Introduction On my finger here is a gold ring. I don't have to tell you what the significance of it is. I remember very well the day when I received it. It was quite a while ago now - sixteen years three months in fact. It was a gloriously sunny day. I was rather tired because I had been awake half the night writing my speech. The scene was a beautiful Medieval village church. I'm sure any of you wives whose weddings I have taken will forgive me when I say that The Dress (capital T, capital D) was the most stunning I have ever seen before or since. But none of that has any bearing whatsoever on the significance of this ring to me. The weather, how I felt, the setting, were all beside the point. What counted what was what was said, and who said it. It was Vivienne. And she said "I will". No conditions attached. Well, just one. I was required to remain alive. On that condition, she said she would. Vivienne also has a gold ring, of course. I discovered the other day that she cannot take the ring off her finger now. She's stuck with it. I said I remember the day well, and that's true but I must admit that as time goes by my memory of the detail is getting more and more hazy. But I've noticed something else. With every year that passes, as my memory fades, the significance of this ring for me grows. Does the gold glow brighter? No. It's getting rather scratched actually. Is it that gold has proved a good investment? No. There are more carats in the average salad. Why then? It is because, as Vivienne said to me that day, this ring is a sign of our marriage. Vivienne married me with this ring. This is a talking ring. It speaks to me of the promises that we made that day. It speaks to me of the woman I married. It speaks to me of all that she has done for me and with me and all that we have been through together since then. It is worth very little. Yet it is the most precious possession I have, because of the person who gave it to me, and the promises that came with it. Now in our series on the church we come today to the subject of what are called the sacraments. Sacrament is a word that is used in various ways. It can be used in a very wide sense to mean pretty well anything physical and visible that communicates something of God to us. But that is to use the word sacrament so widely that it ceases to be very useful because the whole of creation is the theatre of God's glory, as John Calvin put it, if only we have the spiritual eyes to see. It seems better to use the word sacrament to refer to what are known as the gospel sacraments (because they communicate the gospel) or the dominical sacraments (because they were instituted and commanded by the Lord Jesus). The gospel sacraments are just two: baptism and holy communion (otherwise known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, which just means the Thanksgiving). What is the significance of these gospel sacraments? In a sense the gospel sacraments are to our relationship with God what a wedding ring is to a marriage. In themselves they are nothing out of the ordinary. Just water poured, bread eaten, wine drunk. And yet they are intensely precious because of the person who gives them and the message that they communicate. I want to draw out their importance under three headings. First, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS DRAMATISE THE PROMISES OF GOD. Secondly, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS STIMULATE THE FAITH OF THE BELIEVER. And thirdly, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS STRENGTHEN THE FELLOWSHIP OF GOD'S FAMILY. We will be jumping around the Bible a bit but our home passage is 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. First, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS DRAMATISE THE PROMISES OF GOD In 1 Corinthians 11 the apostle Paul is giving the Corinthian church a hammering because of the way that they go about the Lord's Supper. They are divided and greedy and inconsiderate and self-indulgent. They are thinking only of themselves. As a result (verse 20): "When you come together it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat ..." Why not? In part because they are not thinking of one another. But their carelessness towards one another is the result of the fact that they are not thinking of Christ. They are not thinking of the gospel. And the Lord's Supper is meant to be all about the gospel. Verse 23: For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Those simple actions of taking and breaking and eating the bread and drinking the wine are a reminder and a proclamation of the death of Christ. It is not a dramatic re-enactment of the death of Christ - of course not. And no doubt he could have chosen some other sign. But we eat the bread and drink the wine because Jesus told us to. He has loaded that simple act with meaning, and that meaning is his death for us and all the benefits that flow from it. The bread and the wine signify all the promises that God gives to us in Christ. The same is true of baptism. Baptism is not a dramatic re-enactment. It is a dramatic sign of how through his death Christ washes our sins away, unites us to himself in his death and resurrection by faith, and pours out on us his Holy Spirit. God preaches the gospel to us through these visible, tangible signs. Why do we need them? Because we are weak and our faith needs every support it can get. Visual aids, properly used, are very powerful. And these are visual aids that we do not just look at. We participate in them. God knows how slow we are to take in what he says to us, so he is in the habit of using visual aids. He always has done. The rainbow. Circumcision. The Passover meal. And then he got the prophets doing it too. Ezekiel was a great one for dramatised warnings and promises. Just before the destruction of Jerusalem, God told Ezekiel:
"Now, son of man, take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it. Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering-rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face towards it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel."
