Paul and the Sacraments

What is the Role of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Pauline Concept of Salvation?

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Corporate Unity

As Baptism incorporates the believer into Christ, so also Paul emphasizes that it incorporates the Christian into the Body of Christ, the Church. Likewise, the Eucharist becomes the means by which the Body is kept in unity. By these two sacraments, the believer is brought into, and sustained in, the mystical unity of all baptized Christians.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is urging his readers to be united. There are certain realities that make this union possible, according to the Apostle: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:4-6, emphasis added). Each member of the Church partakes of one Baptism, and it is through this one Baptism that each member enters into the unity of the one Body of Christ.

By Baptism, the divisions that existed beforehand are eliminated as all become one body. Paul writes to the Galatians: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28). Paul is linking Baptism with its result: no longer is there the Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female divisions that existed beforehand. Now all are one in Christ, and these distinctions that are so important in our present world are removed through Baptism (17).

It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the baptized is brought into the unity of the Body of Christ. Paul writes, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:13) (18). From this passage, it is clear that Paul does not consider it the work of individual Christians to bring about the "one body," but instead it is the work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that brings about corporate unity, and it is through Baptism that one initially enters into that unity (19). Paul emphasizes the practical aspects of the unity brought about through Baptism earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians. The Church in Corinth was racked with divisions, and Paul was trying to overcome these divisions by reminding the Corinthian Christians of their fundamental unity in Christ. He writes, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor 1:13). Christ is the central figure of their Baptism - they were not baptized in the name of Paul, but "into Christ." And as Christ is the unifying center of the Church, so those baptized in his name are united to each other through and in him (20).

This fundamental unity which the Corinthians have forgotten is remembered, and revived, each time Christians gather together for the Eucharist. Paul writes to them, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor 10:16). This sacred ritual is more than just another meal - it is an "experience of solidarity, or fellowship" (Gorman 268). Koinonia, the word used here to denote fellowship and participation with Christ, was also a term used by the early Christians to refer to their community (cf. Acts 2:42). As Maloney writes, ecclesia "refers to the Church as a community, the Church sharing in the Trinitarian divine life, especially in and through the Eucharist. It is a work of the Holy Spirit to bring about such a community of love" (Maloney 131). Thus, koinonia with Christ via the Eucharist brings about koinonia within the Christian community.

The Eucharistic feast for Paul is not an individual affair, but one in which the whole community makes real their communion with Christ, and therefore with each other. In this sacrament, the "many" become "one body": "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." (1 Cor 10:17). It also appears from this passage that the ancient practice was to share "one loaf" when celebrating the Eucharistic feast. This further strengthened the symbolism for Paul of how one loaf feeds the many, and unites them into one body, which is the body of Christ (21).

It is important now to reiterate what was discussed earlier: the reading of Paul's letters took place in a Eucharistic context. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is addressed "To the ecclesia of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor 1:2). As Maloney notes, this refers "to all Christians bonded together by the same faith and sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist..." (Maloney 130). Zizioulas states it even more explicitly: "in the thought of Paul and the Churches which read his Epistles, the terms...'the Lord's supper' (i.e. Divine Eucharist) and 'the Church' (ecclesia) or 'the Church of God' mean the same thing" (Zizioulas 48-49, emphasis in original). Thus, it can be seen that when Paul urges his readers to be "one body" in the "one loaf," they would be living out that command in the context of hearing it proclaimed.

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