Martin Luther once said if a person falls off a horse on the left side, the next fall will certainly be off the right side. The Reformation provides a good illustration of this. Many Protestants overcorrected the Catholic view of ritual sacraments, such as communion, by only emphasizing the spiritual or inward dimension.
Author John D. Rempel advocates a middle ground on engaging the sacraments that honors both spiritual and physical dimensions. Recapturing an Enchanted World: Ritual and Sacrament in the Free Church Tradition makes a convincing case that all Christian traditions can find a desired balance of gesture and word.
Yes, it is ironic that a Mennonite theologian and minister would write a book on liturgy to launch a new series for InterVarsity Press on the dynamics of Christian worship. Yet note the “Free Church” part of the subtitle. Rempel is mainly writing for what he calls “liturgically lean” churches that can benefit from embracing a more sacramental worldview.
The book provides a deep dive into the classic debates over sacramental worship. This is the most comprehensive history of baptism and communion I have ever seen. Rempel aims to place “nonconformist churches and minority understandings of sacraments alongside established churches and dominant understandings of sacraments.”
A timely and unique contribution of this project is the core concept that God’s gathered people are themselves a sacrament to each other and to the world. Just as Jesus mediated God’s kingdom in a sacramental way, so Jesus’ ecclesial body mediates God’s presence in both word and gesture. This relational perspective serves to unify the spiritual and physical elements.
What makes a church “free”? Starting with Anabaptists, and then Puritan Separatists and Baptists, certain Protestant groups were free of a state-church status. Methodists followed suit during the Enlightenment era, which prized greater freedom from “primitive” religious beliefs and rituals.
The other side of the horse was simply a disregard for physical gestures. The sentiment was that Christians do not need mediators to relate to God.
The doctrine of the incarnation, however, holds Christians to a more paradoxical position on symbols that does not polarize spirit and body. “Sacraments are the clothes that God wears to come to us; he dresses in our flesh to meet us on our own terms,” Rempel says.
He loves to point out how the New Testament language is thoroughly sacramental. The Greek word mysterium (the mystery of Christ) is translated into the Latin word sacramentum.
While liturgically rich churches have their challenges around focusing more on the ritual than its members, liturgically lean churches face their own set of challenges. Word-based churches, averse to rituals, tend to make everything revolve around themselves and their commitments. Churches that value novelty in worship simply get worn out over time. And when liturgy bits are borrowed and tucked in, they are made to fit the character of that church.
Students of history will appreciate this book for its wide survey of liturgical scholarship. What shifted the eucharist from the “meal table” to the “altar”? How did infant baptism come about? How was transubstantiation debated during the Reformation? What did Pilgram Marpek write about baptism? For lay readers, it would have been more helpful if Rempel had condensed his historical sections.
The patient reader will find some fascinating ideas that have major implications. For example, when early Anabaptists sought integrity of belief and practice, they gave the subjective side of human response a “disproportionate emphasis” over the objective side of divine initiative.
That’s a lot to chew over, but this idea helps to explain how and why Mennonites identify themselves by certain hallmarks of faith.
Eventually, many Anabaptists understood that outward expressions of love and service to others had a sacramental character. All expressions of discipleship were understood as bringing the presence of Christ among people and making it real. Baptism and communion, therefore, modeled and reinforced these “enfleshments” and “envoicements” of God’s reality.
Rempel is a true ecumenist. He understands that if both inward and outward orientations are seen as complementary, rather than one being dominant over the other, then more church communities will find greater commonality with each other. In this way, the church worldwide can be the “sacrament of the kingdom,” as Jesus intended.
If you are a worship leader who wants your church to experience the rich meanings layered into baptism and communion, this book will open up new vistas to you. And if you seek the triune braiding of “evangelical spirit, liturgical form and incarnational mission,” this book will inspire you to deepen your congregation’s journey into God’s “sacramental universe.”
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer in Duluth, Minn. He oversees the Restorative Church project and also runs the Agapé Peace Center, a ministry initiative of Central Plains Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA.
Have a comment on this story? Write to the editors. Include your full name, city and state. Selected comments will be edited for publication in print or online.