Biblical Preaching and the Sacraments

I love “food movies.” Chocolat, Big Night, Babette’s Feast (my favorite)–I will go out of my way to see these and other movies where food plays a central role.

Perhaps that’s simply because I love to eat. But I think it is also because of the symbolism inherent in the eating. Good food becomes in these films an expression of love in all its forms–erotic, brotherly, familial, divine. Food (and wine) and the act of eating together breaks down old enmities, forges new bonds of love, and unites those who sit at table together into a community, a communion. And that is a beautiful thing to see, in film and in life.

Christian worship, like a good food movie, includes–and is arguably centered around–a meal. Depending on the traditions of the individual parish and the denomination, the meal of Holy Communion (the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper) is celebrated at the center of the service every week or at some other regular interval. Likewise, the sacrament of Baptism takes center stage on those Sundays when a child or adult comes to the font (or the pool) to be baptized. These concrete expressions of God’s grace in the bread, wine, and water are the other half of the ministry to which most of you “working preachers” have been called, the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Word and Sacrament: is devoted to helping you thrive in your proclamation of the Word; but we also want to pay attention to the Sacrament, and to talk about the connections between the two. Such connections have the potential to enrich both your preaching and the congregation’s experience of the sacraments. After all, the sermon is primarily an aural experience for the people in the pews. The sacraments, by contrast, involve the other senses, especially touch and taste. Connecting the hearing of the Word to the touching and tasting of the sacraments is a potentially powerful experience for both preacher and parishioner.

How and when should we make such connections? I would argue that the preacher should be guided in this matter primarily by the biblical text on which he or she is preaching and by the season of the church year. Simply put, there are many biblical texts that lend themselves to reflection on the sacraments and there are significant times in the liturgical calendar that call for such reflection.

Let’s start with baptism: One obvious time to preach about baptism is the festival of the Baptism of our Lord. The Gospel readings appointed for that Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, and the preacher should certainly speak not only about that event, but also about our own baptisms. Likewise, the Easter Vigil is traditionally the time when catechumens are baptized, and the liturgy is rich with the symbolism of our dying and rising with Christ. The sermon at the Easter Vigil should speak as well about that dying and rising through water and the Word. Baptism should play a central role in the sermon at any service of Affirmation of Baptism (or confirmation, as it’s more often called). And a sermon at any Christian funeral is surely enriched by reflection on that great promise:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3-5).

There are, of course, many other texts that lend themselves to fruitful reflection on baptism. These include the story of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-9 (understood by early Christians as a prototype of baptism); the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14-15); the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (John 3) and the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4), among others. The astute preacher will discern when he or she should draw such connections between the preached Word and the sacrament of baptism.

In the same way, there are opportune times and texts for speaking about Holy Communion. One thinks first of Maundy Thursday, when we celebrate the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The lectionary readings for Maundy Thursday include not only the story of the Last Supper, but also the story of Passover. A sermon that draws the connections between those two meals and the meal of Holy Communion is potentially a very rich sermon.

All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate the communion of saints, is a wonderful time to speak about the “foretaste of the feast to come” that is ours in Holy Communion. That beautiful text appointed in Year B for All Saints, Isaiah 25, speaks of the great feast on the mountain of the LORD, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,” when all peoples will be gathered together, when the LORD will “swallow up death forever,” and “will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Is 25:6-9). What a poignant and moving message to proclaim on All Saints, especially coupled with the experience of Holy Communion, bread and wine, body and blood.

There are many, many other biblical texts that can lead to fruitful reflection on the sacrament of Holy Communion, in part because there are many texts that speak about eating, from the miraculous meal of manna in the wilderness (Ex 16) to the equally miraculous feeding of the 5,000 (Matt 14, Mark 6, Luke 9, John 6); from the meals that Jesus ate with sinners (for example, in Mark 14) to the parable of the wedding banquet, where the blind, the lame, and the crippled become the unlikely guests at a great feast (Luke 14, Matt 22). Speaking about such grace-filled meals to the sinners we are and the sinners we know is an essential task for the preacher. All of these texts (and there are many others) are resources for deep reflection on the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Most of you are called to a ministry of Word and Sacrament. Both are essential for the life of faith; both are bread for the journey; and each has the potential to enrich and enliven the other. Word, water, wine, and bread–these are the “stuff” of life, and of faith. Blessings on your ministry.