30 years and I'm just now learning this?
I have a confession to make. Most people don't know this about me, but I sometimes, even often, get bored at Church and zone out. Shocker, I know. But it's just not often that we learn something new about the core of the Gospel, right? Don't get me wrong, the principles of the Gospel never stop being interesting and wonderful, but sometime after the 40th lesson on a subject, it starts to feel just a little stale.
That's why I get really excited when I do learn something new about the principles of the Gospel. Recently, the Sacrament has been on my mind. I've been taking the Sacrament for about 30 years now. I must have heard or taught 100 lessons on the Sacrament by now. But this week, I learned that some of my understanding… was wrong!
So here we go: four lessons about the Sacrament that I didn't fully grasp until recently (and I bet you didn't, either).
Lesson 1: Sacrament meeting is not just an important meeting, it's the most important meeting.
What are the most sacred places on earth? It's a tie between the Temple and the home. But what's the most sacred meeting in the Church? It's not Temple ordinances or Family Home Evening, it's the Sacrament meeting. Sound far-fetched? Well, let my friends the Prophets, Seers, and Revelators make the point for me:
- New mission presidents met with Pres. Nelson and other leaders for a special training before starting their assignments. As part of this training, the entire group partook of the Sacrament. Following the administration of the Sacrament, Pres. Nelson stood up and offered this observation: "My making a covenant today is a lot more important than the message that I have prepared." (link).
- Joseph Fielding Smith called Sacrament meeting "the most sacred, the most holy, of all the meetings of the Church."
- Elder Quentin L. Cook, quoting Elder Stapley, referred to "sacrament meeting, our most sacred meeting."
- Pres. Dallin H. Oaks said, "The ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church" (see also the History Topics essay on Sacrament meetings).
I often say that "Prophets are not prone to hyperbole." I trust that when Prophets and Apostles repeatedly tell us that Sacrament meetings are the most important meetings of the Church, they mean it.
And when we understand the importance of the Sacrament like the Prophets obviously do, we don't miss it! We never voluntarily take on work schedules covering Sundays. And when we vacation over the weekend, we look up the nearest meetinghouse. Elder Renlund, who was forced by his career as a doctor to often take on-call shifts on Sunday, had sobering words for members who view work schedules as a "free pass:"
In the course of my lifetime and because of my chosen profession, I missed many sacrament meetings. I recognized that this was dangerous. So when I knew I was likely to miss a sacrament meeting, I tried to compensate for it. I prayed and studied more. But these things did not adequately compensate for missing the sacrament.
Now, if you know you are going to not be able to sleep for a while, wouldn't it be nice to practice defensive sleeping, storing that sleep for later? It does not work; I have tried it. Similarly, you cannot adequately compensate for missing the sacrament. When circumstances preclude it, so be it; do the best you can. But to willfully choose to not partake of the sacrament when you could is a spiritual death trap. This seemingly small action jeopardizes things of an eternal nature. (link)
If you pack a white shirt on vacation and make sure to hit up the local ward wherever you travel, you might feel like you're off the hook from Elder Renlund's stark warning right now. In which case I would ask you this: Sure your body is there every week, but is your heart? Are you consistent merely as a matter of principle, or do you truly feel the need to partake of the Lord's Supper every week?
That's where I start to feel a bit uneasy. I stretch to make it to Sacrament meeting every single week because I know I should, not because I feel a burning need to escape a "spiritual death trap." Despite my outward diligence, I feel much the same walking out of the chapel as I did walking in. And the Brethren are clear on the cause: if I rarely feel the refreshment promised by the Lord, that's not a Church problem, that's a me problem.
So to recap lesson #1:
- The Sacrament is super duper important, the most important meeting / ordinance in the Church.
- Intentionally missing the Sacrament is a "spiritual death trap."
- Even if you are consistent, if you don't feel transformed by the Sacrament, you're missing out and should repent (that's for me).
Lesson 2: The Sacrament doesn't cleanse us
If you had asked me not long ago to explain to an investigator why I partake of the Sacrament, this is how I would have explained it:
This week, I sinned and fell short of my baptismal covenant. I'm willing to be re-baptized to enter that covenant and try again. So the Lord provided the ordinance of the Sacrament to effectively rebaptize me and make me clean, but without making a whole production out of it. "Rebaptism Lite."
Irreverent wording aside, I think this is basically how most members would sum up the Sacrament. And most members would be wrong. Elder Bednar tried to disabuse us of the idea that the Sacrament is "rebaptism lite" back in 2006:
Sometimes Latter-day Saints express the wish that they could be baptized again– and thereby become as clean and worthy as the day on which they received their first saving gospel ordinance… Baptism is a point of departure in our mortal spiritual journey; it is not a destination we should yearn to revisit over and over again. (link).
(He repeated similar warnings this past conference.
