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We are One at Baptism and at the Table

 
One© Jerry Holsopple & Kristin Kennedy, photographers, by permission.

What Matters to You

What are all the ways we use
and experience water, bread, and wine?

How might those experiences also describe
an experience of God?

What are the sounds or voices of God?

What is your experience of God
and those in your congregation
while participating in Baptism and Holy Communion?

What Matters to Us 

Just some water, just a simple meal of bread and juice, but for us in the United Church Christ, what is simple means much more. We celebrate two sacraments. One is Baptism. The other is Holy Communion which is also often called the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. Sacraments are our ritual acts in worship life when the Holy Spirit uses water, bread, and wine to make visible the grace, forgiveness, and presence of God in Christ.

The preamble of our constitution simply states the UCC "recognizes" these two sacraments. Recognition, however, is more than a mere casual acknowledgment. Recognition is a deep way of seeing and experiencing God and God's action in these rites. Recognition recalls Jesus Christ and his own baptism (Mark 1:9-11), his call to baptize others (Matthew 28:16-20), and the invitation to become one with Christ and one another in baptism (Romans 6:1-4). Recognition remembers Jesus' meals with his followers and the Last Supper (Luke 22:7-13), discovers his continuing presence in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30-31a), and anticipates a great banquet for all God's people (Luke 14:15-24). Recognition is not only an individual act, but one we share with other Christians throughout the world.

What happens at Baptism and Holy Communion. What do they mean? Our Book of Worship and the words we use to celebrate the sacraments reflect a variety of meanings. These understandings we share in common with many other Christians, and are also reflected in the World Council of Churches' ecumenical agreement called Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry .

Through water at baptism, God embraces you — no matter who you are — and brings you into Christ's Church. You become vital not only to a local church, but the wider Church. You share in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The church also promises to love, support, and care for you throughout your whole life. Baptized, you now participate fully in life of the Church and God's realm.

At Holy Communion, we share a simple meal of bread and wine. Here, we experience the presence of Christ again. Together, around God's welcome table, we recall God's loving acts especially in Jesus, we experience our oneness in Christ, hope for a time when all will be fed, and anticipate the fullness of God's love and justice throughout creation.

Practices of the sacraments vary among our congregations. A 2004-2006 UCC worship survey details our range of practices. Some congregations baptize infants through adults, while others seem to begin baptism with older children. All use water, but the amount varies from a small amount to full immersion in a body of water. Most often, a pastor baptizes "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," others use additional expressions of the Triune God. Baptism occurs within a worshiping congregation and, as the entry rite into Christ's Church, occurs only once.

The frequency of Holy Communion ranges from seldom to weekly, but is most often celebrated monthly. Some use a common loaf of bread and a cup; others use wafers and small communion cups. Some receive communion in the pews, others join together at the front of the worship space. Some congregations reserve Communion for those who are both baptized and confirmed, while others invite all regardless of baptism or confirmation. Increasingly children are welcome to the Table at their parent's discretion.

All our emphases seem to come together in the sacraments. Christ claims us, and we belong to Christ. God offers an extravagant welcome, and we share in it. God keeps covenant with us, and we unite as one with Christians throughout the world. God offers a vision of justice and love, and we are inspired to live it. Together, through water, bread, and wine, we know the still-speaking God.

From your own experience of baptism and Holy Communion, what do they mean to you? How might the meanings have changed over time?

When have you participated in a baptism or Holy Communion that was particularly meaningful? Pray a prayer such as "O God, what are you saying and revealing to us about our own congregation's practice of the sacraments?"

What Matters to UCC Congregations 

What do you find compelling about the role of the sacraments at Northshore UCC?

What comes to mind and heart about your own congregation's sacramental life as you hear about Northshore UCC?

What is your prayer for Northshore UCC and your own congregation?

What are the sounds of God's realm breaking through?

Throughout the United Church of Christ, the prevalent understanding of Baptism, for both clergy and laity, is "incorporation into the Church Universal, the Body of Christ." From the beginning of Northshore United Church of Christ, the congregation has expressed this emphasis in their life and ministry.

Take for example the mosaic sculpture that graces the exterior of the church, titled "Dancing Jesus." The sculpture has become a joyful sign of their faith. At Northshore's first worship service in 1984, each mosaic piece was joined together to form the image of Christ. Each piece hammered into place by a founding member of the congregation. The church, literally, became parts, living members, of Christ. With every baptism, every celebration of baptism renewal, Northshore proclaims their faith. And with each of act of compassion and justice, Northshore members remember and express their baptisms.

