Word and sacrament as a springboard

Word and sacrament are central to the church, but they need to point us outward rather than inward, says Chip Hardwick.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Matt Skolnik’s Outlook column “It’s time to rethink Calvin’s definition of ‘true church,’” makes the provocative case that hyperfocusing on Word and sacrament does not fit the needs of the modern church. Skolnik notes that Word and sacrament are both highly necessary to nourish faith and sustain the church. And yet, he implies, they are not sufficient. I’d like to add that Word and sacrament, when rightly proclaimed and administered, equip us like springboards to move beyond the sanctuary to join Christ’s mission.

The Word as springboard

Even casually observant worshipers know that different preachers focus on the same text in different ways. Pastor Terry’s sermon on the parable of the sower might center on the need to be good soil while Pastor Dana’s might talk about how the sower profligately flings that seed even on the worst soil. The lens with which preachers approach a text, called a hermeneutic, is a primary source of these differences.

A hermeneutic that regularly asks of each Sunday’s passage, “How does this Scripture send us out into the world beyond ourselves?” leads to outward-bound perspectives. To make sure that sermons reflect this impulse, preachers can return to a foundational practice they might have left behind after seminary: the development of a function statement. Tom Long’s classic The Witness of Preaching defines this homiletical building block as a “description of what the preacher hopes the sermon will create or cause to happen for the hearers.”

The function of Pastor Terry’s sermon on the parable of the sower might be “dig into the Scripture and pray more so that God’s Word will grow more fully within you.” Such an approach would leave the burden fully on the listener to imagine how to join Jesus’ mission to the world. Pastor Dana’s function, on the other hand, might challenge listeners to “find ways to tangibly love your neighbors — especially those who seem unlikely to respond in kind.” Same Scripture, but the latter function makes it far easier for worshipers to imagine moving beyond the walls of the church.

Strong function statements include both corporate and individual ways to springboard listeners outside their buildings. Preaching professor Sally Brown recently led a workshop earlier for the Synod of the Covenant called “Sunday’s Sermons for Monday’s World.” In it, she recognizes the impact that a whole church can have by doing ministry together in the community. However, she emphasizes that listeners have far more individual opportunities to act Christianly and focus beyond ourselves than corporate occasions as a community of faith. Function statements geared toward individuals’ response to the gospel give birth to spring-boarding sermons which send listeners out to join Christ’s mission to the world.

At their best, function statements are broad enough to help each listener imagine a response matching their circumstances, rather than being so specific that worshipers skirt any invitation to live out their faith. Pastor Dana might articulate the function above about loving unlovable neighbors in tangible ways by saying, “This might mean reaching out to your office colleague who never has a nice thing to say about anyone or bringing cookies to the grouchy neighbor whose yard signs make you crazy. Maybe it means showing respect for your ex-spouse who continually badmouths you to your children. The point is that this farmer throwing seed where it can’t possibly grow teaches us to love to even the most unlovable neighbors.”

Sacraments as springboard

According to the Heidelberg Catechism, “sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that [we might] understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise” (Book of Confessions 4.066). The sacraments often lead us to focus on ourselves and how God is blessing us through baptism and communion, but when administered differently (rightly?), they join the Word as springboards to ministry beyond ourselves.

Think about the last baptism that you experienced, likely an infant squirming with parents beaming. If the congregation was physically together, it may have culminated with a walk around the sanctuary, complete with the pastor’s helping the congregation to see themselves as joint stewards of baby Maria’s faith. The parents are not alone, the pastor says. “All of us work together to help her grow in love for the Lord.” At its best, this good news springboards listeners to imagine ourselves walking alongside the parents outside of the walls of the church as they love the Lord. Baby Maria may never know a time when devotion to Christ does not lead to concrete love for neighbor through ministries of justice and compassion.

One day baby Maria will begin to take communion and come to understand what it means to gather around the table with the saints of every time and place. In confirmation, she might learn that communion is another way that God simply and solely blesses us — when we need strength to get through the week, Jesus meets us at the table. On the other hand, her confirmation mentor might help her expand this self-oriented understanding. As the Book of Order’s Directory for Worship (W-3.0409) puts it, “the Lord’s Supper … reflects our calling to feed others as we have been fed.” Maria could learn that communion is not simply a gift and blessing to us, but it also springboards us beyond ourselves and into the world.

Preaching the Word and celebrating the sacraments are two of the church’s most central ministries — without them, a church is not really a church. However, a church turned inward which undertakes only these ministries without ever serving its community in Christ’s name is sorely lacking, too. Using Word and sacrament as springboards beyond ourselves can help congregations faithfully join Christ’s mission to the world.