Do Sacraments Matter?

Sacraments are not important in our age of active shooters, terrorist bombings, NFL players sitting at the “wrong” time, reality-star politicians and constant reconstruction of our habits and behaviors according to the latest iPhone (no headphone jack?!).  Such dangers and demands for our time and attention – not debate over a liturgical ceremony – are the real, practical work of the church. The church should be thinking theologically about serious issues, such as the brutality within our social imagination aimed in the direction of black men, and it seems like a waste of our time and attention to talk about sacraments. What relevance can sacraments have in the real issues facing the church and Western society?

What can occur in the sacraments is the total restructuring of our moral and theological imaginations.

I’m reminded of a story I heard from a professor. World War II had just ended, and an ecumenical council of Protestant churches was held in Europe. In attendance were Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.  During his address, Niebuhr hammered at the importance of serious ethical work for the church. After all, America had the atomic bomb, and the age of innocence that cross-Atlantic churches once enjoyed was now lost. The time of counting how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was gone. Theological work, Niebuhr said, needed to take a back seat to ethical work. The events that led to the rise of World War II were evidence of the danger of not acting and not acting now, he said. No more would the church have the luxury of waiting for theology to provide a clear right and a clear wrong.

Barth, in his address, stressed that the theological project of the church should be to figure out its doctrine of God. Compared to Niebuhr, he appeared out of touch, disconnected and perhaps too accustomed to the luxury afforded armchair theologians. Barth’s real point, though, was that divorcing ethical action and reflection from the person, character and revelation of God is a defunct enterprise: If we get our doctrine of God right, our ethics will be right as well. If the tree is sick, it is sick to the root.

It takes patience to understand Barth’s argument.

RESTRUCTURING OUR IMAGINATIONS

For our time, the question of understanding the sacraments still requires patience. The sacraments still might appear out of touch and disconnected. How can sacraments shape our attitude to gun rights, terrorists, racism, politics, culture and technology?  The answer is that  what can occur in the sacraments, especially in communion, or Holy Eucharist, is the total restructuring of our moral and theological imaginations.

Of all the topics I teach in a course on historical theology, one that easily gets lost in translation is the intricate and sometimes violent discussion on communion among the famous Reformers Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.  Nothing seems to elicit a blank expression from a student more than a passionate argument for a “real presence of Jesus Christ” in the sacrament of communion. I used to believe this attitude was caused by Zwingli’s perspective filtering down into common Reformed thought.

I now believe our lack of interest in sacraments has little to do with our official beliefs. It has more to do with the distance between seeing something incredible, even magical, in the act of communion and the otherwise flattened and disenchanted character of our lives. If we do not expect to run into God in our daily lives, we will not expect to run into God in the sacraments. After all, we eat our morsel of bread, drink our little plastic cup of grape juice, go home and within hours forget that we just took part in a sacrament. It is no wonder we have an impoverished attitude towards communion.

The reason I once connected this impoverished attitude to Zwingli is that he argued passionately for no presence of Jesus Christ in communion. In his commentary on John, chapter 6, Zwingli argues that Jesus’ ministry was primarily to do with spiritual realities: “Ye came to [Jesus] for the sake of being filled with bodily food; but [Jesus] came into this world not to act as a steward of bodily food, but to feed the mind.” By spiritual food, Zwingli says, “of which Christ speaks here, is faith.” This is a strained interpretation of John 6, but it serves Zwingli’s point: “the flesh profiteth nothing,” and “what is perceived by sense owes nothing to faith.” What matters is the spiritual, not the sensual. Zwingli builds a large wall between sacraments and their ability to affect our faith. Communion, he says, only memorializes the sacrifice of Christ. There is nothing special and no special presence of Jesus in the sacrament.

This issue prevented the Swiss Reformed and the German Lutherans from fully aligning in the Reformation. Luther opposed Zwingli, advocating instead for a real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. When Zwingli met Luther to discuss the possibility of combining their movements, this issue prevented their progress. Luther, famously, is said to have pulled out a knife and carved into the table Jesus’ words “This is my body.” Then, whenever Zwingli made an argument, Luther would not say a word but point to the carved words on the table.

WHERE IS JESUS?

The real theological dispute between these two greats was their diverging answers to the question “Where is Jesus now?” The ability of Christ’s humanity to be anywhere was understandably problematic for Zwingli. Because he is divine, Jesus certainly can be anywhere. Yet as a man, he cannot. Which is why, for Zwingli, the “flesh profiteth nothing.” The Apostles’ Creed teaches that Christ is enthroned on high at the right hand of God the Father, Zwingli reasoned. Therefore he is not in the sacrament of communion.