Okay, so Elder Bednar wants us to see the Sacrament as something new, a step forward from baptism, not just a "rebaptism lite." But that's just a change in attitude, right? At the end of the day, baptism clenases us from our sins and the Sacrament gets us back to that clean state, after all.
But then Elder Bednar lets out this little doozie:
The acts of eating and drinking the sacramental emblems do not remit sins.
Wait, what? I'd always been taught that the sins of the week accumulate over time like rocks in a backpack and the Sacrament is our opportunity to unload all those sins and start fresh. But if that's not true and the Sacrament doesn't remit sins then what's the point? How else am I supposed to become clean each week?
Here again, the answer is way cooler. He notes that it's not the Sacrament that cleanses us, it's the Holy Ghost:
"The Holy Ghost is a sanctifier who cleanses and burns dross and evil out of human souls as though by fire."
And the promise of the Sacrament prayers are? "To always have His Spirit to be with [us]." We need not wait for a minute, let alone a week, to unload our sins– it can be immediate and constant:
Receiving the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost in our lives creates the possibility of an ongoing cleansing of our soul from sin… As we prepare conscientiously and participate in this holy ordinance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then the promise is that we may always have the Spirit of the Lord to be with us. And by the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we can always retain a remission of our sins.
This promise was similarly taught by my spirit animal, Elder Klebingat:
No matter what your current status, the very moment you voluntarily choose honest, joyful, daily repentance by striving to simply do and be your very best, the Savior's Atonement envelops and follows you, as it were, wherever you go. Living in this manner, you can truly "always retain a remission of your sins" (Mosiah 4:12) every hour of every day, every second of every minute, and thus be fully clean and acceptable before God all the time. (link)
So to recap this lesson:
- We shouldn't think of the Sacrament as "rebaptism lite," it's its own thing.
- The Sacrament doesn't remit sins.
- The Spirit remits sins, and that gift is available 24/7, no need to wait for Sunday morning.
Lesson 3: We renew all our covenants
I've heard members in my area and others say they aren't going to renew their Temple recommends if Pres. Oaks becomes the next Prophet or the Church continues to hold the Lord's definition of marriage, etc. Many say they'll stop paying tithing and let their recommends lapse, but they won't withdraw their membership and they'll continue partaking of the Sacrament each week. Essentially, they want membership "lite."
Put the faithless attitude aside and focus for a moment just on the feasibility of what these "vigorously misguided" members are suggesting: what they want to do is impossible. They don't understand the ordinance of the Sacrament. There is no "membership lite" option. When we worthily and intentionally partake of the Sacrament, we renew not only our baptismal covenants but all our covenenats– the covenant of the Priesthood, Temple covenants, marriage covenants, and, presumably, even the promises made to God in quiet, personal prayer that aren't accompanied by witnesses and the ordinances of exaltation.
Here is Elder Andersen laying it out for us:
"Renewing our baptismal covenants" is not found in the scriptures. It's not inappropriate. Many of you have used it in talks; we have used it in talks. But it is not something that is used in the scriptures, and it can't be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament… The sacrament is a beautiful time to not just renew our baptismal covenant, but to commit to Him to renew all our covenants, all our promises, and to approach Him in a spiritual power that we did not have previously as we move forward. (link, see also Elder L. Tom Perry, quoting Elder Stapley, Sis. Carole M. Stephens, Pres. Douglas D. Holmes, and a great Ensign article on the subject).
So what of these members who want the "membership lite" option? In the Temple, we covenanted to obey the laws of obedience, sacrifice, Gospel, chastity, and consecration (source). If we are not willing to renew those covenants, I don't see how it would do us any good to partake of the Sacrament.
So to recap this lesson:
- The Sacrament renews all covenants, not just baptismal covenants
- So, if you're not ready to renew all your covenants (including Temple covenants), consider whether it is truly appropriate for you to take the Sacrament that week.
Lesson 4: We make new covenants
But wait, there's more! Worthily and intentionally partaking of the Sacrament doesn't just renew covenants we've previously made, it commits us to brand new ones!. Pres. Nelson taught this in that same meeting with mission presidents mentioned earlier:
I made a covenant as I partook of the sacrament that I would be willing to take upon me the name of Jesus Christ and that I am willing to obey His commandments. Often, I hear the expression that we partake of the sacrament to renew covenants made at baptism. While that's true, it's much more than that. I've made a new covenant. You have made new covenants.
I wasn't sure whether to include this last piece in today's post since it was a one-off statement by a single Prophet in a non-public meeting. But that quote from Pres. Nelson has been re-quoted several times in recent General Conference talks and even appeared in this month's edition of the Liahona. So if the Brethren feel the need to emphasize it, I think I'm on safe ground to amplify it. But I'm still unsure exactly what he means by it. We covenanted to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ and to obey His commandments, "to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death" (Mosiah 18:9) when we were baptized. When we make that same promise again, how is that a new covenant and not a renewal of previous covenants?
Gotta noddle on that one.