Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Grace and Sacraments Part III

This follows Parts I and II.

No substitute.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, have they a wholesome effect or operation... Article XXV

We have seen that grace is the purpose of the sacraments. For this reason they impart what the Law cannot impart. We have seen also that our knowledge of heavenly things, and spiritual things such as sacraments, is limited to what God has allowed us to know. Beyond his revelation we know nothing about these mysteries; and therefore Anglicanism has never pretended to establish limits to the grace of God. We are constrained within the limitless sphere of the sacramental system, commanded and commissioned to minister according to what we have been told to do in expectation of God's faithfulness to his own word. We know that in each sacrament there is a promise of Divine action. What we do not know is how and when God imparts sacramental grace beyond our ability to administer it, and in that ignorance we may take comfort and may hope that the same grace is, at least in some measure, effectual among all Christians everywhere.

But, lest anyone misunderstand what I said in the second half of Part II, it is necessary to clarify that we must work within the revelation we have been given. It is very clear that among other Protestants, those who have not maintained faith in the sacramental system and who have failed to maintain a valid episcopacy, a sense of emptiness and need compels them to create substitutes. As a reader named John reflected in a very recent comment (providing for me a perfect example of what I was going to say):

I notice increasingly that protestant clergy attempt to sacramentalize their actions while continuing to reject authentic catholic sacramental expression. The example of Billy Graham's altar calls are a case in point. I once asked a friend who had attended a number of Billy Graham Crusades if he always responded to the altar call. He replied, I always go forward. It is wonderful to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior again and again and to "feel" the love and support of all those laying their hands upon you. I don't feel that at my local church.

Indeed, as I was saying in Part II, we do not limit the grace of God, and we have reason to hope that the grace normally imparted through sacraments can nonetheless extend to others who, through ignorance or circumstance, cannot receive them. Nonetheless, it is clear that such believers feel that something is missing, and for those who learn why they feel the emptiness, this too becomes a manifestation of God's grace. Some may awake to the fact that they ought to receive something that is missing.

The substitutes for sacraments may include many different things. They may include among Pentecostals a need to, as Oral Roberts used to say: "Expect a miracle every day." The problem is, though we believe-indeed know-that God works miracles, nowhere has he promised to grant such things every day. For that matter, he has never promised to grant them most days; and some may live a lifetime without seeing a miracle, just as John the Baptist did no miracles.1 Faith requires a promise, a word from God revealed in Scripture; and he has never made a promise to work a miracle everyday.

Even the insane behavior of snake handlers in "signs following" churches is a substitute, sometimes a deadly substitute, as they do dangerous and foolish things simply because they crave some assurance. They read Mark 16:9-20, and do not take notice of the Scriptural commentary on Scripture.

And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god. 2

In Acts we see that St. Paul was unharmed when an accident occurred that would have interrupted his work before God was finished making use of him. He was not harmed. But these deluded people tempt God, and sometimes die, seeking a substitute for valid assurance in their faith. They serve as an example that reaches the limits of extreme and deadly (literally speaking) Enthusiasm. Most attempts at a substitute are much less colorful.

Sacraments do two things that impart grace. They effect what they signify and signify what they effect. The first imparts grace directly: The supernatural reality of the sacraments is charismatic, and the direct effect, though invisible, gives life and salvation. The second way, by signifying what they effect, touches our faith and acts through it. The word that comes to mind is assurance. The sacraments signify, that is, they are a pledge, a promise, and therefore provide assurance. Jesus promised that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we will live by him, and have eternal life. He promised that when his apostolic representatives forgive sins, they are forgiven. He promised that we are born of the Spirit, from the death of Adam to the new life of his resurrection, in baptism. Amid whatever pain, confusion, excitement or lack of excitement, we pass as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death, that is our earthly life, we have in addition to what has been effected, assurance of faith through what has been signified.

There is, therefore, no substitute for the sacraments among those who come to understand them. In the sacraments God's promises are concrete; they have taken on an objective and physical form in our actual experience. We have, therefore, grace and also assurance of that grace. For the sacraments effect what they signify, and also (thank God) signify what they effect. This second part truly imparts grace, acting through our faith.

The source, the Incarnation

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. - Gen. 1:31

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. -- I John 1:1-4

The Church is the sacramental community because it springs from the Incarnation of the Word. Jesus, the human manifestation of the Logos, did not merely make known his presence in the earth by sending signals, or supplying emotional needs. He is incarnate of the Holy Ghost by the Virgin Mary. He could be seen and touched, standing before the disciples as a man of flesh and blood, and later as the firstfruits of the Resurrection unto immortality as a man with flesh and bones. "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." 3

It is true that everything the Church needs for the sacraments can be found in a proper kitchen, bread, wine, water and olive oil. The created order is good, indeed very good. And, as we have seen from the opening of the first Epistle of St. John the Apostle, one definition of the Church is that it is the fellowship of those who have fellowship with the Apostles, and therefore with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We have assurance that has been passed down, literally and concretely, passed down sacramentally in the community founded by the Apostles who saw and touched the Incarnate Logos. Their fellowship, from the birth of the Church until now, extends to us in the physical reality of this time and space world, in this creation of God that includes energy, matter and a very real history.

Ultimately, the grace and full assurance of grace, both of which come to us through the sacraments, extend from the Incarnate Christ. There can be no substitute.

1. John 10:41
2. Acts 28:1-6
3. Luke 24:39

1 comment:

Canon Tallis said...

Good, very good indeed.

I must admit that I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the quoted Article. It was written to a Church and a time when the proper use of the sacraments was less than it should have been. Churchmen were not communicating and indeed had been driven from reception of the sacrament by the culture of the time. Instead we had processions with the blessed sacrament and the growth of benediction of the same which served as a substitute communion. The article points us to the right use of the sacrament but does not forbid what was being done. Can we not be glad of the wisdom of same?

I much prefer churchmen making their communions although I wish that we did it with greater care and attention, but I regaining an appreciation for benediction and have always loved processions of the blessed sacrament.