In response, Luther points to Christ’s resurrected body. Scripture shows us that Christ’s resurrected body exists in ways beyond our normal bodily limitations. The resurrected body of Jesus Christ can pass through locked doors in order to visit the 11 disciples mourning his death. That is why, Luther argues, the two natures in Jesus Christ can be a unity in the sacrament of communion. Christ’s human body can be and do things ours cannot. There can be a real spiritual presence of Jesus’ divinity and humanity in the sacrament of communion.

As a follower in the footsteps of Luther and Zwingli, Calvin was late to the Reformation game. The boundaries of the conversation were set before he could contribute. Calvin, however, had the distinct advantage of hindsight. He was able to chart a theological path he hoped could reconcile the opposing parties. (Calvin also probably wanted a theological alliance to form the basis of a political alliance.)

Calvin initially struck a path that came close to the positions of both parties, as seen in his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper of Jesus Christ. At some points he sounds strikingly Lutheran: “All the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless – an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.”

Yet, at other points Calvin sounds much closer to Zwingli – especially when he says the bread is only said to be Christ’s body in order that we might “learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life.” Or “that to fancy Jesus Christ enclosed under the bread and wine … without looking up to heaven, is a diabolical reverie.” Calvin stretches to encompass both Zwingli’s and Luther’s positions. He does not say the Lord’s Supper matters for salvation: Only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can save. But this sacrament can “sign and seal in our consciences the promises contained in his gospel concerning our being partakers of his body and blood,” he says.

I appreciate how Calvin’s wide view shakes loose the hardened positions of Luther and Zwingli by seriously asking whether it is not possible to see their views as within the same boundaries. Calvin is careful to never say the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. (Although, as a wise Roman Catholic professor once told me, “God can do that.”) But Calvin does say a real presence of Jesus Christ is communicated in the sacrament of communion.

THE CHANGE IS IN US

Calvin does seem to miss that, like the gospel, the sacraments are not merely a tool or delivery method that secure our faith, our spot in heaven. Both the gospel and sacraments change us. The beauty of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is its connection, at fundamental level, with a New Testament metaphor of change. We are to become Christ: We are Christ’s body. We do not live by bread alone but by every word from the Living God. We consume the Word, the living Word. We take that living Word into ourselves, and it becomes a part of us, it sustains us, and it gives us life. Catholics have the formative advantage of living this metaphor in a powerful way because they believe they are consuming the actual body and blood of Christ.

Can the sacraments have formative power for Protestants as well? I believe so. Calvin safeguarded the real presence of Jesus Christ in communion. If we follow Calvin, we can make radical theological claims about what happens in communion, as long as those claims follow the character of Christ. If Jesus Christ shows up at the table of the Lord, our typical mode of operating, of living as if God does not show up, is being challenged. If you truly admit this possibility, it becomes impossible to approach the bread and wine as if that is all it is, bread and wine.

Opening up this possibility changes us. It reminds us that God can and does interrupt our life, our work, our large and small projects and problems. If we but have eyes to see and ears to hear, God shows up. And when God shows up, we never remain the same. God forms us by equalizing and connecting us. As I make the same motions as my brothers and sisters, first bringing the bread to my mouth, then the wine, I experience what they experience; I taste what they taste. We are equally formed into the same body. Radical equality is essential to communion. I could not do this on my own, therefore I am no more important than my brothers and sisters.

Yet God doesn’t just bring us to radically equal community. Confessing that we consume Jesus Christ’s battered, beaten and crucified body changes us, suddenly allowing us to see the battered, beaten and crucified bodies in our society and all over the earth. The lynching tree of Jim Crow suddenly looks like the cross, refugees escaping horror in Syria suddenly look like Israelites escaping Egyptian enslavement and horror, and the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement look like prophets bringing an inconvenient message from God to a people who don’t want to hear it. I am part of a community that is radically equal and remembers it worships a crucified God.  Taking the sacrament of communion forms our identity in the crucified Christ.

As a teenager preparing for my profession of faith, I believed that communion was nothing more than a sign or symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Then the well-seasoned pastor leading our little class of catechumens introduced me to a strange possibility. He asked us, “What do you think happens when you take communion?” I remember answering immediately and boldly, “Nothing.” He responded, “Sometimes nothing happens for me, but sometimes something happens.” Once I recovered from the shame of boldly getting an answer wrong, I began to reflect on what he said. It is a reflection I continue today.

I think I like his answer better.

Daniel Den Boer teaches religion and directs Living Your Faith, a youth-theology institute, at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.