Day: July 3, 2009

O’Donovan’s fourth sacrament

In The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan flies some spectacular lead balloons. One of which is his suggestion that rather than the traditional two sacraments, we might productively embrace four that enact the distinctive shape of the church’s identity (pp 174-192):

  1. Baptism reflects the fact that the church is a gathered community as a result of Christ’s coming in the flesh, identifying with humanity in our plight and with Israel in particular as its representative, the Messiah — in whom it is summed up.
  2. The Lord’s supper placards the church’s identity as a suffering community, recalling the passion of the Suffering Servant — the defining reality in the Christian life, corporately and individually.
  3. Our commemoration of the Lord’s day marks us as the glad community, filled with praise for — and a longing to be conformed to the likeness of — our risen Saviour, whose resurrection vindicates the created order and frees us to respond joyfully to it.
  4. The laying-on of hands expresses the fact that this community, upon which the ascended Lord has poured out His Spirit, speaks God’s words — in prayer and proclamation.

Now, I don’t know if the idea of four sacraments thrills you or just strikes you as mildly intriguing. But I reckon that O’Donovan’s fourth sacrament has got legs — whether or not you want to add it to the traditional Protestant list (or subtract it from the Roman Catholic one).

I know we get nervous about it. And the New Testament evidence about the laying-on of hands is pretty hard to pin down. It seems to mean different things in different circumstances.

But this moment, in which the whole community symbolically focusses on one or more of its members to pray for and/or (prophetically) commission them, proclaims a powerful truth. It declares that we believe in every-member ministry. That we’re convinced that the Holy Spirit gives us to each other. And gives each of us gifts for the common good. What’s there to be anxious about in that?

So … bring on the laying-on of hands!