Water and Wine Flowing
A Sacramental Church
A theology of sacraments encompasses the idea of water and wine flowing through lives connected in community as the incarnate body of Christ. The sacraments invite us into the ongoing story of God grounded in the past with an eschatological imagination carrying the people into a future of hope. This imagination carries the church to another world not bound by the systems and powers of this present age as she encounters the means of grace. This essay will briefly define the sacraments recognized by most Protestant churches within a Wesleyan-Holiness understanding. With the definition in mind, baptism as the initiatory sacrament will be discussed and then Eucharist (Communion) will receive a more in-depth discussion including the ways in which Eucharist can connect and invite into the redeeming work of Christ in the world.
Brent Peterson explains that "[t]he sacraments are dynamic occasions of God’s preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. While each of these terms has a unique note to play in the orchestra of God’s salvation, they should always be seen as existing together in harmony in the full concerto God is working within each person as part of creation’s redemption." The idea of a musical analogy may be better explained within a jazz combo improvising within the language of community within the sacramental action of the Church. Jazz brings out the wildness of sacraments which are grounded in tradition and centered in liturgical beauty yet pull at threads that unravel the bounded nature of a concerto. Sacraments invite communal movement and cooperation like that of the jazz combo.
John Wesley believed sacraments to be a vital part of living a holy life. Wesley describes baptism as "the initiatory sacrament, which enters us into covenant with God. And it was instituted in the room of circumcision. For, as that was a sign and seal of God’s covenant, so is this." Baptism becomes that introduction into the faith community. It is like the opening movement of music. It sets the stage, so to speak, for what is coming. God works in baptism, and this is one of the magnificent pictures of cooperation. As early Christianity spread among the Gentiles, whom the Church decided did not require circumcision, baptism became the primary "mark" of the new covenant. In true improvisational fashion, the Church also recognizes the fact that any gender enters the covenant with the new circumcision of the heart. Baptism is for all, regardless of gender or the lack thereof. (Acts 8)
Eventually, as families and households began to be baptized, the Church received infants and children for baptism. While adults enter the covenant with knowledge, children are brought in under the care and grace of parents and the community of faith. Through the via salutis we can see how baptism, like repentance, becomes a response to the forgiveness given by Jesus. Adults respond out of knowledge, while children are baptized in response. Regardless of the mode of baptism, the water flows like jazz quenching a thirst we may not even know we have until it is gone. The waters we drink make us thirsty no more; this water washes guilt and shame from our hearts and frees us to respond to God's outstretched hands.
While there is but one baptism, the second sacrament is one which is an ongoing reminder of the love of God. Eucharist, the great thanksgiving feast of the Church, is a means of grace in which we encounter the Gospel story retold week after week. As the combo moves from the opening, we are drawn into the middle and meat of the music. John Wesley saw the truth of the grace extended and encountered in communion when he preached Christians should receive communion as often as possible. He describes a benefit of communion in that same sermon.
The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection."
Extending Wesley's analogy, the Church can envision an embodied existence as the incarnate body of Christ holistically nourished by the Eucharistic meal. While the Eucharist cannot quench a physical desire for food it does sustain and strengthen the church as they are breathed out by God into the world. J.R.R. Tolkien illuminates this truth in The Lord of the Rings by connecting the sustaining lembas bread of the elves to a sustenance that quenches the need but not the desire.
The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.
As the Church relies upon the Eucharist as her weekly meal and climactic response in worship, she is sustained. When the word and the table of Eucharist become the central points of worship for the Church, she can leave the influences and liturgies of culture such that the Eucharist becomes more potent as the lembas bread did for Tolkien. Practically, this means the Church is free to focus upon the rhythm and calendar of the Church rather than that of the nation or culture around her. In this freedom, the importance of relationship and community become apparent. When the Church disconnects from national and cultural liturgies, there is a deeper move in relational action. This illuminates the truth that "sacraments are not things we possess; rather, they are relational events and personal encounters among people and God."
If we cannot possess the sacraments, then we are less likely to exclude human beings from participation in the means of grace. While it is good and ordered for the Church to appoint those who may administer the sacraments, the reception of the sacraments is a universal reception open to all. When the Church attempts to "fence the table" she forgets that the gate is Christ himself. So, Eucharist should only be withheld in extreme circumstances such as refusal to consider the cost of ongoing sin and rebellion or the systemic mistreatment of the marginalized as Paul confronts in the Corinthian church. But even then, if the heart is open to transformation, the Church's judgement needs to be informed by Christ. The healing of the Eucharist should be open to all. As Brent Peterson writes, "This healing is simultaneously personal and ecclesial. Just as baptism helps frame a Wesleyan view of salvation as thoroughly ecclesial, so too is the Eucharist a means of grace that seeks to heal and transform individuals as part of the larger martyr church. This ecclesial emphasis grounds our ongoing healing and maturation of love in Christlikeness."