Northshore UCC has gone down by the riverside and celebrated the baptism and confirmation of youth. "A new me!" is what baptism felt like to Brandon, one of those recently baptized. Another youth, Jenn, describes her baptism: "It was an amazing experience, both as the end of a time of exploring spirituality, and as the beginning of the wonderful journey to come."

Jenn is right about baptism at Northshore. It's not an individualistic event to be forgotten. The Reverend Kathleen Morgan, interim minister at Northshore, points out that: "I always involve the congregation in baptism so that they are aware of the roles they play in person's lives — as teachers, guides, and mentors. The congregation holds this time as holy, and, as a result, feels connection with the whole, wider, church family."

Morgan also points out, "It is important to have a service of renewal for congregations so they can remember their baptism and re-covenant with each other as a family of faith." Each year in early January when the story of Jesus' baptism is read, Morgan includes a rite of baptismal renewal in worship. This invitation for renewal is for the entire congregation.

                                            The pastor also points to times when individuals feel a need to renew their own baptismal covenant. Throughout her ministry, she has recognized such moments. Although Morgan offered the following prayer in a former congregation, this prayer for Gary, a church member who affirmed his baptism, is an invitation to those she now pastors to celebrate their own baptisms:

We rejoice with Gary in his deepening understanding of faith and discipleship. We promise Gary our continuing friendship and prayers as we share the journey, hopes and labors of the church. O God, we ask you to give him strength for life's journey, courage in time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love and the hope of hew life in Jesus Christ, who makes us one. Amen.

God, working through Baptism, is making Northshore "one" — one with each other, one with the community, one with Christ. They express their baptisms in ministry with the homeless through the King County Task Force to End Homelessness and their distinctive project called Tent City. They also are engaged in significant interfaith and ecumenical ministries. Passed through the waters of baptism, joined together as the Body of Christ, Northshore is a vital expression of "Remember your baptism and be thankful!"

 

People Matter 

What are ways that you see James Fouther expressing the sacraments in his own life?

If you have been baptized, what do you know about the event? What has it come to mean to you?

What is your prayer for James? After hearing his story, what might God be saying to you?

Now a grown man with children of his own, James Fouther celebrates the early days of his life. "What do I know about my baptism? I was baptized as an infant at the Congregational Church of Park Manor UCC in Chicago. My mom just recently sent me my Certificate of Baptism and a baptism day letter from Reverend Dr. Arthur Gray who baptized me." Fouther talks about how he didn't think much about his baptism until he was a young adult. He was dating a woman who said if they were going to truly get serious he would have to be re-baptized in her church. "Whoa! That relationship ended in a crash!" Fouther declares, "I realized all of a sudden that my own baptism and church family was as important to me in my twenties as when I was a baby and youth." Now as a pastor in Denver at the United Church of Montbello ,that church of his baptism back in Chicago, thousands of miles away, is still incredibly important to him. Grace poured out, the sacraments have stuck, and they are central to his ministry.

Reverend Dr. Fouther pastors a church that is an ecumenical or federated congregation. The church was founded by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, as well as the UCC. At both the water of baptism and gathered at the communion rail, they celebrate their oneness in Christ. "At communion each first Sunday of the month, when that 'private' moment comes when members receive the bread and the juice, we are squeezed right next to somebody else who is receiving communion. Older members are squeezed right next to children and youth. Folks not only nod at each other at the rail, but when tears begin to fall from someone's face there is a person, usually on each side, to embrace them and help with a tissue or two."

Fouther points out that some things have changed since his childhood. As a youth, he had to wait until after confirmation to receive communion. Reflecting on the wisdom and gifts of his own children, he declares, "All who claim Jesus Christ as Savior, all our children come to the table. My prayer is that our children experience the same oneness in Jesus Christ that our adults know and experience."

Fouther speaks of bridging a postmodern world and the timeless message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the table and gathered together at baptism, he invites those who are children, youth, and adults, those who are unchurched and those who come from a variety of traditions, to lavish in the grace and goodness of Christ who makes us one.

History Matters

What was at stake in these historical accounts around the sacraments? Where do you see God's action in the accounts? What is disturbing?

In what ways do the stories cause you to reflect on Holy Communion or Baptism in a new way?

How does the UCC reflect these historical moments in how we live our faith today?