That is Ezekiel 4.1-3, and an example of God speaking through a physical, visible sign. Augustine called the sacraments "visible words" and that is exactly what Ezekiel was told to do proclaim as well. That one was a warning of judgement. In Ezekiel 37.15-17 there is another example. This time it is a wonderful visible promise. He says:
The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, 'Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.' Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, 'Ephraim's stick, belonging to Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him'. Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand."
The people of God who had been smashed and divided as a result of their sin would be made whole and united again by the grace of God. It is a visible promise. The gospel sacraments are similar. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, in 10.17, Paul says:
Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The sacraments are visible words. They dramatise the promises of God in the gospel. That is my first point. My second is this: Secondly, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS STIMULATE THE FAITH OF THE BELIEVER Take a look at a tenner the next time you have one. On it is written: "Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds." There on the note is the head of the Sovereign and the signature of the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England. It is only a piece of paper. But it is worth ten pounds. Why? Because of the fancy printing? Not in the least. It is valuable because of the promise that comes with it, and because of who issued that promise. The promise to pay can be relied on because the Bank of England always pays up. It always keeps its promise. The note itself is worthless. The value is in the promise and who it comes from. But of course, even then there is a condition. Do you remember what it said? "I promise to pay the bearer on demand ..." A ten pound note stuck away in a drawer is worthless. It only becomes valuable when it is used. When the promise is believed and acted upon, then it comes into play, and the promise is fulfilled. The same is true of the promises of God, whether written or spoken or in the form of the gospel sacraments. They are no use to us unless we believe them, claim them for ourselves, and act upon them. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are a stimulus to us to do just that. They are precisely a powerful reminder of the promise of the gospel. If we are baptised, that fact is a daily reminder to us that if we believe the gospel, trust in Christ who died for us and live in obedience to him, then God has saved us once for all from sin and Satan, from death and hell. When we share in the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper, then that is a tangible reminder to us of all the blessings that flow from the cross. It is a spur to our faith. And as we believe the promise that it speaks to us, and claim the promise for ourselves and stake our lives upon it, then all the blessings of the cross flow to us. We find forgiveness. We are united with Christ. We share in his resurrection life. If you are anything like me, then you will have systems that remind you of the things that you need to do. It may be a knot in a handkerchief, though with widespread use of tissues that has probably gone out of fashion. It may be a word written in biro on the back of your hand. Maybe you have Post-It notes stuck on surfaces all around the house. It may be an entry in a diary. There is not strictly any need for diaries of course. Anything that we enter into our diaries we already know about, so all we have to do is remember it. But we have a great tendency to forget. Without help we are unreliable. With all the pressures that come upon us from the world, the flesh and the devil, we are unreliable in remembering God's promises as well. We need help. The gospel sacraments are one of the ways God helps us. They are God's biro on the back of our hand, God's Post-It note, God's gospel Filofax, God's knot in the handkerchief of our lives. In John Bunyan's great allegory Pilgrim's Progress, Christian and his companion Hopeful found themselves one day in Doubting Castle, as prisoners of the cruel and pitiless Giant Despair. Days passed, and there seemed to be no possibility of escape, until one night as they prayed, Christian made a wonderful discovery, which he immediately shared with Hopeful: 'What a fool I am I thus to lie in a stinking dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle.' Using this key, 'the door flew open with ease' and the prisoners 'escaped with speed'. The sacraments are like that key hanging around the neck of Christian. Use them properly and they unlock all the doors of Doubting Castle and set us free from Giant Despair. To use them properly is to receive them by faith. But we need to be aware that the power of the sacraments must not be trifled with. The gospel of which the sacraments are a visible, tangible sign has a double edge. As Hebrews 4.12 says:
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
If we make an outward show of being Christian, but in reality our hearts are locked shut against the gospel, then God's word judges us. God is not mocked. He is not fooled as those around us may be fooled. We cannot read one another's minds or see into one another's hearts. But nothing is hidden from God. If we make an outward show of believing the gospel by eating the bread and drinking the wine, but inwardly we are in stubborn, sullen rebellion against him, then we bring down judgement on ourselves. There is no neutral ground when it comes to the gospel. Either we are on the side of Christ or we are not. Either we recognise our need of a saviour and trust in Christ or we do not. Either we obey him as the rightful Lord of our lives or we do not. If the direction of our lives shows that in reality we neither trust nor obey, but we still participate in the sacraments, then we should not be surprised when that participation is brought in evidence against us. To abuse the sacraments is to abuse Christ. And we cannot trample on the Lord of all without facing the consequences. It was this outward show with no inward reality which was characteristic of some of the church in Corinth to which Paul wrote. So he warns them in 1 Corinthians 11.27-28:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself.
