Life is difficult. Faith in God helps. Keeping the faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, also is difficult. The dimly burning wick of the candle of faith endures by using the sacraments.
Deadly sins, such as greed, pride, sloth, gluttony, lust, wrath and envy, cause us to put our trust in the idols they produce. Those idols don’t help; instead, they distract and consume us. Also, guilt, shame and anxiety can loosen our grip on our convictions. Addictions, abuse, suffering, oppression, evil and death can make faith look like a childhood crush. It looked promising then, but now it doesn’t.
There is something that will strengthen our weakened faith. God has given us the gift of the sacraments as a visible sign and seal of the promise of the gospel. The gospel is this: God Incarnate is reconciling the entire created order. Augustine accepted many signs as sacraments. Some traditions have seven. My tradition has two. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a sign is worth a clear truthful message that the promise is true and we can believe this gospel. Calvin writes:
For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (Institutes, IV-14-3)
We use signs often. Logos indicate businesses we patronize and ones we do not. Wedding bands remind us who we are married to and who we are not. Uniforms distinguish teams from one another. The sacraments proclaim that Jesus is Lord and everything else is not: that the promise of the gospel is valid.
REMINDERS OF WHO WE ARE
Circumcision was a sign for the ancient people of God. It was inadequate because it was only for males. However, each time a Jewish boy urinated, he was reminded of his identity and mission. Every time we walk in snow, dive into a pool, or take a shower, we can be reminded of our baptism and that indeed, we are children of God. The reminder is enough. There is no more need to repeat baptism than to repeat circumcision.
Water is a sign of Jesus. Like Jesus, it is necessary for life. Like Jesus, it cleanses our lives. Like Jesus, it is a source of joy. The bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper are signs of the work and words of Jesus. In the Word spoken at the sacrament, Jesus is present. It’s a mystery how Jesus is present – in our minds or our spirits or in, with and under the elements. Maybe there is some Aristotelian potentiality. Arguing how Jesus is present does not bolster our faith. Celebrating the presence of Jesus does.
Other signs can point to Jesus, such as the laying on of hands, healing oil, breath, silence, stones or icons. My tradition won’t acknowledge them as sacraments. Maybe they can still be helpful as “sacramentals.”
A host of biblical stories point to the sacraments. From the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis to the river of life in Ezekiel to Jesus references of “the cup” in the garden to the crystal sea which flows from the throne in Revelation, we consider the importance of the means of grace. God accommodates to our need by making it clear that we have received the gift of God’s grace.
To receive God’s grace means we have received at least five things:
- In Christ, God loves me and knows me and delights in me.
- In Christ, God forgives all my iniquity and heals all my diseases.
- In Christ, I belong to the worship and service of the church.
- God has sent the Spirit of Christ to be with me always.
- God promises to me eternal life now and forever.
Because we are human, we need tangible signs. It must be something we can see and touch and taste. As Augustine said, they are “visible signs of invisible grace.” However, since Augustine defined this gift from God, we have spent more time arguing about them than benefiting from them. We concern ourselves with how many there are instead of using them.
How foolish to put up barriers to these means of grace. Church discipline is intended for people to receive grace, not keep them from it. How ludicrous to boast how often we participate in them or claim superiority because of them. How silly to argue with other traditions about them. This is essentially participating in an unworthy manner.
The sacraments are gifts to sustain our weak faith. They help us believe. They enable us to hold fast to the truth, despite the challenges of life.
Harlan Van Oordt pastors City Church, Denver.
Image: Church of Torslunde – Public Domain, Link