In what ways do these stories challenge and affirm the ministry of your own congregation?

 Baptism, Moon Lake, © Bill Steber, photographer, Used by permission.

God Troubles the Water — Radical Baptism 
Today, seeing a baptism of an infant is usually a lovely event. Even if the baby cries from the chilly water, "ooohs" and "aaahs" of the congregation still fill the sanctuary. Our history, however, is filled with stories, not so sweet, of how radical, even politically-world-shaking, baptisms can be.

Baptism for enslaved people in colonial and antebellum America was a radical event. The meaning of Baptism was debated by those in power. Should slaves be baptized? Does being baptized in Christ make one free in this world as well as the next? The answer by many in power was "no." As early as 1639, Maryland was the first colony to specifically state that baptism as a Christian did not make a slave free.

In 1883, following the emancipation of slaves, Frederick Douglass, the famous orator, teacher, and former slave, pointed to how Baptism challenged the institution of slavery. At the Congregational Church in Washington D.C., Douglass declared: "Baptism was then a vital and commanding question, one with which moral and intellectual giants of the day were required to grapple…When a heathen ceased to be a heathen and became a Christian, he no longer be held as a slave."

At another lecture Douglass revealed in more detail the threat of Baptism to slavery. The language seems strange and archaic today, but reveals the radical impact of Baptism at that time.

For to baptize the Negro and admit him into membership in the Christian church was to recognize him as a man, a child of God, an heir of Heaven, redeemed by the blood of Christ, a temple of the Holy Ghost, a standing type and representative of the Savior of the world, one who, according to the apostle Paul, must be treated no longer as a servant, but as a beloved brother. Viewed in this light, his admission to baptism, and to the church was a matter of the gravest consideration….It would impair the value of the slave,… [I]f the Negro is to be regarded as a Christian, he could not be regarded as a heathen, and as the Bible sanctioned only the enslavement of the heathen, the Negro Christian could not be bought and sold, enslaved and whipped… From every view, [the slave owners] could then take the proposition to baptize the Negro was rank radicalism and deserved stern resistance at its inception.

In spite of arguments against the baptism of those enslaved, Christ led folk to the water. "God troubled the waters." In narratives collected from ex-slaves, one hears liberation, hope, and encouragement. In the following account, a former slave connects vision, baptism, and the call to courageous faith:

Jesus himself baptized me, saying, "My little one, behold I baptized you myself. I command you to go in yonder world. Open your mouth, and I will speak through you. Harken unto me, for I am able to encircle the world as an iron hand. I told you to go, and you shall go…." Since I became converted I have seen visions and many wondrous things.

The quotation from the former slave is from God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves, edited by Clifton H. Johnson (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1969) 67. For more information on the narratives of ex-slaves contact the Amistad Research Center. The research center, now at Tulane University, New Orleans, contains archives, art, and artifacts of the former American Missionary Association (AMA) of the United Church of Christ. AMA was founded as a significant force in the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements.

Worship Wars, Warring Words

 

Can you imagine arguing and debating for over three decades about a book of worship and what liturgies to include?

It's part of our history from about 1847 to 1887. The German Reformed Church, one of our predecessor denominations, struggled to discern its sacramental life as it lived a new life in the United States during a time bridging the frontier and modern society.

The church formed a committee to offer a book of worship that would faithfully provide Reformed liturgies to congregations. Over time a debate developed that particularly focused around the critical thinking of two Pennsylvania pastor-professors, John William Nevin and John H.A. Bomberger.

Nevin, who represented the emerging Mercersburg Theology, called on the church to reincorporate the tradition, creeds, and practices of the ancient church — especially a renewed commitment to the presence, the mystery, of Christ at Holy Communion. He is known for his early work, The Mystical Presence of Christ.


 

Bomberger, at first a supporter of Nevin, finally rejected Nevin's emphasis on the ancient, and insisted on understandings that he felt more in keeping with the Reformation, free from more traditional Catholic understandings of both Holy Communion and Baptism. He presented his views in the article "Reformed, Not Ritualistic." His supporters, often known as "Old Reformed," met in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, in 1867 to clearly state opposition to the seemingly growing support for Nevin's liturgy and perspective.

Throughout the debate and several committees, the committees usually favored Nevin and his emphasis on the power of sacraments and on the Church as a bearer of grace. When the Directory of Worship was finally adopted in 1887, it offered the rich ancient sacramental tradition expressed by Nevin. It also, however, offered a variety of other resources and encouraged the use of free or extemporaneous prayers. Congregations were able to choose between options. "Mercersburg" and "Old Reformed" emerged together.