We can think of using the sacraments as rather like approaching red traffic lights. If we come up to a red light and take to heart its significance, then we will stop. The light then gives us security. It protects us from the danger ahead. But if we approach the red light and ignore it, and go straight on through it, we open ourselves to being hit by the oncoming traffic. Then that red light becomes evidence against us. The same red light can be either a sign of safety or the evidence of our guilt. It all depends on how we approach it. We can participate in the Lord's Supper arrogantly and for outward show, and face the consequences. Or we can come in faith, knowing we are sinners in need of a Saviour who can forgive us and strengthen us to live for him. When we do that, then we will find that the promise of God is true. Our trust in Christ will deepen. Our obedience will grow. Our faith will be stimulated. We will find ourselves participating in a meal that unites us with Christ. And what is more, we will find ourselves united with other believers. Because participating in the gospel sacraments is never merely a private matter. Which brings me to my third and final point: Thirdly, THE GOSPEL SACRAMENTS STRENGTHEN THE FELLOWSHIP OF GOD'S FAMILY A Scottish minister was visiting a church member who had recently absented himself from Sunday worship. The minister sat in silence in front of the fire. After a while he lent forward, picked up the hearth tongs, took a burning coal from the fire, and laid it in the fireplace. It flickered briefly and went out. The minister picked it up and put it back with the other coals. Within a few seconds it was on fire again. The minister took his leave, having said nothing throughout his visit. The absentee was back in church the following Sunday. As brothers and sisters in Christ we belong together and we need one another. The sacraments express that fellowship between us. The very name that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11: 'The Lord's Supper' indicates what it is - the fellowship meal of disciples, by invitation of their Lord. Five times in the space of 18 verses in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul uses the verb 'to come together' in relation to the Lord's Supper. Part of the Corinthians' abuse of the sacrament was that the 'haves' were humiliating and neglecting the 'have nots'. They were despising the fellowship and the family to which they were claiming to belong. So this fellowship that we share in through the sacraments has both the vertical dimension of our spiritual contact with Christ, and also the horizontal dimension of the bonding between fellow worshippers. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 10.16-17:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
Then in 12.12-13 he follows develops that theme in relation to baptism as well:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
So when we participate in this Lord's Supper this evening, let's think of Christ, and think also of one another. Let's be praying for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And let's ask the Lord to strengthen our fellowship so that our participation together in this meal becomes an expression of a love for one another that shows itself in prayer and practical care throughout the week. In conclusion then: The gospel sacraments dramatise the promises of God. So believe them. They stimulate the faith of the believer. So use them. They strengthen the fellowship of God's family. So share in them with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Lets bow our heads to pray. As we prepare to participate in the Lord's Supper I will use words written during the great evangelical revival of the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley:
Jesus, we thus obeyThey last and kindest Word; Here, in thine own appointed way,We come to meet thee, Lord.Our hearts we open wide,And lo! the Lamb, the Crucified, The sinner's Friend is come.Thy presence makes the feast;Now let our spirits feelThe glory not to be expressed,The joy unspeakable.With high and heavenly blissThou dost our spirits cheer;Thy house of banqueting is this,And thou hast brought us here.Now let our souls be fedWith manna from above,And over us thy banner spreadOf everlasting love.