Often we hear that the difference between the ministry deacons and elders (and by extension, between elders and lay people) are the sacraments. We’ve heard it said that elders have “sacramental authority.”
To some, this phrase suggests that elders have a special relationship (perhaps even ownership) of the sacraments; that elders somehow care more than others do about the sacraments.
Maybe the sacraments do NOT constitute the dividing line between elders and all other Christians.
Rev. Taylor Burton Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship, challenges the accuracy of the term “sacramental authority” as applied to United Methodist ordination:
“The Ordinal of The United Methodist Church, true to our biblical ontology and understanding of the Spirit’s work in the world, in baptism, in Holy Communion and in ordination, nowhere posits the ordination of elders somehow transmits to these persons some sort of “substance” (Greek!) that brings with it what is often commonly referred to as ‘sacramental authority,”‘ Taylor notes in his blog post “Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority.”
He adds, “Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the fullness of what the Ordinal provides. ‘Take authority as an elder . . . to administer the Holy Sacraments . . .’ The work of presiding is not a right, but a service to the body, a solemn and joyous responsibility the body entrusts principally to the elders the Church has ordained.”
The sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) are God’s gifts to the church. They belong to all of us. We all practice them. Elders are responsible for administering them with care and providing the people of God frequent opportunity to practice them.
The deacon has a role, by Discipline, to assist the elder in the administration of the sacraments. The deacon’s ancient, early-church role of representing the church’s servant ministry (in worship and elsewhere) is as crucial as the elder’s role of representing the church’s priestly ministry. The two are interrelated aspects of Christ’s ministry (see Matt. 20:28, for example).
And of course, lay people, no less than clergy, have an essential role in sacramental practice. The liturgy—the work of the people—is essential to both sacraments. We have not practiced the sacraments when we have excised the crucial work of the people.
Deacons’ leadership both in these acts of worship and in ministries of compassion and justice connects the two. Deacons “interrelate worship in the gathered community with service to God in the world.” This service is one of love, justice, and service, “connecting the church with the most needy, neglected, and marginalized among the children of God” (United Methodist Book of Discipline, para. 328). By equipping the worshiper for compassion and justice ministries done in Christ’s name, we help the church live sacramentally in the world.
Rev. Dr. Dwight and Rev. Linda Vogel remind us that, according to Augustine, a sacrament is a “sacred sign” or a “visible word.” “In a sacrament,” the Vogels say, “a reality beyond our immediate apprehension is perceived by our senses. What we perceive is a sign of something more than what is immediately at hand. In them, a mysterious and transcendent reality comes into the world of our experience through signs/acts we perceive” (“Deacons as Sacraments of the Table,” by Dwight W. and Linda J. Vogel, © 2006).
“Deacons are ‘sacred signs’ and ‘visible words’ of the unity of service and justice with the ministry of grace,” the Vogels say. “Through embodying that unity in their own ministry, the Church can perceive in and through them a reality beyond our immediate apprehension.” (They encourage a similar analysis for the ministry elders and all the baptized.)
I urge deacons to claim their responsibility to act as sign/acts of God’s grace through Christ’s service. Teach elders what this means in the context of the partnership of worship leadership. Demonstrate it through the ways you follow the ordination charge to “take authority as a deacon to proclaim the Word of God and to lead God’s people in ministries of compassion and justice; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Take responsibility for living and interpreting these sacramental ministries. In so doing you challenge the perception that sacraments are the property of a group of clergy. You equip all believers likewise to live sacramentally, to point to God’s grace, through their own worship and ministry.