Sacraments

The Holy Spirit in Worship (part 7)

Baptism and communion are the most direct model we have of actions that we do, which the Holy Spirit invests with formative power. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states, “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.”

Baptism and the Lord’s Table are the only sacraments ordained by Jesus Christ, and the Protestant reformers fought to keep the list of sacraments limited to these two. However, I think it is possible to refer to certain acts of worship as sacramental in nature if they are an effective means, not necessarily of salvation, but of Christian formation, and they derive that effectiveness not “from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost.” Among these sacrament-like acts are particularly preaching and intercession.

One aspect of preaching described by Debra Murphy is imagination. By this she means “not that it is about the imaginary, but that it participates in the communal (rather than individual) practice of ‘construing reality according to a particular vision, in full awareness of other options.’” I’ve mentioned the possibility of understanding preaching as a form of prophecy, and to a certain extent, this idea of preaching as imagination fits this description. One of the functions of prophecy is to create the world that God envisions by proclaiming what they must become. In Ezekiel 37, God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy over these bones” (verse 4) and as Ezekiel prophesies the word of the Lord, God creates the reality he told Ezekiel to declare.

Unfortunately, Ms. Murphy couches her understanding of preaching as imagination within the vision of the community, rather than the vision of God. As a result, the worlds envisioned are merely “new possibilities.” The church apparently is at liberty to create any transcendent story that it wishes. “Imagination, therefore, is a valid way of knowing.” And this is true, but without the careful guidance of the Holy Spirit, even with the infallible text of scripture, it is quite possible for the community to “know” a lie. The imagining must be an act of the Holy Spirit, given to the preacher, or it is not true. However, with this caveat in place, it is very useful to understand understand preaching sacramentally. “The proclaimed Word in worship imagines” for us, by the power of the Holy Spirit “the world that baptism invites us to eternally inhabit.”

Similarly with intercession: Ms. Murphy talks about the “prayers of intercession” in “the liturgy,” a liturgy which she strangely seems to think either is or should be universal. Nevertheless, she says

Intercession implicates us, draws us in, entangles us in the healing and restoration for which we pray. Intercession is, according to Leech, ‘more than a mere recital of names, it is a literal standing between, an act of reconciliation, a sacrificial, priestly work in which Christ allows us to share.’”

Amen and amen. However, I think there is a missing step: what is the Holy Spirit’s work in intercession? John Piper, in a 1990 sermon on prophecy, describes a scenario based on “the prayer of faith” mentioned in James 5:14-15,

I picture the elders standing or kneeling around the bed of the sick person praying and waiting on the Lord for some manifestation of his Spirit that would minister to this person. As they pray, God may stir up in them a strong faith that healing will be given. When he does this, their prayer becomes the prayer of faith.

One example of intercession then, is to pray, deliberately seeking this prayer of faith. In other words, to intercede is to ask for these kinds of supernatural interventions. To intercede is to ask for prophecy. However, asking for prophecy doesn’t mean pursuing ethereal experiences. Part of the purpose of intercession is the transformation of the one praying. “This transformation of character becomes possible when intercessory prayer directs us to those for whom we pray… We pray with eyes closed that our eyes might be fully open to the suffering world, that we might ‘know in ourselves how God’s mercy breaks barriers, remakes and renews.” I add only that he does this in a discernable way, by the power of the Spirit, rather than only through the formation of certain spiritual habits.

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