Sacraments as Subversion
“[A] Reformed theology of home, embodied in the practice of the Lord's Supper, can help us reform our desires for home and point toward ways of escaping the present and destructive tension.” -Alberto La Rosa Rojas
“Baptism is a profoundly public act with far-reaching implications for our cultural and political lives in the world.” -Nico Koopman
One of my favorite reads in 2021 was Reformed Public Theology: A Global Vision for Life in the World. Edited by Matthew Kaemingk, this book is a collection of essays by Reformed theologians, thinkers, and professionals seeking to draw on the Reformed tradition as a guide for contemporary public life. While I commend the entire book, two essays on the sacraments stuck with me. These essays deepened my conviction that the sacraments are profoundly subversive acts with societal and cultural consequences.
To begin, consider how the Westminster Divines in The Westminster Confession of Faith define the sacraments. They describe the sacraments as “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him.” As a result, the sacraments bestow “a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world” (Chapter 27). In other words, the sacraments present the church as distinct from the world.
The Confession continues that “baptism is a solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible (emphasis mine) church” (Chapter 28). The Lord’s Supper is “a bond and pledge of [the participants’] communion with him, and with each other (emphasis mine), as members of his mystical body” (Chapter 29). The sacraments are communal and corporate in nature. So much so that, except under extenuating circumstances, the divines reject private expressions of the sacraments (Chapter 29).
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remind us we are not our own; we belong to a people—a people established by God in Christ. As a result, we are bound to Christ and each other through sacramental bonds; we are bound to Christ our Elder Brother, along with our fellow brothers and sisters; we are bound to Christ our Savior, along with others redeemed by His death and resurrection; we are bound to Christ our King, along with our fellow citizens of God’s kingdom.
With that in mind, let us look at two essays about the Lord’s Supper and baptism's political and social implications.
The Lord’s Table
In his essay, “A Migrant at the Lord’s Table: A Reformed Theology of Home,” Alberto La Rosa Rojas focuses on a Reformed theology of home embodied in the Lord’s Supper. Reflecting on John Calvin’s thoughts on home, Rojas notes,
Our life in this world is a pilgrimage toward the triune God, in whom we encounter our ultimate home. To “be home” is to dwell in the presence of the One who alone is our refuge, who alone offers true rest.
According to Calvin, this perfect fellowship and complete at-home-ness in God is precisely what is missing from a world under the shadow of sin. In this present age, we “have no promised habitation”; home remains an eschatological hope.
For Christians, Jesus is our home, and,
To confess that this Jesus is our homecoming is to be faced with an uncomfortable truth. Our comfortable, safe, and secure notions of home need to be radically destabilized…for the path home runs through exile; it goes by way of the cross.
No country, state, city, zip code, or city block should feel like home. No citizenship, political party, or economic system should feel like home. And, given our propensity to treat this world as home, the Lord’s Supper helps “reform our desires for home and points us toward ways of escaping the destructive tension of the present.”
How, then, should such a perspective challenge our political and social lives? Minimally, we should see others at the Lord’s Table as our kin, our family, our co-heirs with Christ. But consider the context of Rojas’ argument regarding migrants. Do we feel a greater kinship with the Christian migrant at the border than we do with our fellow “citizens” who live next door? Does the wealthy Christian feel a greater sense of home amongst poor Christians than with their non-Christian co-workers? The Lord’s Supper reminds us that should be the case.
Furthermore, in the words of Rojas, “The displaced are not guests who we need to host: they are those through whom God is making a home in this world. In Christ, migrants and citizens share a common journey home.” Do we look to migrants, those who most feel the exilic nature of this life, to learn what it means to live in this world? If not, we should.
In sum, the Lord’s Supper is 1) a regular reminder that this world is not our home, 2) a subversive act of resistance against the seduction to make this world our home, and 3) a confrontation of any injustice or lack of compassion in us.
The Lord’s Supper is not the only sacrament that serves as a profoundly subversive act. In his essay, “Sexism, Racism, and the Practice of Baptism in South Africa,” Nico Koopman shows how countercultural and subversive baptism is amid injustice.
Living under apartheid in South Africa, Koopman reflects on baptism, saying, “In a world that questions and undermines my dignity and identity, the sacrament reminds me of my status, position, and worth within the person of Jesus Christ.” When a society, including the Church in that society, forgets the dignity of image-bearers, baptism serves as a reminder of a greater authority––the Authority who validates the dignity of all people.
As an example, Koopman draws on a story told by Reformed theologian Richard Mouw. Mouw, an American, used baptism to confront race-based injustices in the United States. Koopman explains:
Mouw built his case not through a moral lecture but through a story. He recalls a moment in the life of his white church when a Black child named Daryll was brought forward to be baptized. The Reformed ritual called for the white bodies to stand. It called for white voices to affirm that this black body was now joined to their bodies. As one body, the ritual demanded that they vow to defend, nurture, instruct, and love this Black child as he grows into the life and witness of Christ and his church.
Mouw goes on to say,
If American society tries to treat him like a second-class citizen, we will have to protest on his behalf since he is our brother in a holy nation of kings and priests. If he is ever the object of a cruel joke or a vicious slur, we will have to consider this to be an affront to the very Body of Christ. If someone ever complains that he is not “one of our own kind,” we will have to respond with the insistence that, through the blood of Jesus, “we are Darryl’s kind.”
This is no social Gospel or political posturing. If baptism presents Christians as one with Christ and each other, Mouw’s example is the real consequence of taking the sacrament of baptism seriously. In this way, baptism is a subversive act that resists the brokenness, division, and injustice of earthly kingdoms and demands fidelity to a far greater Kingdom.
An Embodied Faith
Ultimately, the Christian faith is not a disembodied faith detaching the spiritual from the physical, the eternal from the temporal, the person from personhood. Instead, the Kingdom of God is one of spiritual and physical resurrection, restoration, liberation, and redemption. Therefore, in all things, Christians ought to testify to that Kingdom, and the Lord’s Supper and baptism are some of the primary ways we do so.
The sacraments, in one sense, are mystical and transcendent spiritual practices that strengthen our relationship with the Lord. Yet, in another sense, their impact extends far beyond only the mystical and transcendent. The sacraments are a subversive act against the kingdoms––the principalities and powers––of this world. For those whose ultimate loyalties are to the Kingdom of God, the sacraments are an act of resistance against anything that stands in opposition to that Kingdom.
Consider a final question: How can we ensure the sacraments subvert our misguided loyalties to broken and unjust earthly kingdoms and restore our fidelity to God’s perfect Kingdom?
May the Spirit of God help us make it so.