Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Power of Ordinances through Covenants - Part 1

I just realized I didn't post yesterday the summary of my lesson last Sunday. Here goes: 

The topic this month is Ordinances and Covenants. I really like the first verse cited in the first lesson outline - the "theme verse" (D&C 84:19-20), which says:

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.

I began by casting ordinances as symbolic actions within the administrative Priesthood (what is performed by others - currently only ordained men) and covenants as the responsibility of the "priesthood of believers" (things men and women both do through the authority and power of the priesthood we discussed last month when analyzing Elder Oaks'' talk). I told the students we would be talking for at least a couple of weeks about specific ordinances, what they mean (the symbolism of each one), the covenants associated with them and what "power of godliness" they manifest. To set the stage, we talked about the relationship between ordinances and covenants - focusing on the idea that the ordinances symbolize, in a tangible, physical manner, the covenants we make with God and ourselves and that living covenants is how divine power (the power of godliness) is manifest. To illustrate that relationship, we covered baptism, the sacrament and confirmation after baptism.

In the spirit of a summary, the following is the result of our discussions. Keep in mind that what follows was not presented in a lecture format but rather through discussion, as I try to do nearly every week.

Baptism means, literally, immersion. (The original meaning of "to baptize" means "to immerse".) The symbolism of baptism is the burial of one's old life and a birth as a "new creature in Christ". By being immersed in water, the person symbolically is immersed anew in Christ and emerges as a "Christian" - or, in Mormon terms, a god in embryo or a developing God, someone who is following Jesus in an evolutionary, progressive way. S/he is born into godhood, so to speak, and begins a journey toward perfection (completeness, wholeness, full development) in Christ.

The covenants we accept at baptism all deal with actualizing (making literal) the symbolic meaning of the ordinance. We promise to take Jesus' name upon us, always remember him, stand as a witness of him, keep his commandments, etc. (I skipped the comfort, mourn and bear burdens covenants, since we are going to devote as much of the lesson as possible later today on that concept.) The power of godliness that is manifest in baptism is NOT in the physical ordinance itself, and there is no magic / sudden / automatic power involved. Rather, the power is activated when a person acts on the covenants: becoming a real disciple of Christ, always remembering him (and acting on that remembrance), standing as a witness of him (not just in word but in deed, as well) by doing the things he did and asked us to do (loving, not judging, serving, teaching, supporting, embracing, etc.). The power is the metamorphosis that occurs when a "natural (wo)man" becomes unnatural or godly - literally becoming a new person, just like the ordinance symbolizes.

The word "sacrament" means "a visible sign of an inward grace; something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance." The "inward grace" symbolized by the sacrament is being cleansed by Jesus' blood and body - and we normally talk about it in terms of remembering Gethsemane and Golgotha and what occurred there. However, it is more than just remembering Jesus during the ordinance; it is supposed to be remembering his sacrifice for us and being cleansed anew (renewing our baptismal covenants). Thus, the power of the sacrament is the exact same as being baptized - the continuation of the metamorphosis to which we commit initially, contingent on us actually living the covenants on a continual basis. The exact composition of the sacramental elements can change (wine to water, for example, or military rations, when bread and water are unavailable), as long as the meaning and power remain unchanged.

"Confirm" means "establish the truth, accuracy, validity, or genuineness of; corroborate; verify". Confirmation, at its most basic level, simply validates publicly what is performed privately (or in front of a limited number of observers). Part of that is for the person who was baptized, so s/he can claim a cleansed state without disputation from others, but the primary focus is on the rest of the community - an official stamp of approval by the leadership certifying acceptance into the group. The added Mormon element is the second part of the ordinance - the charge to receive the Holy Ghost. That symbolizes the beginning of divine assistance in the new journey of discipleship - and the power of the ordinance occurs, just like with baptism and the sacrament, when we act in such a way that we really do "receive the Holy Ghost" (or, more generically, listen for and follow what we believe to be God's will in our lives).

I made a point to talk about why it is wrong to say that we are given the gift of the Holy Ghost when we are confirmed. That wording makes the primary "actor" (the one who is active as the primary subject) the person who performs the ordinance, while the wording ("receive the Holy Ghost") clearly puts the responsibility for the actualization of the power squarely on the person who has been baptized.

We also talked about how baptism does NOT bring anyone into the Church, since a person who died immediately following being baptized would never have been, officially, a member of the Church.

Finally, we talked about how the blessing that commonly is pronounced along with the confirmation is NOT part of the ordinance itself but rather a cultural practice to provide guidance and revelation to the person. If the person performing the ordinance ended it right after the admonition to receive the Holy Ghost, it would be considered a full and proper confirmation.

To wrap up the lesson, I simply pointed out that the power of each of these ordinances is manifest ONLY if the person on the receiving end takes the covenants seriously and uses the ordinances as a symbolic launching pad toward developing the characteristics of godliness that allow God to make us what we would not become on our own - that the power of godliness is a transformative process of continually lived and internalized action, not symbolic actions performed once or even periodically.

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