At odds with Aquinas at the table

Please pardon me while I do some thinking out loud about United Methodist sacramental theology. My brain started turning while reading the following from Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 6:

Therefore, since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also. In fact, the Greeks think it is; and so they give the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. For this opinion they have in their favor the rite of Denis, who says that the reception of each sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist, which is the culmination of all the sacraments. This is true in the case of adults, but it is not so for infants, because receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion, and those who do not have the use of reason, as infants and the insane, cannot have this. Consequently, it should not be given to them at all.

Is it still Greek Orthodox practice to give the Eucharist to infants and children? Aquinas’ argument that only those who can receive the sacrament with devotion should receive it — and it is not held only by him of course — has often raised questions for me about the sharing of the Lord’s Supper with those who do not understand it or cannot muster a sense of reverence and devotion. My son’s autism certainly is a part of my questioning on this issue, but not all of it.

The statement on Holy Communion approved by the United Methodist General Conference, This Holy Mystery, argues — perhaps with some awareness of the “Greek” practice that Aquinas’ makes reference to — that the logic that applies to infant baptism should apply as well to participation by children in Holy Communion.

The theological basis for baptism of infants and people of varying abilities applies as well to their participation in Holy Communion:

“Through the church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of disabilities or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism” (By Water and the Spirit, in BOR; page 868).

So it is proper to conclude, I believe, that United Methodists do not share Aquinas’ view that reason is required for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is not news that we differ from Aquinas, but I believe we still find aspects of his theology helpful. For instance, the following passage from the same commentary on John 6 is helpful to me in trying to grasp what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, which Aquinas says we do in a spiritual way:

Thus, in reference to Christ as contained and signified, one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself, as we see in Augustine, when he says: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change me into yourself, but you will be transformed into me.” And so this is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.

I like that final phrase in this English translation: inebriating him with divinity. Since so much of Aquinas hangs on his reverence for reason, I’m not sure if passages like the one above clash with our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion. I’m still working that out, but I like this language about the Lord’s Supper by grace making us like the Christ, who gave us his flesh and blood, when we come to him in faith and love.

Was Wesley’s baptism invalid?

A baptist explains why he accepts infant baptism as valid.

I recognize that paedobaptism has been the practice of the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout most of church history. This includes the practice of the Protestant Reformers to which I owe a great theological and spiritual debt. I humbly recognize that I could be wrong about paedobaptism (and the conclusion that the great majority of Christians through history were never really baptized), and for this reason I am hesitant to insist upon my position on baptism as a grounds of church fellowship.

An interesting argument given the attraction that believer’s baptism has from some Methodists these days.

Lectionary blogging: Why was Jesus baptized?

The gospel lectionary this week recounts the baptism of Jesus, which raises questions about why Jesus was baptized.

At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” (Matthew 3:13-17, CEB)

It seems only right that we ask questions about the meaning of baptism since John the Baptist himself asked such questions.

John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament include these comments on these verses.

It becometh every messenger of God to observe all his righteous ordinances. But the particular meaning of our Lord seems to be, that it becometh us to do (me to receive baptism, and you to administer it) in order to fulfil, that is, that I may fully perform every part of the righteous law of God, and the commission he hath given me.

And

Let our Lord’s submitting to baptism teach us a holy exactness in the observance of those institutions which owe their obligation merely to a Divine command. Surely thus it becometh all his followers to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus had no sin to wash away. And yet he was baptized. And God owned his ordinance, so as to make it the season of pouring forth the Holy Spirit upon him. And where can we expect this sacred effusion, but in an humble attendance on Divine appointments.

Wesley comes down on the side of interpreting Jesus’ baptism as a model for his followers. Jesus was baptized even though he had no sin and required no repentance, which were key aspects of John’s baptismal message. Jesus did this to set a model for us. For Wesley the baptism of Jesus is an example of the obligations that rest on us as Christians for no other reason than Jesus Christ commands us to observe them. If we reject the command, Wesley argues, we should not expect the Holy Spirit.

As I ponder this passage, my mind turns to Paul’s teaching in Ephesus about the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. The key question in those verses had to do with the Holy Spirit. Did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? To which the disciples say they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit?

Paul, engaging in some spiritual diagnosis, asks which baptism they received. He goes on to explain that the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance that prepared the people for the coming of Jesus (as Gabriel said of John in Luke 1).

Paul’s teaching here makes me wonder if the baptism of John was meant to come to an end with the presence of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom. The pre-show shuts down when the main act arrives. Jesus underwent baptism as a way of bringing to conclusion the baptism that is a sign of repentance and opens up the age of baptism that conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit. Could the fulfilling of all righteousness be the fulfilling of the purpose of John’s baptism of repentance?

Delmar’s baptism and Phil Robertson’s repentance

One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:

Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.

I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.

During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”

As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.

Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.

And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?

For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.

This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?

A reason to call yourself a Christian

Brian McLaren fielded a question from a writer who came from a Christian background but was uncomfortable identifying as a Christian. In response, McLaren offered his reasons for bearing the name “Christian.”

1. To distance myself from my fellow human beings in the Christian religion doesn’t seem like a Christ-like thing to do. Jesus drew near to all in solidarity, including those of his own religious heritage from whom he differed in many ways, so I should do so too.
2. I choose to identify as a Christian as a way of expressing solidarity with others, whatever their religion. In other words, I open my heart to all people as a Christian, not apart from Christianity, and not in spite of being a Christian. I would hope that my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and other neighbors could do the same. If one has to leave a religion to express solidarity with others, that’s sad and not good for anyone, so I hope to practice a better way.
3. Christianity is my heritage, and I don’t want to deny or cover that up. I think of what the Dalai Lama told a Muslim friend of mine who told him he wanted to become a Buddhist. “Why?” the Buddhist teacher asked. “Because Buddhism is the religion of compassion,” my friend answered. “Don’t become a Buddhist,” the Dalai Lama said. “The world needs more Muslims who practice compassion, so be what you are in a more compassionate way.”

His response got me thinking about the place of baptism in our identity. To be baptized is to be claimed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to be named by God. So, for me the reason you use the word “Christian” to describe yourself is because you were baptized.

Someone reading that last paragraph might wonder whether I’m arguing that there is a such thing as a non-baptized Christian. Provisionally, I would say that being a Christian does entail being baptized, but I’m not trying to pick an argument on that point. The Bible sets down no naming convention or rules of use for the name. I simply offer my answer to the question of why a person should use the name, especially if they feel some alienation from Christians and Christianity as they exist in the flesh.

“Were you baptized?’

“Yes.”

“Well, then, whatever you call yourself, you belong to Christ.”

Just a byte of bread?

You may have noticed a Twitter storm recently about online communion.

Whether you noticed or not, here a good summary story about the cause of the activity and the discussions in the United Methodist Church.