Not far from here, a sick child waits in a hospital for a Savior. The life of the child depends on the gift of life of a tissue donor. The child has leukemia, a blood disease. By a process we do not fully understand, if marrow samples, healthy blood-producing cells, are implanted into in the body of the sick child, the blood will reproduce and the child will live. The donor is frequently someone very close to the child, a father, an elder brother.
In a way, we could say that the donor and the patient become "at one" with each other through this mysterious process of administering and receiving of the body and blood of another, for afterwards their bodies share the same source of life. Most importantly, we know that a life is saved.
Consider now the meaning of the Sacrament at the Last Supper, which took place just preceding the great prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene and only hours before Christ's crucifixion.
Referring to the famous quote in Matthew 26 verses 26-28 in the New Testament, the Inspired Version provides the following rendition:
"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and brake it, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is in remembrance of my body which I give a ransom for you.
"And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all from it.
"For this is in remembrance of my blood of the new covenant which is shed for as many as shall believe on my name, for the remission of their sins.
"And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall observe to do the things which ye have seen me do, and bear record of me even unto the end."
The ordinance of the Sacrament, and the emblems are thus the symbol of the new covenant, or the new testament of the Gospel. What then, does the sacrament mean, and how does it relate to the atonement of Christ. For that matter, what IS the atonement of Christ, and why -- for our sake -- is it so important?
Today we remember Easter. Each Sunday, we renew a covenant made at baptism and we commemorate that Last Supper by the blessing and partaking of the Bread and the Cup. The events of this week are even more noteworthy, for perhaps only the second time in my recollection, Easter falls on the Second Day following the Hebrew Passover, just as it did at the Time of the Crucifixion of Christ.
At Passover, the Hebrews sacrifice an unblemished lamb in remembrance of the covenant made by the people with the Lord God Jehovah that the Destroying Angel should pass by and not take the life of the firstborn son in the household. The body of the Lamb is consumed along with a blood red wine, and the blood of the Lamb is smeared on the doorpost of the household to warn away the Destroying Angel and to signify that the household has kept the covenant.
Christ identified himself as that Passover Lamb. He offered himself as the Sacrificial Lamb by which the Law of Moses is fulfilled. As emblems of the body and blood of the Lamb of God, he provided the bread and the cup.
We understand from our L.D.S. teachings that we are commanded to gather together every Sabbath and to partake of the Sacrament, to renew our covenant of baptism. What is that covenant? Let us examine the Sacrament prayers. Please follow along in either the Doctrine and Covenants Section 20, versus 77 and 79 or the Book of Moroni in the Book of Mormon Chapter 4, verse 3 and Chapter 5 verse 2. The words are identical.
There are roughly ten phrases in the two prayers. Seven of them are identical. Three differ. The omissions are noteworthy. The salutation in each prayer is identical. Our mouthpiece in prayer, the Priest kneeling over the broken emblems of the sacrifice on the altar addresses the Father of us All, in the name of the Son, our intercessor or go-between whose emblems of body and blood lay broken on the altar. He asks the Father to bless the emblems and to sanctify them, that is, to purify or make as a means to become holy, unto the souls, that is, the whole personage, of all those who partake of or drink the emblems. Thus, the partaking of the emblems is intended to clean spiritually the body and spirit of the partakers.
It is then stated that the act is to be done in remembrance of the body, in the case of the bread, and in remembrance of the blood, in case of the water, of the Son Jesus Christ. It's a reminder, something to think back on, something to ponder, a recollection of the ritual sacrifice to God at the Passover and the Last Supper and Crucifixion all in two separate ritual acts of partaking.
Then the prayers diverge. Here is where we begin to restate our baptismal covenant.
First, consider the bread or body emblem:
"AND WITNESS UNTO THEE, O GOD"... What are we "witnessing" or testifying? We are testifying in a court of eternal law to our ultimate judge.... that we are willing to 1) take upon us the NAME of JESUS CHRIST and 2) ALWAYS REMEMBER HIM and 3) KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS which he has given.
Thus, we say to God, I now covenant with thee that I am willing to be called a Christian, a follower of Christ, to wear his badge and mark and label and before all the World and all that that implies. I am willing to remember Christ in every waking moment, to be public about my commitment to Christ. And I am willing to live a Christ-like life, particularly in the outward appearances which is seen of others.
The blessing on the bread is an expression of outwardlydirected commitment, the physical. Those aspects are left out of the prayer on the emblems of the blood, the water, for reasons which will be clear in a moment.
Now this is done to what end and purpose? To have His Spirit with us always.
There is perhaps a reason why the blessing on the bread, the outward commitment comes first. There follows from the outward commitment a sense of community with others who are of like mind. We share in His spirit. We support and help one another. We become as Paul said, the body or community of Christ. We aspire to be a Zion Society.
But this is only a preparation. We are preparing for a much deeper commitment.
As I said, there are three statements left out of the prayer over the water or blood emblem. Leaving out those statements changes the whole tenor of that covenant, even though the words are almost the same. It says very simply and sparingly, "That they may do it in remembrance of the blood of Thy son, which was shed for them, that they do always remember him, that they may have his spirit to be with them."
