The Sacraments: a source of theology and ethics

One of the most striking characteristics of our movement is the intense focus on the sacraments.  In our modern tendency to mental abstraction, we may think of the sacraments as ritual expressions of an underlying theology.  If we do so, we have it exactly backwards: the keys to a viable theology may be discoverable in the sacraments themselves.   These magical (in all senses) and grace-filled acts can never be fully explained: the more we ponder, the more we find in them.  To offer only a small bit (to which you all can add in the comments):

In baptism, we find the consecration of our living and dying, and our re-making in the Divine.  New beginnings are always available.  Our body, in all its messy fleshy mortality, is washed in the stream of power flowing from the Christ.  The rivers of God pour out upon the earth, and separation becomes a lie. 

The fire of confirmation opens us as a window, that the light of Christ may shine through us upon the world.  We are no longer our small selves, but vessels of God, filled with the gifts of the Spirit.  We may neglect these gifts, but they are always with us, if we follow the ray of light which peeks through the grimiest portal. 

In confession or reconciliation, we deepen our awareness of God’s presence to us through others, as we hand our need for forgiveness to Christ through a sister or brother priest.  Forgiveness is something which happens eyeball to eyeball.  Thought the work of indie ancestors like Rudolf Steiner and Mario Schoenmaker, we learn that we can offer not only our failings, but all of our lives, and our future potential, to God in this sacrament, for transformation.  We can even hand over our struggles to forgive others.  A friend of mine recently pointed out that Jesus on the cross does not directly forgive his tormenters, but prays, “Father, forgive them.”  Likewise, when life is too much for our small and fragile selves, we can hand forgiveness to God.

Marriage displays the union of polarities, from simple personal separateness, to God and Not-God.   Marriage, in its ideal state, also shows us the enduring faithfulness of love, for which we long, even if we find it hard to incarnate.

Anointing shows us that God is always working towards healing and wholeness in our lives, and brings these graces to us through others.  As Lloyd Meeker liked to say, blessings are not given to us for us, but through us to others and through others to us – a web of graceful interchange.  Christ stands with us in the passages of sickness, decline, and death, as much as he does in birth, and love, and growth. 

Almost all churches will admit that all baptized people are part of the priesthood of Christ, but how often is this confirmed through the sacrament of holy orders?   Such sharers in the “priesthood of all” need not engage in some sort of public, traditional ministry, but may mediate the presence and transforming activity of Christ through their daily lives.  I am increasingly convinced that some offering of holy orders is appropriate, for all who are willing to prepare and commit themselves.  I was ordained in the old step-by-step way, minor orders one by one, and then the majors, and this can be a lovely way to consecrate steps in preparation.  However, some years back, a friend asked if it might make sense to shift to a one-step ordination:  the fullness of the priesthood, period.   I was scandalized at the time, as this would effectively make each ordinand a bishop, but now I wonder??

Finally, in the eucharst, Christ shows us his self-giving, his sacrifice, his redemptive and forgiving presence.  He places himself into our very hands, vulnerable to us.   Can we live this (as ethics) and teach it (as theology)? 

In all the foregoing, can you see the seeds of a theology of embodied grace, mediation in community with others, service, love, and a God who pours himself out as gift?  I think we will see a vibrant theology grow, if we can continually ask ourselves how well our lives and our teaching conform to the sacraments we celebrate.

Of course, one might rightly point out that the sacraments have been so emphasized in the ISM, that the Word (Scripture, preaching) has suffered.  However, our Polish National Catholic sisters and brothers have taught us to see the Word as Sacrament.  The Word is living and true, meeting us in transformation, challenging us, cutting through all that binds us.  Ink on the page and the power of human voice (in reading and preaching) mediate God as truly as bread and wine.   For Christians, the Word is always Incarnate.  As such, is the Word not always sacramental?  And how can our words, our use of language and communication in all forms gradually come to more truly mirror that sacramental, incarnational grace?

I know this is somewhat rambling.  It is Thursday night, and I am tired!   But I will go ahead and post it, and welcome your reactions, corrections, and insights, whether on-blog or privately.

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4 Responses to “The Sacraments: a source of theology and ethics”

  1. melchizedekcircle Says:

    I think “the Word” can be seen as an outpouring of the Spirit, through the individual, or individuals, centering themselves around the sacramental ministry. Is The Word confined to what we call the Bible? or does the word flow forth through the mouths of the Children of the One? All who dance about the bread and wine are the Living Word in potentia….the Spirit IS poured out upon all and God’s voice can be heard from each of us in turn.

  2. will84 Says:

    I like this a great deal. It is a more approachable, mystical approach to the sacraments. In an OCA church recently, I was quizzed on my moral state, denominational affiliation, etc. before receiving the Eucharist. Churches have made a racket out of withholding these means of grace, forgetting that they were freely instituted for the people of God. One can keep the mysticism of the holy sacraments while keeping them accessible.

  3. John Says:

    In some of Will Willimon’s older works, there are great ideas about how the sacraments can become a source of ethics (cf. The Service of God: Christian Work and Worship) and pastoral care (cf. Worship as Pastoral Care). As I explore these themes further, I am going to have to dig out these volumes.

  4. boze Says:

    how did I miss this one?! Hmpf! This is one of your posts that’s going to take me a couple of reads to let it “be” what it will.

    One thing that jumped for me is reading your segment on baptism where you write: the rivers of God pour out upon the earth – I don’t know if you had this image in mind but. . .

    in the late antique church the idea that baptism was directly connected to the four rivers mentioned in Genesis was very common (often depeicted on the carvings of baptismal fonts – particularly in romanesque france & germany. What is interesting – or what grabs me about this idea is that there was a parallel idea – illustrated by the famous 6th (I think that’s right – though he might be later) century map of Ioann Theo – something – popolous (I never remember the poor man’s name because its more unpronouncable than even my OWN!) Anyway. . . .I digress. . . .what this great map illustrates is the connection between paradise and “The World” via the four rivers. This connection is often mentioned in patristic sources. Via this connection – the goodness of the created order is distributed from the source (paradise) to us labouring in the world. Baptismal water – being one of those graces! How neat is that? So not only is there the “infusion” of power via Christ’s own immersion in the waters, but there is that added idea (almost like the Ganges) of the water coming from the orginal source of all creation – where the true forms reside.

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