Baptism and Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper) are the universally agreed sacraments of the Christian faith (the Catholic Church recognises five other sacraments). The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. But what does this mean?
In the sacraments, God’s word is embodied in physical signs. Both are essential; the sign means nothing without the word! A sacrament has an outward part that you can see (some kind of action, involving physical objects) and an inward, invisible part (which is the spiritual reality). And it involves some kind of individual participation. In baptism, we actually get wet. In Communion, we don’t just look at the bread and wine; we eat and drink. In both cases, it is the action that matters (I Corinthians 10:16).
The essence of the sacraments (as they were instituted by Jesus) must be distinguished from the liturgical rituals that have been added around them over the centuries (the verbal formulae, the various modes of administration, etc). When Christians from different church traditions claim that only their way is the ‘correct’ way, or believe that if a particular liturgy is not followed exactly then the sacrament is invalid, then something has gone very wrong. “Such anxious disputings and questionings are aroused in us by those who ascribe nothing to faith and everything to works and forms, while we owe everything to faith alone and nothing to forms, and faith makes us free in spirit from all these scruples and fancies.” (Luther: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church)