And his disciples answered him, From whence can we satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?
Having lived in a desert, with tall cactus plants and mountains made entirely of rock, I find the dilemma of the disciples quite understandable. How do you come up with a meal in such a place? The Lord was demanding the impossible; but then He can demand the impossible without being Himself impossible; for He also provides, and when necessary by means miraculous. In providing food for the multitudes in the desert, He also made known that it is He Who feeds us, both providing all our needs in this life- a fact we can so easily forget- and providing that greater thing, the miraculous food of eternal life.
Beyond the demonstration of power in this miracle, we are given a glimpse of the Dominical Sacraments. By Dominical, I mean those two sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Testament. Remember that of the seven sacraments, five can be found in the pages of the Old Testament. The first sacrament mentioned in the Bible is marriage, as God performs the first wedding in Genesis (and all valid marriages are the work of God himself, not subject to man’s legal fiction called divorce). Then we find Moses and Aaron ordaining the Levitical priests, and Moses ordaining Joshua as a special kind of prophet (as later Elijah would ordain Elisha in his place as prophet). And, in this picture of ordination, both of priests and prophets, we see that double ministry of Word and Sacrament. In the ministry of atonement, when the priest would hear confession and make Kippur for the penitent, we see absolution. In the anointing of the shepherd boy David, by Samuel, we see Old Testament Confirmation as the Sprit of the Lord came and remained on David for the rest of his life, giving him the gifts whereby not only could he be a just king, but a prophet as well, prophesying the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the benevolent miracles of such prophets as Elijah and Elisha, we see the place of healing in our sacrament of anointing the sick.
So, when our Catechism says that Christ ordained two sacraments only in His Church, as generally necessary to salvation, we need to realize what this means. First it means that these were introduced as sacraments in the New Testament, because the other five sacraments already were in the Old Testament, though renewed and given deeper meaning in Christ. John the Baptist transformed the Mikvah, the bath of cleansing, into an act of repentance. But, after He rose from the dead, Christ established a new baptism, a new mikvah, whereby we enter into His death and then into His resurrection, being born again into his resurrection. And, this is the context in which Saint Paul wrote the words in this Sunday’s Epistle, the same chapter that we read from one week ago.
Saint Paul was not calling us to live a new and holy life simply because it is a good idea. It is not the hollow philosophy of the comical character Maxwell Smart. Those of you old enough to remember Get Smart, a TV comedy in the 1960s, recall that philosophy, simply put by Maxwell Smart, "good is better than bad because it’s nicer" (or was that Mammy Yokum?) Well, unlike Mr. Smart, Saint Paul calls on us to live a holy life in a deeply significant context. The portion we read last Sunday opens with these words:
1: What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2: God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
3: Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4: Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5: For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7: For he that is dead is freed from sin.
8: Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:
9: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.
10: For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
11: Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And, the portion for this week follows in the same chapter. The subject, the context for today’s call to holiness, is baptism. So, we need to understand that we must live a holy life because of who we are. We were baptized into Christ’s death, buried with Him in baptism and raised to walk in the new life. This is what our Lord meant when He said to Nicodemus, "you must be born again" (as Romans 6 interprets John 3 for us). To die, be buried and risen with Christ is what happens when we are born of water and of the Spirit.
We should be thinking, at this point, about that rather strange question at the beginning of our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (almost identical with the first Office of Instruction). The question at the beginning of our Catechism in the Prayer Book does not sound at all religious, and has no hint in it of theology, no sense of inspiration. It is rather mundane, almost enough to make one wonder if what follows can be at all interesting. The question is "What is your Name?" That’s, the old identity question many people ask- "who am I?” The first question and answer run as follows:
"QUESTION. What is your Name?
Answer. (in my case) My name is Robert. I was given this name by my sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, born again in water and the Spirit as a child of God, and made an inheritor of His Kingdom.
Question. Who gave you this Name?
Answer. My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven."
Suddenly, the question of your name, or the question "Who are you?" becomes very theological, very religious, and quite inspirational. In the eyes of the Church I was dead until I was baptized, dead in sin. "In sin my mother conceived me" as a son of the fallen race called Adam. In baptism I was born again of water and the Spirit, because I was baptized into Christ’s death, buried with Him in baptism, and made alive again in the new life of His resurrection. Until then I had no name, because until then I was not alive. Who are you? In baptism you became a member of Christ. In Baptism you became the child of God. In baptism you became an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven. Who are you then? Simply put, who you are is, you are In Christ. That is your identity.
With that identity, everything is made new. Every old commandment that says "thou shalt not" is simply a part of that larger commandment that says "thou shalt." "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God...Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" If you are busy with these commandments that begin with the words "thou shalt," you will have less trouble observing the commandments that begin "thou shalt not." The “shalt not” sort of sins would rob you of a joy too precious to be cast aside. Why? Because of who you are. Being, as you are, In Christ by baptism, you are in Him and in the Father; This is what baptism has done for you, and this is why you will find joy only by living a holy life in which there is simply no time and no place for willful sin.
The other Dominical sacrament has everything to do with the Gospel for today. All of what the world offers comes short. We are all in a desert place without any natural means to feed ourselves. We cannot keep our selves alive, no matter what vitamins and exercise we get. We will die, and waste away, because that is the wages of sin into which the human race has fallen. We were driven out of the paradise that gives the fruit of natural immortality. Even the happiest life is marred by this simple fact: It will end. "And that is the rub" says Hamlet: "what dreams may come." Saint Paul tells us: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In the emptiness and desert of natural mortality, where no hope can be found, no power to destroy death and stay alive, Christ has come as the Bread of Life. He feeds us, not only to the nourishment of our bodies, but with what he calls "the food and drink of eternal life." Just as He, by a miracle, fed thousands with a very little bit of food, and did so in a desert where no food could be found, He feeds us with His own body and blood, giving us Himself in the sacrament of Holy Communion so that we may feed on His resurrected Body, and drink his Blood that was shed for our atonement, and live forever.
These two sacraments are generally necessary for salvation. Yes, God can save individual souls without them, such as when our Lord promised to open Paradise to the dying thief crucified next to Him. Of three men crucified that day, one was losing his life, One was giving His life, and the third was receiving his life. He was receiving life in the place of death, just as multitudes had been fed in a place of dearth.
However, even though God can save without these sacraments, they are, nonetheless, generally necessary to salvation. And, we all have the opportunity to receive life in Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, doing so because our faith instructs us to. The Church must still minister as God has ordained, not according to the empty desert of human rationalization. Let us be faithful to the One who can feed us by His power, giving new and eternal Life that the world cannot understand.
You are given the new birth from death into life by baptism, having become a new creation in Christ Jesus, and you must feed on the Lord Jesus Christ who meets your greatest need in the wilderness of sin and death that this world is, and by feeding on Him live forever. In every way you have been given every gift you need to rise above sin and death, to be saved from sin and death, to enter into life, and to have life enter into you. You are in Christ, and you receive Him as the food and drink of eternal life. This is grace. This is power.
When you come forward this day toward the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament, feed on Him by taking Him into your very mouth, and so also feed on Him in your hearts by grace and with thanksgiving.