But then, through our lack of thinking about them, talking about them, or placing much emphasis on them at all, they begin to gradually disappear. It's striking that Evangelical churches tend to gather around the Lord's Table with much less frequency than any other tradition. And although British Pentecostals have a long tradition of weekly Communion (historically the Breaking of Bread has been the main church service for the Apostolic Church, Elim, and AoG, the 3 British Pentecostal denominations), in places that's giving way too.
And very often this sacramental neglect seems to be connected to ideas about evangelism. Now, hopefully we all want to reach out to people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But does that really mean we have to downplay the sacraments?
Some people tell me that non-Christians are put off and confused by Communion in the service (which was the seeker-sensitive argument back in the 1990s). Others say that Communion interrupts the flow of the service (or 'the flow of what God's doing'). Sure, we should have Communion sometimes (the Bible does tell us to), but maybe just a lot less frequently, or a lot more quickly, or in house groups or something instead of in the main Sunday service. Pragmatism here is king.
With Baptism it's a bit different. Earlier this week I read something by an American Pentecostal arguing that we should start baptising babies - not because of any biblical reasons (apparently we need to abandon such 'rationalist' approaches!), but simply because it's a great outreach tool. In other words, the form, meaning, and biblical basis of the sacrament are of no importance, - only the pragmatic considerations of getting people into church.
But these pragmatic approaches to the sacraments appear to set the sacraments over against the gospel. We want to get the gospel to people, so change or sideline the sacraments to do so. But that just sets up an opposition of sacraments versus gospel. (And then with that comes a dangerous rhetoric that anyone who cares about the sacraments is on the opposite side to the gospel and evangelism!)
In the Bible, however, gospel and sacrament aren't in opposition at all. There isn't a tension to be resolved between gospel and sacrament in Scripture, because the two go together!
Perhaps that seems most obvious to us with baptism. After all, other that perhaps Carols by Candlelight, when do you get the biggest number of non-Christians coming along to church to hear the gospel? At a baptism! Unbelieving friends and family happily welcome invitations to baptisms, and when they do, they both hear and see the gospel. The hear, because it's preached. (The Sacraments and the preaching of the Word go together!) But they also see it - because baptism itself is a visible Gospel Word.
Baptism is a visible Word that speaks to us of a death and resurrection - Christ's death and resurrection. For Christ is the one who joined the waters of baptism with His death on the Cross, that the waters might speak to us of His great saving work. In the Bible, water so often speaks of God's judgement against sin, but Christ has undergone that judgement for us in our place and risen again to bring us safely through the judgement and into new life in Him. So as we stand in the water, we stand there knowing that Christ has taken the judgement we deserved. As we go under the water, we know that Christ died and was buried for us, and we have died and are buried in Him. And as we come back up from the water, we know that Christ rose victorious from the grave, and that we have risen in Him. (That's why, historically, Easter Sunday is the day above all days for baptisms!)
But the Eucharist is just as much a Gospel Word. After all, we 'proclaim the Lord's death' each time we celebrate Holy Communion. So the Eucharist isn't some esoteric ritual that should confuse unbelievers and alienate them from the gospel. Not at all! It's the thing in the service that makes sure that the gospel of Christ's death for our sins and His resurrection for our justification is proclaimed loud and clear. In the sacrament, Christ feeds us with His broken body and His shed blood, and we see again and again each Lord's Day as we gather at the Table, that His body broken for us and His blood shed for us is our only source of life. His sacrifice for us is the source of all our spiritual nourishment. At the Table, we see afresh that we are completely dependent upon Christ, and upon Christ alone.
The Sacraments aren't in opposition to the Gospel; the Sacraments proclaim the Gospel. I have a friend who says you can't preach the gospel without talking about the sacraments, and while my Conservative Evangelical/Pentecostal sensibilities might stop me from expressing it quite that way, I know what he means. And I find it in my preaching. The sacraments are such vivid pictures of the gospel, that I have to keep coming back to them as I preach.
But that 's not the only reason that, in my friends words (not mine!) we can't preach the gospel without talking about the sacraments. We can't preach the gospel without the sacraments, because that's what Jesus has commissioned us to do! When we start to try and displace, diminish, or ignore the sacraments in a pragmatic desire to aid evangelism, what we're actually doing is diminishing evangelism and taking a very reductive approach to the church's commission. We have not been sent out into the world merely to make converts or to gather crowds on a Sunday. No! What Jesus has sent us out into the world to do is to 'make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you' (Matt. 28:19-20). The sacraments are right there in the Great Commission! Baptism explicitly so, and Communion as part of the 'all things' that Christ commanded, and a vital part of making disciples who are rooted in Christ alone, and growing in their union and communion with Him.
The Sacraments matter. They're not just rituals, but vital gospel words. They're part of evangelism and disciple-making. The Sacraments matter, because they're not something over against the gospel, but rather they are Gospel Sacraments, displaying ever and always Christ and Him crucified.