All people have ritual in their lives. From brides wearing a wedding dress, to opening presents under a Christmas tree, to watching the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving. Our world is filled with ritual. Some of these rituals are unique to our individual families and others are shared by entire cultures. Interestingly, some rituals have the effect of designating members of a certain family or society. For example, only Americans pop fireworks on the Fourth of July. Even Americans oversees engage in this special national ritual on foreign shores. And they can sometimes find common bonds with other Americans near them by engaging in this ritual together. I have heard some of our missionaries tell stories of finding this bond with other Americans in Africa!
My father worked for Wal-Mart for many years. When he managed an individual store, I was able to witness a ritual on many occasions that most folks have never seen. Each morning, before the store opened, the manager of the store would lead all employees in a Wal-Mart cheer. It was such a strange sight to see my ordinarily stoic and business-like father lead a group of one hundred people like a cheerleader in a pep rally. But that is what they did. And that cheer, that ritual, included only employees of that store. It bound them together somehow.
One of the most obvious places we witness ritual is in religion. We engage in rituals together—strange customs that make us part of this group. Singing songs: What other adults get in a room and sing songs together? Close our eyes, bow our heads, think thoughts directed to God: Who does this? Read from an ancient book? These rituals bind us not only to one another, but also to millions of people in our family who have come before us, and millions who will come after us. But most important, and let’s remember this fact, these rituals bind us to God. When someone hears the word “ritual,” religion is often the next thought in his or her mind. Our religion, Christianity, has many rituals that have continued through the centuries. Like rituals in other organizations, these Christian rituals have the effect of uniting Christians together across generations and even across eras.
In the 1990s, Fred Craddock, one of the most respected and recognized preachers of the 20th century, preached a series for a Dallas church entitled “What is the Church, Anyway?” In that series, he tried to imagine what one might need to start a church. “Suppose a man drove into town intent on starting a church,” he urged his audience to consider. “What would he need to have in order for the community he started to be considered a church?” In his final conclusion, Craddock suggested that in order for a church to be a church it must have a table, a pew, a Bible, and a pulpit. He went on to discuss the important theological and symbolic nature of each of these elements and how each is essential to the life of a church.
Consider that analogy as it relates to ritual within the church. What rituals need to exist within a community for that community to be considered a church? The first one that comes to most people’s minds is baptism. Since the days of Jesus, all of His followers have observed the ritual of baptism. Long after you and I are gone, that same practice will continue to bind the family of Christ together. It is an identity marker! It reminds us of the centrality of that ritual in the lives of Jesus’ followers.
Another ritual necessary for a community to be a church is the Lord’s Supper. Built upon the foundation of another important ritual, the Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper has been practiced by Jesus’ followers from the earliest days of the church. Though it has evolved over the years—in its earliest days it included a full meal—the Lord’s Supper has remained central to the identity of the church. I cannot imagine a church being considered a “church” without the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.
There have been other important rituals as well. The New Testament bears witness to the importance of foot washing in some communities of faith. Because of Jesus’ practice of washing His disciples’ feet in John 13 many Christian communities throughout the centuries have followed His example. They’ve made that ritual integral to the life of their community. Readers of the New Testament and students of church history also notice the importance of fasting and giving. At different times in the history of the church, each of these rituals has functioned to bind the people of God together. And, these rituals also differentiated them from everyone else. Like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, these rituals have functioned as identity markers for the church.
As one examines each of these Christian rituals, it seems important to notice something else. These customs are not simply meaningless activities. It is not as if Jesus asked us to do meaningless things, and we do them just because God said, “Do it.” We don’t know why God asked us to hold hands in a circle and do jumping jacks. It appears to make no sense, but that is what God said, so we do it! No, each of these Christian rituals brings with it important theological symbolism. They not only bind us to preceding and forthcoming followers of Christ, they also are designed to shape us into a specific kind of community.
Baptism is not simply about getting wet in a pool of water. This ritual brings with it important theological meaning. As one might bathe to remove dirt from his body, a Christian’s sins are symbolically removed during baptism. At an even deeper level, baptism allows the Christian to join with Christ in the passion event. Just as Christ died, was buried, and raised to new life, so a Christian also is buried under the water and is raised a new person during baptism. Baptism is a new birth after a symbolic death. In this way, a Christian is “born again.” Additionally, this dying and rising event continues to remind Christians of Christ’s willingness to die to self. The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5–11 captures the entire passion event in poetic form. And it reminds followers of Christ that a life as a disciple of Jesus centers on dying to self.
The Lord’s Supper also brings with it a chest full of theological implications. Meals were important social customs in the first century. Important people were invited to sit at the table with other important people. And the poor and destitute were often left off the guest list. To eat with someone indicated to everyone else, “I accept this person as a brother or sister.” This insight reveals why the Pharisees and others were so upset with Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners! He wasn’t just sharing bread, Jesus was accepting them as family. Central to the Lord’s Supper ritual is this idea of equality.
All are welcome to the table.One should not overlook Jesus’ table in Luke 22:
Rich and poor are welcome.
White and black and brown, are welcome.
Young and old are welcome.
Liberal and conservative are welcome.
We are all welcome to the table of God, because God is the host, not us.
Read Luke 22:14–21 (CEB)
Notice who was at Jesus’ table. The text says: “Jesus’ apostles joined Him.” So, who are we talking about? Well, there was a tax collector. There was a zealot (assassin). There were common and poor fishermen. And Luke even reminds us that even Jesus’ betrayer was there! Everyone was welcome at Jesus’ table. The table of God comes with an open invitation, inviting the world to come closer to feast on the rich nourishment of God. For centuries, Christians have gathered around this same table. And each time we gather we should remember our mission to include others there. There is plenty of room, but some communities need to be reminded there are still more chairs to be brought in from another room.
Other Christian rituals bring with them important theological meaning as well. The ritual of foot washing. It not only reminds Christians of Jesus’ last moments with His disciples in the upper room. That ritual also reinforces the Christian mandate toward service. Fasting, it encourages God’s people to do without. It encourages us to remember that life does not come from food or anything else from this earth. Rather, true life and sustenance comes only from God. By giving each week, every generation of Christians is reminded that we are made in the image of a giving God. Just as God gave everything, we should be willing and ready to give away all of our possessions to help those around us.
In the final analysis, one still might question, “Why are rituals so important?” There was one more sermon in Craddock’s series on the church. At first glance, it appears not to fit with the rest. Each of the other sermons centered on a specific item. In order to have a church, you must have a book, a table, a pew, and a pulpit.
The fifth sermon in that series is entitled, “The Church is a Place.” In that sermon, Craddock discusses the women who went to the synagogue the Sunday morning after Jesus was killed. He questioned, “Why would they go?” Jesus had been killed! Of all Sundays, why not just stay home on a day like that? He said they went to the synagogue, because it was their place. When times get tough, everyone needs a place to go where they will feel safe, secure, and loved. Rituals help make the church “the place” for Christians. As the world ebbs and flows, as elections come and go, as family members are born and pass away, we always have our place we can go:
And we can take the Supper.Ah, the familiar; it’s like family! Those rituals provide a constant in the midst of our changing world. They unite us to each other. They unite us to those who have come before us, and to those yet to come. And, they unite us to God. At the end of the day, rituals remind us who we are and who we are called to be.
We can witness baptism.
We can give.