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December  1, 2012 - The Church: Rites and Rituals



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Lesson 9   01 December, 2012
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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.

  • What is the difference between a “sacrament” and an “ordinance?”

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:

  • Baptism is for the “remission of sins,” the washing away of sins. Baptism by immersion is most viable because it symbolizes an entire cleansing. (Acts 2)
     
  • Baptism is a rite of incorporation, a taking in of a person into the community of faith. (I Cor. 12)
     
  • Baptism is a symbol of salvation, dying with Christ then being raised in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-8)
     
  • Baptism is a signal of changing and changed loyalties. (Acts 1; 2)

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.
Within the culture of the time, his actions were shocking for only a servant would have done what Jesus did. Several things can be said about this ordinance:

  • According to the words of Jesus to his disciples, this ordinance was to be linked with the taking of the Lord’s Supper.
     
  • Foot-washing also ha connotations of cleansing, though it is not a whole cleansing but a partial one for people bathed before coming to the eat.
     
  • Washing another person’s feet does not make you humble as much as it reminds you of the humility and servant-hood mind set of Jesus.
     
  • Communion could become a much more powerful element of spiritual life if we used it as an occasion to actually confess and then leave behind wrongs from our lives. What if, before communion came along, you made amends for known wrongs in your life, then came to foot washing to symbolically be cleansed, leaving the issue behind?

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).

  • The emblems associated with communion have strong implications of substitution, the life of the Savior for the life of the sinner.
     
  • Notice the links to the Kingdom, to Jesus’s return to gather up his saints and take them to heaven. What would it mean to have a second Advent without a first one?
     
  • What do you think about Jesus holding his own participation in a Lord’s Supper in abeyance until his return?

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? 

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