To the bath and the table,
To the prayers and the word,
I call every seeking soul.
• Inscribed on a church bell in Wisconsin
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I did a couple of talks at my church recently, discussing my transition from evangelicalism to the Lutheran tradition. As I talked, words from several iMonk commenters came into my mind. A number of you have observed that perhaps the greatest divide in Christendom is between those who take a sacramental view of life, faith, and worship, and those who take a non-sacramentalview. This struck me with new force as I explained my journey.
Gordon Lathrop writes,
This fact [that we need “things” to worship] has often disturbed and offended some Christians. It seems as if we ought to be above such material crutches, as if a gathering come together to speak of God ought to be more spiritual. But that is just the point: for the great Christian tradition, the spiritual is intimately involved with the material, the truth about God inseparable from the ordinary, as inseparable as God was from humanity in Jesus. If these things are crutches, so be it. They will then be for us the very “ford, bridge, door, ship, and stretcher” that Luther said we need. These things will show us something about all things.
Once, when I was visiting a woman who had come from an evangelical church to our Lutheran congregation, she complained that we didn’t talk more about the Holy Spirit. On one level she was probably correct. But her concern was not that we failed to name the Third Person of the Trinity often enough. Rather, she was saying we didn’t sufficiently emphasize the supernatural work of the Spirit in our midst. Having lived in both worlds, I understood her point. My answer was, “But remember friend, we experience the supernatural every time we come together for worship. God literally speaks to us from the word. Jesus is present and real when we receive the bread and wine. When we celebrate baptism we are literally witnessing a new birth!”
No church believes in the supernatural more than one that truly practices the sacraments.
Stuff of Life
Lathrop observes that the material things around which the church gathers not only provide a center for our community of faith, they also represent things that have long had a “centering power” among human beings. For example, he speaks of the rich imagery of bread: “…bread unites the fruitful goodness of the earth with the ancient history of human cultivation. Bread represents the earth and the rain, growing grains, sowing and reaping, milling and baking, together with the mystery of yeast, all presented in a single object. This loaf invites the participation of more than one person. In its most usual form, it is food for a group. It implies a community gathered around to eat together, to share in the breaking open of this compressed goodness.”
Bread is the staple food, the fundamental provision that keeps us alive and enables us to overcome famine and death. We pray in humble dependence, “Give us this day our daily bread,”to remember that, despite the affluence many of us enjoy, in the end we live by grace from God’s hands. So with wine, around which we gather in festive joy. And water for washing. And a book filled with words. All invite us to contemplate the essentials of life through the utmost simplicity.
Doorway into the Story
However, there is more. Lathrop, again:
… the business of this assembly will look more than a little silly to us unless we know that the bread and wine, water and words are used here with historical intent. Bread and wine are ancient foods in Israel, figuring in many of the ancient stories and coming to frame the Jewish festive meal in the time of Jesus. Water for washing is important in Israel from the time of the crossing of the Red Sea and the washing and appointing of the newly constituted priests down to the apocalyptic expectations of the Qumran community and of the early Christians. And Israel was a community of the word from the time of the exile, when collecting, writing, and reading the stories and poems, oracles and laws became immensely important to Israel’s very existence. These things at the center of our assembly connect us to that history. The very choice of these things as the communal central symbols arises from that history.
By these means we enter the Story. Simple objects engage our senses and stimulate our imaginations and we find ourselves as though we had picked our way the through the wood, fur, and fabric in Lewis’s wardrobe and entered Narnia. There we remain ourselves and yet we are more, since we are breathing new air, experiencing new adventures, learning new lessons, and becoming what we never thought possible, under the tutelage of that land’s true Ruler.
Where God Meets Us
Thus, the sacramental elements are those “thin places,” those sites in the world where heaven and earth intersect and God himself meets us, inviting us to receive forgiveness and renewal. For these elements all focus on Christ and introduce us to Christ. Where we hear the words, “for you,” from our Host’s mouth, faith awakens within us, faith that reaches out to Jesus to receive a tangible gift of mercy and promise. In the sacraments, God washes us, God feeds us, God’s promises bring us life. They are not our works to be performed, but his gracious gifts to be received because of the work Jesus already did.
Nothing could be more simple, more earthly, more unexpectedly heavenly.
“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
• Gen. 28:16-17