is very clear that baptism is a rite of cleansing, a washing away of things from life. It has other significances, too:
Because of the element of belief necessary to activate the things baptism symbolizes, and because baptism is not a rite with supernatural capacities, it is best limited to adults, at least to those who can form beliefs of their own.
The ordinance of foot washing or humility comes directly from the evening of the last supper in which the gospels record that Jesus took a basin and washed his disciples feet.
The Lord’s Supper was first instituted at Passover, arguably replacing it. The symbols used in effect replace the symbols of the Passover with those of the crucifixion. That being the case, the Lord’s Supper creates ritual links for believers to the very heart of the gospel, the death and burial of Jesus. (There are also hints of what is to come because of the resurrection).
This lesson might be ended with some open discussion of the effects of all three of these rites. What is the picture that emerges for th Christian when the meanings of all three rites are summed up? What attitude would /should be present if believers kept in mind these meanings when they went to participate in or watch the rituals taking place?