Monday, August 24, 2009

B: Proper 16 (8/23/09)

John 6:60-69

Every third year—Year “B” in our cycle of Sunday readings— the month of August keeps us focused like a laser on the Holy Eucharist. The sixth chapter of John’s gospel is his great treatise on the Eucharist. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John does not give us an account of the Last Supper, Jesus’ formal institution of what we know as the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. Rather, what John gives us—something the other three gospel writers do not give us—is our Lord’s great discourse on the Bread of Life. Even though it does not include any command like “do this in remembrance of me,” the “bread of life” discourse is John’s version of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament. Over the last four weeks, we have seen how Jesus uses bread as a sign and symbol of God’s care and provision, and how the sacrament of the Eucharist extends this care and provision to us.

As Catholic Christians, we have a “high” view of the sacraments. We believe them to be not merely commemorative exercises wherein we are invited to “feel” God active and present with us. Rather, sacraments are objectively effective. Through them and in them, we have communion with God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. And all this happens whether we feel spine-tinglingly exhilarated or colossally bored, or somewhere in between. I, for one, do not always feel God actively working on my behalf, so to be assured in the sacraments that he is indeed doing so, whether I feel it or not, is a source of great comfort. No matter how I feel when I come to Mass, God always faithfully shows up.

But even as I claim this truth, I must be careful, so that I don’t cross the line between this wholesome doctrine and a distortion of that doctrine that sees the sacraments as mere magic, rituals through which we can manipulate God. Magic is always tempting because it offers gain without pain, a shortcut around the structure of reality. A pint-sized Popeye sees an enormous Bluto harassing Olive Oyl, but a mere can a of spinach turns him into a fighting machine, and he saves the day. (I realize you have to be of a certain age to recognize who these cartoon characters are, but hopefully you still get my point!) Or, in another example of how attractive the idea of magic is to us, we read about generations of explorers scouring the wilderness wherever there is a rumor of a fountain of youth, from which one draught of water will reverse the aging process, increase metabolism, turn hair the color of a child’s, eliminate wrinkles, re-calcify bones, and restore memory.

It is easy, I have found, for Christians to imagine that sacraments work the same way. In the early Middle Ages, there were those who figured that if the bread and wine of the Eucharist really convey the body and blood of Christ, then, if one morsel of consecrated bread and one sip of consecrated wine was good for them, then two, or three, or more would be even better. So they went to early Mass in one parish, the nine o’clock celebration in another, and the late service somewhere else again—all to get as much sacramental Holy Communion as they could. In time, the bishops caught on to them, and taught that this practice is really an abuse of the sacrament, and instituted the rule, which is still familiar to us, that, all things being equal—in other words, there are some exceptions—the rule that we should receive Communion only once in any given day.

Or ... there’s the caricature—and I emphasize “caricature,” because I know it was never representative of official teaching—the caricature of the old-fashioned lay Roman Catholic attitude toward the sacrament of reconciliation, whereby you can sin as much as you want during the week as long as you go to confession on Saturday afternoon. When the priest pronounces absolution, that gives you a clean slate, so you can start back in on whatever sinful activity you might be inclined to, because it, too, would all get forgiven a few days later.

The idea of sacrament-as-magic—whether it be Holy Communion, or confession, or baptism, or whatever—the idea of sacrament-as-magic leads to a perfunctory, mechanical, coldly formal kind of Christian practice that is actually not nourishing at all, but spiritually destructive. One of the greatest spiritual tragedies, one that I encounter virtually every day, is people who, through this kind of mechanical religious observance, are “vaccinated” with a small dose of Christianity and thereby effectively immunized against the real thing! Immunization is a good thing if you’re talking about a harmful infection, but Jesus Christ is not a disease! He is life itself. Serving him is perfect freedom and knowing him is eternal life. We don’t want to vaccinate ourselves against Jesus!