This is a healing of hunger on a multitude of layers encompassing the whole person. Brier and Schottroff explain how hunger can consume, "Hunger is a total, elemental, and basic experience. It is an experience of urgent need and can have brutalizing effects because it constricts and diminishes human imagination; it 'cuts off the freedom to transcend, which is human.'” The hunger of the body and the soul cannot be separated. and in the Eucharist the two come together for we cannot separate the "material and the spiritual world. It is by the material means of eating and drinking that community is created among the participants in the meal and with God." Understanding that the body is not separate from the soul allows a holistic view of the Eucharist and might even solve the great mystery of how Christ is present in the Eucharist.
Many words and arguments have been exchanged over the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. The Church has fought and caused division over this mysterious truth. What if the answer has always been simple? What if the Church has been living in the truth for millennia but failed to see that truth by making it complex and theologically obtuse? Christ is truly present in the Eucharist in the bodies that respond to the invitation to the table. Extending the imagination to understand that the totality of the Church both militant (present) and transcendent (glorified) is participating in the communal meal of Jesus allows the Church to embrace the presence of Christ. That presence in community allows the Church to embrace the hurting and the broken in her midst such that all know they are welcome at the table. Real and embodied presence includes the totality of those gathered around the table seeing the cross from the front, the back, and the sides. This leads to some practical ideas for the local church in Eucharistic action.
In seeing the body of Christ responding to the invitation to Eucharist can inform ways that the local church works within the grand tradition while meeting the bodies in that local context as they may need to be met. This should form the language we use in liturgies and even the language as people are served the bread and wine. The words, postures, and movement of the church in invitation should be one of welcome and care. Intentional wording such as that from Back Side of the Cross will help to place the body in the story, "On the night in which he gave himself up for us and entered into solidarity with those who have been victimized by sin." Making reception accessible by moving to those who cannot come to the table physically (including transporting to homes and facilities), having gluten free bread, and having alternatives to alcohol if the church is one that uses wine will keep welcome for those who may not feel welcome. Appropriate language for children such as that recommended by Peterson should be used, "Take this bread and drink this juice to remind you that God loves you very much. I hope you know (name of child) you are loved by God and are very special to God." Trauma informed language is also appropriate when it is woven into the liturgy such that all are welcome. This leads to the Church seeing herself as the embodied Christ reflecting hope and healing into a world that is hurting.
Ultimately, the Church is a Eucharistic community that lives a Eucharistic life. While the emotions of worship, prayer, and message from word are important, they serve to point to the climactic moment of Eucharistic meal in which the pure and sustaining bread and wine are received in preparation for being breathed out into the world. Bieler and Schottroff capture this truth eloquently.
THE EUCHARISTIC LIFE IS ABOUT the real stuff. bread and hunger, food and pleasure, eating disorders and global food politics, private property and the common good.' The Eucharistic life is about the real stuff in the light of sacramental permeability. It is about holiness and resurrection; it is about gift exchange, sustainability, and the economy of grace. When we share the holy meal together, when we bring our gifts to the table, when we intercede for the world, when we collect money, and when we give thanks we are entering the realm of eschatological imagination.
The Church can be the presence of Christ in a world that needs soothing from hunger, suffering, sin, and isolation. The Church accomplishes this by the patient and caring participation in and through the sacraments as encounters with a living and loving God resolved into a beautiful closing to our sacramental music.
Bieler, Andrea, and Luise Schottroff. The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Leclerc, Diane, and Brent Peterson. The Back Side of the Cross: An Atonement Theology for the Abused and Abandoned. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2022.
Peterson, Brent. Created to Worship: God’s Invitation to Become Fully Human. Beacon Hill Press, 2012.
———. The Sacraments. The Wesleyan Theology Series. The Foundry Publishing, 2024.
Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Third. Vol. 10. Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872.
———. The Works of John Wesley. Third. Vol. 7. Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872.
 Brent Peterson, The Sacraments, The Wesleyan Theology Series (The Foundry Publishing, 2024), 15.
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third, vol. 10 (Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872).
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third, vol. 7 (Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872).
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated edition (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2021), 936.
 Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection, ed. Linda M. Maloney (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2007), locs. 82–83.
 Peterson, The Sacraments, 70.
 Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, locs. 1025–1026.
 Bieler and Schottroff, locs. 345–347.
 Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson, Back Side of the Cross: An Atonement Theology for the Abused and Abandoned (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022), 366.
 Peterson, The Sacraments, 83.
 Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, locs. 1825–1828.