Although the debate was often polarizing and painful, the struggle calls on us to seriously examine our understandings of Baptism and Holy Communion and how they express the grace and presence of God. How is this struggle still alive in your own congregation?

For more information on this debate see John C. Shetler's "The Ursinus School and the Reaction against Evangelical Catholicism" and "The German Reformed Church". Also see "The Myerstown Convention," article 94, 561-574, and John Williamson Nevin's "The Church Movement: Seventh Article,in LTH, volume 4, article 90, 544-549, and D.B. Hart's John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2005) is an insightful and critical interpretation of Nevin. 

With What Words Will We Pray?

Pastor Ginna Minasian Dalton invites Little River UCC of Annandale, VA, into Communion.

Where do the words come from that you hear and say at Baptism or Holy Communion? In 1977, the eleventh General Synod of the UCC called on the Office for Church Life and Leadership to craft words for a book of worship "using inclusive language." From 1979 to the publication of Book of Worship. in 1986, a committee of ten prayerfully discerned words faithful to tradition, committed to justice, and celebrating the powerful and full grace of God.

This commitment did not represent a frivolous trend toward often belittled political correctness. Rather it was a deep commitment to the expansiveness of God and to God's embrace of all humanity. The commitment embraced not only language about men and women, but language sensitive to race, abilities, and the goodness of creation. It encouraged active participation of "total persons to the loving initiative of God" — suggesting ways beyond mere thinking and speaking including embracing, touching and pouring, anointing, and singing. It was inclusive in another way, an ecumenical way. Book of Worship reflected the liturgical renewal movement that also shaped the rites of other denominations in common, yet ancient, forms.

Words remained and words were revised in both the Baptism and Holy Communion rites. For example in the service for Baptism, one hears about distinct ways God has called upon women. In the thanksgiving prayer over the water, we recall "Jesus Christ, who was nurtured in the water of Mary's womb" and who "became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well." Rather then rehearsing the entire Apostles Creed, an option is offered for affirming faith. Believers are asked three questions based on the traditional Trinity form. The questions seem to both recall tradition and open up the possibility for fresh understandings of the Triune God. On the other hand, in order to celebrate our ancient faith and recognize ecumenical commitments, the order for Baptism preserved the traditional formula of "I baptize you (or 'you are baptized') in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Words for Holy Communion were also prayerfully considered. The invitation to Communion in Book of Worship reflects the inclusive heart of the liturgy:

This is the joyful feast of the people of God.
men and women, youth and children,
come from the east and the west,
from the north and the south,
and gather about Christ's table.

As in the prayer of thanksgiving over baptismal water, the Communion prayer of thanksgiving is expansive: it gives thanks for the beauty of creation, remembers ancestors in faith, calls us to reconciliation, and beckons the entire human family to the table. The prayer over the bread and wine asks God to act not only through us, but in all of creation:

We ask you to send your Holy Spirit
on this bread and wine, on our gifts, and on us.
Strengthen your universal church
that it may be a champion of the peace and justice in all the world.
Restore the earth with your grace that is able to make all things new.

Responses to the Book of Worship included both favorable and unfavorable reviews. Yet the acceptance of Book of Worship encouraged the continuing commitment to inclusive language especially evident in The New Century Hymnal (1995). In specific and fresh ways, the prayers reflected the expansive and transforming gift of God's grace through sacraments.

For more information, see "Order for Baptism" and "Service of Word and Sacrament I" in Book of Worship: United Church of Christ. Also refer to Thomas Dipko's "Theological Guidelines that Informed," article 34, 185-193, and Chalmer Coe's "Book of Worship: A Response," article 35, 194-199, in LTH, volume 7. 

Bible Matters
  
Community in Communion: 1 Corinthians 11:17-33

Begin with a time of silence. Ask God to guide your understanding of scripture. Slowly read 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 aloud. Ask yourself:

What disturbs me about this passage?

What seems to be at stake here?

If I were to paint a picture of Holy Communion among the folk at Corinth,
what do I guess it would look like?

Consider the historical setting of Paul's writing to the church at Corinth. He was concerned with the factions within the church. The church was more divided than united as they participated in Holy Communion. The sacramental meal was part of a common meal where some gorged on food and drink, and others went hungry. Rather than a time that expressed oneness in Christ, it highlighted a division between those who had much and those who had little. Social differences were accentuated.

