“A Service of Word and Table”: look at the first few pages of the United Methodist Hymnal and you will see that “Word and Table” is the basic “shape” of our worship. We see this shape most clearly on first Sundays when in a single morning we both hear a sermon and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Still, that two-fold designation describes more than our liturgy; indeed, it is the very “rhythm” of our life together as Christians. That to say, we gather ourselves around the Word of God in preaching and teaching, there to learn of our duty in the world; and we come to the Table (and Font) to receive the grace God dispenses there to strengthen us in doing that duty.
In some other traditions, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered gestures of the faithful toward God. That is, one is baptized and receives the bread and juice as voluntary acts of obedience and remembrance. When new believers profess their faith, they signify their new commitment to God through baptism; the baptized gather together on occasion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and eat the memorial Meal. In our United Methodist tradition, however (and indeed in most major branches of the Church), Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are deemed Sacraments: gestures of God toward us. The water of Baptism conveys God’s commitment to us, to make us holy. In the Meal, God gives us spiritual food, strength to do our holy work in the world.
In the Bible, “holy” means set apart. Nothing more and, by grace, nothing less. “Holy” does not mean faultless or perfect. No, to be holy is to be commissioned, marked, designated. God’s grace in Baptism sets apart to be Christ’s ambassadors in a pagan and idolatrous world. We receive the Body and Blood of Jesus to strengthen us for selfless service in a self-seeking and manipulative society. In each Sacrament we take what God gives us so that we might give ourselves to others. In sum, the Sacraments are channels of God’s grace to us to make us channels of God’s grace to the world.
Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist at Duke, suggests that the Church does its most distinctive and “radical” work when it does those things which, really, are the most “normal” and routine things we do: when we preach Christ crucified (a stumbling block to those who imagine life only in terms of acquisition and success); and when we dispense and receive the Sacraments (eat Holy Food and take Holy Baths) and thereby accept that we are set apart and strengthened, come what may, to be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.