Sacrament: Our Union

StainGlass_1Sacrament: Our Union

A sacrament is the visible representation of an invisible and Divine reality. The world is a sacrament; it reveals its Creator.

And in the beginning that Creator declared it “very good.”

God gave Adam all the creation as a sacrament, a representation of His provision for him. Those things God had made and given were not life but only pointers to the life that is in God and in which man shares. As a branch cannot rebel against the vine and continue to draw life from it, man could not defy his Source of life and exist.

God had told Adam that if he sinned, he would surely die. In sinning, Adam cut himself off from his source of life, represented by the tree of life. Death is separation from God.

A sacramental view of life and world, then, has been present from the outset. The creation reveals its Creator to His creature. Creation, written word and Word Incarnate share the purpose of making God known. All that is comes from God and speaks of Him. All is sacrament. When man takes God’s sacrament into himself in faith, he achieves communion with his Maker. Alexander Schmemann wrote:

“All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’”

Since Adam’s sin, man has seen through a mirror dimly, but God has given us sufficient revelation to sustain us. As Anglicans, with the rest of the apostolic church, we observe the ministry of word and sacrament. We glory in God’s provision of life both in the Scriptures and in the two sacraments He ordained, Holy Communion and baptism. And we believe with the ancient church in the efficacy of the other sacraments for growth in our faith.

An understanding of the life, work and death of our Savior Jesus Christ, called in Scripture the “last Adam,” our relationship to Him and His presence in Holy Communion must proceed from a grasp of the first Adam’s denial of the creation as a sacrament. Schmemann wrote of the forbidden fruit:

“Not given, not blessed by God, it was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God.”

This is materialism. If man does not regard all he has as given by God, he owes God nothing. In the beginning, Adam owed God.

What some have called the covenant of works, God’s command to Adam to refrain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is not in fact grounded in works but in faith. A failure of faith led to his wrong action. His refusal to obey God is evidence of this deficient faith. The Bible tells us faith and obedience are synonymous:

“And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.” (Hebrews 3:18-19)

Christ’s sacrifice rises from His obedience. In the Garden of Gethsemane, facing death on the cross, He told His Father, “not My will but Yours be done.” The last Adam offered the Father the sacrifice of obedience the first Adam withheld. He saw the Father as the Giver and Sustainer of life. To disobey would be to abandon life, as Adam had done. Here is 1 John 5:11:

“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” (1 John 5:11).

When Christ tells His followers to “feed on Me,” He offers to restore to us the life that Adam forfeited, to set us back in right relation to the Father. As Adam fed on God when He consumed the world God had made, we feed on God when we consume Christ in the elements. He is our Holy Communion with God. The Son who represents the Father perfectly is the greatest sacrament of the Father.

The church has long debated the nature of His presence in the elements in Holy Communion, the intent of His words, “this is My body” and “this is My blood of the new covenant.” Roman Catholics hold that when the priest utters the words of consecration the bread and wine are mystically transformed into His physical flesh and blood. Many Protestants today teach that the bread and wine are no more than tokens that bring His sacrifice to mind. Some of these partake only rarely, or not at all.

We believe that Christ is spiritually present in the elements. Bread and wine are not transformed into something they are not but He is nonetheless in them. He is not sacrificed anew each time we partake but receiving Him is vitally important to our spiritual nourishment. If we believe that the Holy Spirit indwells us, why should we not accept that Christ is spiritually present in the Communion, which is also called the “Eucharist,” from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”?

An understanding of another Greek word, anamnesis, is useful. It refers to our remembrance of Him, not as a reflection on His sacrifice but as our entering again into that life-giving experience as we feed on Him. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the same word appears when God says in Genesis 9:16:

“The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

We do not fear God’s“forgetting” His covenant with His creatures. The image here, as in the Communion passages, is one of entering into an event. God enters the covenant anew on an ongoing basis. Our participation in the life of Christ comes in drinking His blood of the new covenant and eating His flesh. He told us so.

The other dominical, or God-mandated, sacrament is holy baptism. It, too, is a sign of the
covenant. As our Lord was buried in death in the earth and rose again in life, so we die to the sinful “old man” in us in the water and arise as a “new creature” in Christ.

The Jews of Old Testament times, and beyond, practiced circumcision as ordained by God as the way of entrance into the covenant community. Baptism has parallels with that rite. In fact, St. Paul relates the two directly:

“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:11-12)

Baptism is the sign of the disciple’s inclusion in the covenant community, as was circumcision. It is followed by confirmation, a sort of extension of baptism when the child grows into an understanding of our faith. God, being God, can perform miracles, but He typically works through means. Most Christians come to faith through their parents’ witness as they grow to maturity in a Christian home. The baptized child receives instruction under the covenant.

With the rest of the historic church, we baptize infants by sprinkling (as well as those who
come to saving faith in adulthood). We reject “believer’s baptism” on the grounds that it ascribes to the individual and not to God the infusion of saving grace in that person’s life. We find warrant for this view not only in the similarities between baptism and circumcision but also in the Book of Acts.

When many come to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. Peter tells them:

“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of   sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39) In chapter 16, when first Lydia and then the Philippian jailer come to faith, St. Paul tells them to be baptized with their entire families. Clearly, the head of a household has authority to see all members baptized into the covenant community.

We do not hold that water baptism achieves a mystical conversion to Christianity, which comes only by the Holy Spirit, but we deem it vital to our faith because our Lord commanded it:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (Mat 28:19) Ω

The Reverend Edward W. Fowler