Rites and Sacraments of the Moravian Church

A history of the word sacrament.

The word sacrament is derived from a Latin root denoting legal or military obligation a soldier's oath of obedience, for instance.   The first use of the word in a Christian context referred to Christians being bound to specific laws, for example, to commit no kind of crime.  The word became identified with religious rituals in the early Christian church to give definition to the mysteries of God.  By participating in a religious ritual, a person was exposed to the divine truth that had previously been unknown.

Early Protestant leaders saw three distinguishing characteristics that set the sacraments apart from other rituals of the church.   According to the Scriptures:  1) Christ instituted sacraments, 2) Christ commanded his followers to observe them, and 3) they were and are acts of the church symbolizing acts of God.  Thus, since the time of the Reformation, Baptism and the Lord's Supper have been given a unique place among the many rites and rituals of the Protestant churches.

Personal and communal

When, by faith, one personally encounters God's love, a transformation invariably takes place.  This transformation occurs because God is eager to share God's self with all the members of our human family.  The question is, When, where and how does this divine sharing take place?  Possessing a personal knowledge of God's grace, how does one become more fruitful in God's service?   If one senses that one is losing touch with God, how does one reestablish the relationship?

The Moravian Church believes that the sacraments of the church provide the channels through which many of these questions are answered not just intellectually, but experientially.  The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

Thus, in the context of faith, the sacraments become the visible symbols of Christ and his benefits.  In the sacraments assurance is given, promises are vindicated, the gospel is proclaimed, and Christ is present.  The essential element of the sacraments is not what the minister says or does, but what God who "...was in Christ reconciling the world to himself...", says and does.   Through the sacraments, believers receive Christ and the benefits of God's New Covenant.

The sacraments belong to both earth and heaven.   Water, bread and wine are earthly, but these elements signify that which they are not.  God takes these things of the earth and causes them to signify things of heaven.  The minister administers the sacraments, but it is God who is at work.   So, in the sacraments, where religious experience is at its best, God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is actively present.

The celebration of the sacraments in the context of public worship is a call to individual and corporate responsibility.  Christ's obedience and sacrifice become the one acceptable model for Christian living.  Every time the sacraments are celebrated, the gathered congregation is reminded that it was the Lord who is the Spirit who commissioned his followers to make disciples, to baptize, and to enjoy the meal the church shares at his table "...until he comes!"  Each time the community gathers to celebrate Baptism and Holy Communion, it remembers its part in the New Covenant and reaffirms its responsibility that the participant share God's grace.

Rites of the Moravian Church

The rites of the Moravian Church are Confirmation, Marriage, and Ordination.  Celebration of the rites follows a liturgical form set forth in the hymnal.  They are meant to be used as a means of affirming the Christian faith and of dedicating oneself to a way of life consistent with that faith.  The clergy are trained and set apart to administer these rites as servants of God and ministers of the church.

The surplice

The Moravian Church believes in and seeks to practice the priesthood of all believers.  Thus there is an equality in our life together.  However, the ordained clergy have been trained and set apart for a special purpose within the sacramental life of the church.

During the celebration of Baptism and Holy Communion, Moravian ministers wear a white robe called a surplice.  The surplice is worn to signify what the person is doing and not who the person is.  The individual's human identity is covered to symbolize the Savior's righteousness.

Thus the validity of the Baptism or Communion is not dependent upon the character of the one who administers it, but upon the character of the Lord who commissioned it!  The surplice may also be worn by the minister when participating in marriages or confirmations.  It is a visible symbol that, in the rite which is being performed, the blessing ultimately comes not from the church but from God.