The act of witnessing is left out. That to me suggests a more personal covenant, an internal commitment, to establish a personal relationship with the Savior, as if to allow his living blood, his life-giving substance, to flow in my veins, that I may become "at one" with him. In a moment, I want to focus on the "at onement" aspect or as we now pronounce it, the atonement, for it is very important once we understand our baptismal covenant. However, the symbol of the blood also suggests something else very profound. The blood suggests the life-giving substance behind the formal structure, which is represented by the body, in living a Christian life.
This renewal of the baptismal covenant is in two parts for another very important reason. The reason is balance in our personal commitment. We cannot be too unbalanced toward the outward practices of our religion, and we cannot become so introspective that we focus only on the inner spirit. When Christ was asked, which of all the myriad of laws in the Hebrew scriptures was the greatest one, he responded that there were two great laws. Turning to Matthew 22:37-39:
"...Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
"This is the first and great commandment.
"And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
As Christians, we should show our love to our neighbors. And if we love God with all our heart, we make an internal covenant with him.
Wow! The first and second commandments are exactly the covenants we recite in the sacrament prayers. And there is still more. We can now ponder the meaning of the atonement.
The atonement in our modern language has come to mean a ransom or a reconciliation for a debt which could not otherwise be paid. Indeed, the role of Christ is spoken of by Paul as a propitiation, that is, as an appeasement of a Law of Justice. Certainly, it means at least that.
The original root word of atonement is the old verb ''to one '' or in the old German, "einigen", to unite, to make one, to bring together, The verb "to reconcile" connotes some of both meanings, the act is an "at onement."
Thus, atonement means unit, one, unity, the counterpoint of infinity. There follows the profound concept from the Book of Mormon: "There must needs be an opposition in all things, and there must needs be an infinite atonement", or an "infinite unity" with all of religious, philosophical, mathematical and scientific consequences.
The Book of Mormon is in fact a veritable handbook on the Atonement and its philosophical underpinnings. Virtually all of the prophets in the Book of Mormon preach of the at onement and the key role of Christ as the focus of the at onement. The lives of the great ones and the rebellious ones are all measured against the acceptance and rejection of the at onement. And what are virtually the last words of the last prophet Moroni? The Sacrament prayers.
One of the first great roles of the sermons of the Book of Mormon, and in fact in the discussions of the role of Christ in the "at onement" is to make us aware that WE must change so that salvation is possible. The change is not an event, the change is a process.
As a summary of this important process and the role of the ordinance, Joseph Smith wrote as our Third Article of Faith:
"We believe that through the atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel."
The "at onement," as The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, provides the power to be obedient to the gospel laws and thus to repent and be saved, but that power can be provided only by Christ. Christ has that power only because of his enormous descent: he came down to us, descended below us so far so that he had to be lifted up upon the cross in order to die. That process of "at onement", in direct opposition to the direction we sinners must take gave Christ a unique perspective as both a judge and a forgiver; he fulfilled the law of judgment based on opposition in all things and became the ultimate dispenser of mercy. He thus broke through that barrier to repentance, our own selfcondemning judgment fear that we cannot change.
The heart of Christ's experience was when in Gethsemene he bled from the pain of achieving at onement with us sinners. In a remarkable passage in the 19th Section of the Doctrine & Covenants beginning at verse 15, we hear Christ in his own words speak of this experience with such power that we can almost feel his pain:
"I command you to repent--repent, lest.. .your sufferings be sore--how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer them if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of al, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit--and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink."
Here Christ seems to break off in mid-sentence, as if the relived pain is too vivid a memory. That is perhaps the precise point where the central act of At Onement occurs, where we can be moved by our renewal of covenants through the sacrament, especially the emblem of the blood with its inward-pointing focus, to unite in At Onement with Christ and rejoice in the exquisite relief of knowing that our sins are forgiven, knowing that Christ did in fact finish the work for the children of men.
The sacrament rite, like other processes of self-discovery through scripture study, prayer and worship, gives us opportunity to experience the profound experience of At Onement as we realize that the At Onement was not a remote event in ancient history, but any current experience where we are caused to be moved by Christ's love extended freely to us, to receive the power to accept ourselves, to be "at one" again, to repent and to be at peace. It takes great humility and discipline to do so. Christ does not tell us to go to a monastery to mediate. We are challenged to seek that power at all times; even when it is most difficult.
As Alma the Younger admonished (Alma 13:28-29):
"Pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear; and thus be led by the Holy Spirit, becoming humble, meek, submissive, patient, full of love and longsuffering;
having faith on the Lord; having a hope that ye shall receive eternal life; having the love of God always in your hearts that ye may be lifted up at the last day and enter into his rest."
May we partake of the Sacrament thoughtfully and meekly, repentantly
renewing our covenants of baptism, and especially at the Easter time, a
time of renewal of life, that we do always remember Him, that we may have
His Spirit to be with us, I pray, in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.