Paul connects Holy Communion with the ethical implications of the sacrament by pointing back to Jesus' sharing at the Last Supper. He provides the "words of institution" ("that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took the loaf of bread…" found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) not so much as a word-for-word script for future celebrations, but rather to point out the origin of the meal as a sharing in Christ's offering-of-love presence. Communion expressed Christ's life, death, and resurrection in behalf of others. True participation in Christ's meal transformed unjust social relationships as well as personal "hungers." Paul called on the Corinthians to partake in the meal in a worthy manner. He insisted, "Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (verse 28).

Enter silence again. Be aware of any thoughts or insights that occur at prayer. Then prayerfully reflect on questions as these:

How is our congregation different from or similar to the Corinthians?

What difference does vividly remembering Jesus at his Last Supper make to participation in Holy Communion today?

How do I prepare to participate in Holy Communion? What might it mean for me, for our congregation, to examine ourselves?

What are the differences that participation in Christ's presence at Holy Communion make to both individuals and a gathered community?

One more time, rest in silent prayer. 

Prayer Matters
 
Preparing Hearts for Baptism

The prayer over the water of baptism found in Book of Worship is a beautiful retelling of God's blessing through water in all of history. When someone is baptized, they participate again in God's story of salvation, liberation, and new birth. As you anticipate your own baptism or that of another, imaginatively rehearse the baptismal story. This exercise is not an imitation of baptism, but rather intended to prayerfully bring the story to life when you actually participate in baptism.

Breathe deeply, aware of God's presence, and pour water in a small basin. Pray the words slowly, pausing often during the verses of the prayer. Imagine the stories of salvation rising from the water. At the end of the words, finally dip your hands in the water and then fold them in prayer. Continue to pray in silence, open to God, sensitive to any understandings, feelings, or convictions that may emerge.

Thanksgiving and Blessing over the Water

We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word.
Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters.
Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth earth to sustain life.

In the time of Noah,
you washed the earth with the waters of the flood,
and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning.

In the time of Moses [, Aaron, and Miriam],
our people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters
from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan
to enter the promised land.

In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ,
who was nurtured in the water of Mary's womb.
Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan,
became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well,
washed the feet of the disciples,
and sent them forth to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God, this water.
By your Holy Spirit save those who confess the name of Jesus Christ
that sin may have no power over them.
Create new life in <the one/all> baptized this day
that <she/he/they>may rise in Christ.
Glory to you, eternal God,
the one who was, and is, and shall always be,
world without end. Amen.

Worship Matters
 
It's True: We Are One at Baptism!

John U. Miller, both executive director of the Capitol Area Council of Churches and pastor of the Evangelical Protestant UCC in Albany, New York, has worked with others to design a program that celebrates baptism as incorporation into the full body of Christ.

At any congregation's request, the "Ecumenical Witnesses of Baptism" program, sponsored by the area council of churches, will send representatives from the wider church to participate in any baptism. Often, participants may include representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church, Reformed Church in America, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Each congregation that invites the representatives may involve them in a variety of ways in the service — from liturgist to mere witness. Often, it is the ecumenical representative that offers the baptismal certificate to those baptized.

This spirit of the ecumenical witness program is at the heart of UCC understanding of Baptism. Encourage the practice of witnesses from other denominations at all baptisms celebrated at your congregation.

From Prayers and Patterns from Worship (Cleveland: Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 2004) 25.

God's World Matters

Connecting Sacraments with the Stuff of Life

In the sacraments, water, bread, and juice — ordinary stuff of life — convey the presence of Christ to the world. Born of water, Christians forever connect the basic gift with new life and oneness in Christ. Can we ever again simply take God's gift of water for granted? Fed with the bread of Christ, we are filled and transformed. Can we forget those who go without bread? God is present in the gifts. As Christians, God calls us to be stewards of the common stuff. In gratitude, blessed with the sacraments, we are called to share water and bread with the world.

View the DVD, Troubled Waters, and discover how the UCC is doing its part to raise the justice issues surrounding the immediate and future availability of life-giving, life-sustaining water. Most vulnerable to the depletion of water are those on the margins, the poor, and the powerless. In gratitude for the sharing of God's goodness at Baptism and at the table, how do we work for adequate water and bread for those who suffer from little?

What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong  Van (risingflare.com)
Copyright © 2005 - 2008 Congregational Vitality in the United Church of Christ.

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