Yet, that is precisely what has happened to a great number of Christians, good people who may even be in church every Sunday, may even sing in the choir or serve on the vestry, and whose very religious observance has served to protect them from being infected with the fullness of the gospel, shielded them from encountering Jesus—Jesus who can turn lives inside out and upside down, Jesus who can make the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear, Jesus who can heal marriages, Jesus who can break the bondage of addiction, Jesus who can be a friend to the lonely and strength to the weak, Jesus who can be courage to the fearful and hope to the dying, Jesus who can forgive sins and restore wholeness and provide the sheer moral fiber to be honest and generous in a society that encourages us to be deceitful and selfish, to live in chastity in a culture than encourages indulgence.

This Jesus is supremely worth knowing. St Paul said that he counts everything else as garbage in comparison with knowing Jesus. If thinking that the sacraments are magic, if having a little bit of religion, is preventing us from knowing Jesus in all the fullness of his power, then we are most miserable indeed. God help us.

God help us.

In the concluding verses of the long sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus sets up a contrast. He says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail.” Now, before I attempt to explain what that statement might mean, and how it relates to the way we think of and experience the sacraments, I need to first say something about what it does not mean.

When Jesus (or Paul, for that matter) talks about “spirit” and flesh,” he is using figurative language. We can’t let ourselves jump to the conclusion that anything physical is fleshly and anything immaterial is spiritual. In the New Testament, “spirit” is anything that originates from God’s nature and God’s will. “Flesh” is anything that stands contrary to God’s purposes and intentions. So, I’s possible for something to be quite physical—an embrace, or a kiss, for example—and yet be “spiritual” in the way Jesus is using the term. And, it is possible for something to be completely immaterial—say, a philosophy of self-indulgence, for example, or a feeling of racial hatred—and yet be absolutely “of the flesh.” So, with all that in mind, back to Jesus’ saying: “the spirit”—that is, whatever accords with God’s nature and God’s will—“the spirit gives live, but the flesh”—that is, whatever is of the order of sin and death, contrary to God’s nature and God’s will—“the flesh is of no avail.”

Thinking of the sacraments as magic is looking at them through the eyes of the flesh, rather than the eyes of the spirit. They don’t work that way. They are ineffective when understood that way. The sacraments are real, God is objectively active in them, they don’t depend on our feelings. But they do require cooperative faith in order to accomplish their mission, which is to perfect the holiness of the recipient, to make the recipient of the sacrament more like Christ. Any work that God’s Spirit does in our hearts, sacramental or otherwise, requires cooperative faith. And faith is more than just a warm feeling of religiosity. Authentic faith is disciplined, and expresses itself in our actions, disciplined actions like worship, study, private prayer, and service. We might think of the sacraments like an acorn, which contains within itself all the genetic material necessary for the making of an oak tree. It’s objectively present, whether or not anyone knows it or feels it. But if that oak tree is ever going to happen, it needs the “cooperative faith” of rain, sunshine, good soil, and protection from squirrels and birds.

Christians in whom sacramental grace is nourished by cooperative faith are less apathetic and more concerned about the world around them, less selfish and more generous, less fearful and more courageous, less despairing and more hopeful, less inclined toward rationalizing self-indulgence and more inclined toward moral courage, less deceptive and more truthful, less abrasive in their dealings with others and more gentle, less prejudiced and more loving—bottom line, in such Christians, there is less sin and more holiness.

So . . . please do avail yourself of the sacraments. Live into the meaning of your baptism, make your communion as frequently as possible—weekly, at least, go to confession at least twice a year, ask for anointing when you’re sick. Take comfort from the fact that God’s presence in these means of grace does not depend on your feelings. But at the same time, don’t rely on them as if they were magic. For our physical health, a good diet is not enough—we need exercise too. The same is true of our spiritual health. The sacraments are an excellent diet, but we need the exercise of cooperative faith in order for them to be effective.


1 comment:

StrugglingDisciple said...

father dan,

while we will almost certainly start with a different definition of "objectively effective" I have never read or heard a more inspiring description of the importance of the sacraments in "cooperative faith." thank you.

brother tim