Sacraments of Baptism and the Table of the Eucharist

During the early Christian era, there were no known Church structures; neither were there well-defined procedures (such as hierarchy) that were established for the Church. So, what was the Church like? Sometimes the Church was called “the body of Christ.” This refers to the body of Christ, but essentially, the Church was tied to the sacraments of baptism and the table of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the most important sacrament, and it is what is referred to as “the table.” This sacrament was initiated by Jesus himself the night before his crucifixion. As the Bible records in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples as a symbol of his body and blood, which are given for the remission of sins. Jesus made participation in the Holy Communion compulsory for salvation. Receiving the Eucharist implies that you are taking in the body of Christ, which makes you part of that body. The goal is not individual salvation, but it is a way to integrate Christians into the body of Christ.

The Eucharist also plays a unifying role between Christ and among people. There are two kinds of companionships: vertical companionship, which is the relationship and communication established between humanity and divinity. There also is the horizontal fellowship, which is one we have with one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ. In this fellowship, we check on each other, asking how is it with your soul? The Eucharist is a means to connect to the community of saints, those who are receiving the Eucharist now, and to all those who have ever received it. Receiving the Holy Communion is what makes us believers, showing that we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Jesus commended this tradition to be done regularly in his remembrance. This is what the apostles did as a way to honor Jesus and martyrs. To describe the mystery behind the Eucharist, Jesus used a non-metaphorical word, “true,” to emphasize the concreteness of his statement . . . “true food” . . . and “true drink.” Typologically, the bread and wine are the types of the body and blood (antitypes) of Jesus. This presence is brought through prayer (words of institution “this is my body . . . this is my blood”) said by a pastor over the bread and wine.

For Tertullian, the body of Christ is pre-represented. The bread appears to be bread, but it is the body of Christ in reality; in the same way, the wine appears to be wine, but it is the blood of Jesus in reality (transubstantiation). The physical properties of the bread and wine do not change, but what changes are nature, the substance, and the same essence. This happens miraculously but not magically. Fasting also was recommended before partaking of the Holy Communion, since the early Church fathers believed that it was not right to mix ordinary food with the body of Christ.

Church also was a community of the baptized, who would then gather at the table. Before you were baptized, you are supposed to confess your sins and receive the sacrament of confirmation. The baptism sacrament was like a known initiation that followed soon after someone had received Jesus as Lord and Savior. This was a way to welcome new converts to the community of Saints. You were not supposed to sin after baptism, so many people, especially politicians, postponed their baptism until later. The Church also practiced infant baptism, done under what is called “vicarious faith” (Is it baptism based on someone else’s faith since the child can’t yet have faith).

I would like to submit that, just like the doctrine of the Trinity, sacraments are part of the Tradition that was passed down through apostolic succession. Both baptism and the Eucharist were observed by the apostles after the ascension of Christ, then taken over by the bishops who succeeded the apostles after their death. This is what enabled the early Christians to define Christianity and deal with heretical beliefs. Apostolic succession was about assigning the truth of the doctrine to legitimate bishops.

One of the controversies fought by the mainstream Church was a controversy over ecclesiology. There were two positions. The Donatists contended that impurity defied purity, and Orthodoxy maintained that purity might purify impurity. The questions involved keeping rotten elements in the church, rebaptism, and re-ordination. The mainstream Church had an inclusive ecclesiology. All people are welcomed, whether saints or sinners. Based on the proverb of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-29, which Augustine said was about the Church, “. . . while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them”. For Augustine, in the Church, there is weed and wheat, and they both look the same, so you cannot kick out some because you may kick even the wheat.

There are two groups of people, those who are in the visible Church and those who are in the invisible. The visible Church includes everybody in the Church, despite their motives and intention of being a Christian. Because not everyone who is called a Christian is a real Christian. Some go to Church for other reasons: for political asylum, to gain power, to steal, to find a life partner, or just to be a part of something. Others are there for a genuine reason, the love of Christ, and are keen to do ministry for the spreading of the gospel. These are among the group we can call “the saved.”

The Church maintained that sinners, when left in the Church would eventually become holy—just like Noah was instructed to take both the clean and the unclean animals. The Church was likened to a hospital. A hospital is for sick people, and if a hospital chases away anyone who is sick, s/he is likely to die at home from the lack of medicines and care from nurses and doctors. Pastors are like doctors, and the sacraments and the word of God are medicine to heal the unclean. On the other hand, the Donatists were exclusive, wanting to turn away all the impure people to keep the Church pure. To them, sinners were not welcomed and did not belong to the Church.  

07 July 2022
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