August 23, 2012

Speaking sacramentally


Text: John 6:52: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ ”

Yesterday I had the privilege of officiating at not one but two weddings. And no, they weren’t done simultaneously, but one after the other, quite literally; one at three o’clock and the other at five o’clock. I don’t mind telling you I made a lot of notes to myself to make absolutely certain I didn’t switch names around.

Whenever I talk with couples before they get married, I tell them that the thing they are doing on the day they get married is something that rises to the level of sacramental.

Now, let me stop right here and say that I am deeply aware that our church, together with every other church that came out of the Reformation, has a very narrow understanding of what makes a sacrament. And if you want to hold me strictly to doctrine, then have a look at page eight hundred and seventy-two of the prayer book, all the way in the back, and you will find at Article Twenty-Five of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and there you will find that we only have two sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, period.

And yet you will also find these words at the very beginning of that article, a kind of definition of what a sacrament is: “they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.”

So here is where I take my stand and say that while we may only acknowledge two sacraments, we see in each other’s lives and our own moments where God gives us that sign of grace; where God shows such care for us, such good will for us, such a desire to see us happy that we end up feeling closer to God, that our ties feel stronger to our own faith.

Those moments may not be sacraments, but they are surely sacramental; They are surely the means by which God enters into our material lives and makes much more real our spiritual selves. And they are not necessarily always happy moments.

I am talking about moments like childbirth, or sitting with a friend who is dying. I am talking about moments in which relationships that had been long broken over a misunderstanding or a damaged hope are repaired and restored into something new.

I am talking about that moment when you witness someone else act suddenly and without reflection in a way that is merciful and kind to a person in need. I’m talking about the day that a child of yours or a friend of yours finally reaches a goal they have worked for for years and years, or the day a friend reaches out to you to tell you that they have lost a job they loved.

I’m even talking about some of those images we all saw, the highlights from the Olympics that just closed last week—those images where in a single moment there is the experience of triumph and defeat. Somehow those are sacramental moments, too.

Yes, I know that we only have two sacraments. But sometimes it does sort of feel as thought that aspect of our Protestant heritage has the unhappy tendency to close our eyes to the sacramental moments all around us waiting to be noticed, those little ways God is trying to tug at your sleeve just to get the attention of that part of you that has the potential for holiness and let you know it is not forgotten.

Sacraments are the business of the church, but sacramental moments—no one, no church, has an exclusive claim on those. And that may be why the church gets a little wary of them, a little suspicious of them—because they are means of grace, transits for God’s private conversation with us, that are outside and beyond the frame of what we do here.

But you cannot live fully into this faith, friends, and you surely cannot live fully into the ministry we share here, and fail to see these moments once in a while—even stumble over them, maybe, when you are head-down hurrying along the path of your daily life, trying to meet all of the responsibilities you have.

When you witness that sacramental moment, it is not just something from this physical, material world that is suggesting or hinting at a spiritual idea. No, it’s that moment in which you are experiencing something very real that is making absolutely clear something even more important, even more real; that is awakening and making real something about our deepest humanity as we are seeing it, hearing it, touching it.

That is why when we try to speak about these things, when we speak sacramentally, the best we can manage is to speak in terms that are figures, images, approximations, sketches of the reality we’re trying to describe.

Jesus speaks these words about his flesh being the bread he will give for the life of the world, and the people around him are completely confused. The text this morning says they “fall into dispute” among themselves. How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

You have to admit it’s a pretty disturbing image. It conjures up the universal taboo. It is a risky, certainly a provocative thing to say.

But here it is Jesus who is speaking sacramentally; here it is Jesus who is trying to describe with images and sketches something that is indescribable. Jesus is the one who has taken the form of flesh in order to have life among us; he will offer his whole self back to God for the life of the world. In his death he will release us from death; by his life, a life lived in this flesh we know all too well, we are brought into the possibility of eternal life.

Our church has a long history of articulating a particular brand of Christian teaching, something that goes by the name “incarnational theology.” Other branches of the Christian church emphasize different ideas about how it is we are saved by the fact of Jesus. Atonement theology emphasizes the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

By centering our thinking on incarnational theology, we talk about the whole of the life of Jesus—the birth, the life, the teaching, the healing, the obedience, the death, the resurrection, the ascension, all of it—as the way in which Jesus accomplishes for us the work of salvation.

So when I hear these words of Jesus in John’s gospel, that is how I understand them. When we speak sacramentally, the first thing to understand is that we are not speaking literally. And Jesus here is speaking sacramentally, speaking about how his whole life, all of it—the way he lives, the choices he makes, the ideas he teaches, the hopes he has for all people—all of it is offered on our behalf, and all of it becomes the way we given strength and sustenance to be his disciples.

So when Jesus speaks of us eating his flesh, he is speaking sacramentally. He is talking about providing those things for us that will help us to experience grace, to feel more certainly God’s good will toward us, to find our faith revived and real.

And when we speak of the Eucharist as a memorial, we are also speaking sacramentally; we are speaking of something that is physical and real but that has the power to awaken in us something deeper, something that makes us more fully the people God made us to be.

That is true, also, when we gather here in this community, and when we speak about it to others. Here’s the last idea to carry home this morning; that we may be small, but we are a sacramental community; we are a place where our dealings with each other, our care for each other, our support for each other is the business of sacramental work. Because here is where we share the joys and sorrows of life with each other. Here is where we engage other people as spiritual beings, not just as friends or colleagues or employees or classmates. Here is where we find sustenance, here is where we find strength, here is where we find that other part of us awakened and made real; so that we will be able to see in the rest of our lives, at home and at work and in class and on the train and everywhere, the sacramental possibilities with which God has mercifully surrounded us. Amen.