There’s Got to Be More Going on Here: What Difference the Incarnation Made for Me

In a note to Tripp I reflected on my change from a Zwinglian, anti-sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper, to what is the biblical and patristic witness. In this experience is encapsulated my move to a sacramental faith in general.

Growing up in the Stone-Campbell churches, I was taught that the Lord’s Supper was a time of contemplation when we remembered historical events, asked forgiveness of our sins, and gave thanks for the salvation by grace through faith we’d been given. The small rectangles of cracker-like bread (we irreverent college students called them chiclets), and the small thimbles full of grape juice, were nothing more than, well, “chiclets” and grape juice. They were symbols, sure, but only mental reminders of historical realities.

While in Bible college training for ministry in the Stone-Campbell churches, I served as a minister to yoked parishes in Mound City, Kansas: the Wall Street Christian Church (my first experience of a church named out of sarcasm–Wall Street Christian Church was located about five miles outside of Mound City in the midst of acres of pasturage) and the Federated Church (itself a coming together of a Methodist Church and another church back in the early decades of the twentieth century). It was while the elements were being passed to the various members during the service at the Wall Street church that it hit me: Is this all there is? I had some sort of intuition of the holiness of this time, and had the impulse to kneel (a no-no as that would have been too Catholic). Something more than just meditation had to be going on here. Eventually I came to the belief that somehow Jesus had to be specially present with his Church at this time. I wouldn’t have been able to defend or even articulate that belief very well at the time. But I held it with conviction.

In my journey into Anglicanism, I began to better understand some of the teachings of the Church relative to the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Our Lord. Such things still smacked too much of that Protestant bugaboo of transubstantiation for me, but I began to modify my understanding. I slowly came to believe that Christ was present in a special way in the Eucharist, not simply just present with his Church, but somehow present in a wonderful way in the activity of the Eucharist.

In the last few years I felt myself being drawn ever closer to the biblical and patristic understanding, but still hesitated from “going all the way.” I understood the elements to be holy in a special way, so genuflecting and praying before the reserved Sacrament became a heartfelt way to pray and worship the Trinity.

But this past summer I hunkered down and thought through the issues I had about the Church, what it was, what it did, and so forth. (In an ealier blog I linked to those essays. The essay on the Lord’s Supper can be found here.) In short, reading 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, and Ignatios and Irenaeus (among others) convinced me that the proper biblical and patristic understanding was that in the Eucharist the elements, in a great and mysterious way, become the body and blood of our Lord.

This understanding was predicated on a belief in the Incarnation of our Lord. I had always believed the Jesus was God in the flesh. But I had not always drawn those implications as far as they should have been. The Incarnation through the Resurrection sanctifies creation. By death Christ trampled down death, and released us from its bondage. So now all creation groans awaiting its redemption. This means things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and, most importantly, humans may partake in this renewal, this participation in the energies of God. We are saints not merely by divine fiat, as in the ubiquitious metaphor of the judge declaring the guilty innocent. We are saints because by participation in God our souls and bodies are transformed in a synergy of holiness and sanctification. If God can do that with humans, if God spoke the material world into existence, if the ground around burning bushes can be declared to be holy by the divine presence, it is surely not too difficult for bread and wine by divine mystery to become Christ’s body and blood. It is surely no hard thing for water to be blessed and a means of prayer. It is surely no challenge to the Almightly to turn ordinary bread into antidoron to be brought home to the prayer corners of the faithful and used in worship. The Incanration grants grace to the tangible.

This is no magic. Antidoron becomes hard and moldy at times. Holy water sometimes gets a bit smelly. (Which is why both should be used up frequently, and not saved superstitiously.) But these material corruptions do not diminish the gracious energies. Faith, living faith, after all, is an important component; perhaps second only to the divine activity itsefl.

But this is where I’m at now. It’s not where I’ve always been. It has taken, quite literally, years of reflection, worship and study to come to this point. I’m grateful I can now share in the beliefs of millions of Christians around the world in our day, and the millions more of our fathers and mothers in the faith stretching all the way back to the upper room.

The Love of God and the Little Things: The Sunday of the Last Judgment

In the ancient Tradition of the Church, the penultimate Sunday before the start of Great Lent is the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). On this day, the Gospel lection is the parable Jesus told about all the nations being brought before the Son of Man, Jesus, where he will judge them. He will separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked. The righteous will inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The wicked will depart into the everlasting fire prepared–note: not for them–but for the devil and his angels. The righteous inherit what has been prepared for them; the wicked gain that which was prepared for someone else.

That this parable is one which Jesus himself gave has never been denied until modern times. And it is denied on the basis either of that understanding which denies the reality of God altogether or on the basis of that understanding of God based on honest misunderstandings of the biblical and patristic tradition or on deliberate falsifications of that tradition. In short, the reality of the Gospel is that Jesus will judge the nations. He came once to save. He comes again to judge.

But note the basis of the judgement: not some Augustinian or Calvinist system of God’s divine foreknowledge and predestination. Rather, the nations are judged on one single standard: Christ. It is what the nations did or did not do with regard to Christ which determines their destiny. And note the context in which actions for or against Christ are judged: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the prisoners. (I’ll not go here into whether or not “my brothers” in the parable refers to Christians or just humanity in general. Though I think the Gospel context on this is clear, and therefore more particular, it’s a point for another blog.)

I know there are well-meaning Christians who find the idea that Christ himself will judge the nations difficult, even repugnant. How could a God of love condemn anyone to everlasting condemnation? To which one appropriate response is another question: How could a God of love deny anyone their repeated and considered choice? For those who have repeatedly denied God again and again, heaven would be worse than hell. God is not so unjust as to deny us the consequences of our choices and actions.

And note this also: Those who depart into the everlasting fire depart not on the basis of one grand all-encompassing decision. Rather, they are judged on the basis of their repeated little actions: not feeding the hungry, not clothing the naked, not visiting the sick and the prisoners. In other words, just like salvation, judgment comes from a lifetime of small decisions.

I was prepared for today’s Gospel lection by my very own actions this morning prior to going to worship. I got up feeling tired and ugly. My duty every morning is to pray the Morning Prayers of the small red service book I have. This morning I most definitely did not want to. I kept procrastinating (yes, it was most crucial that I log on and download my email; yes, I must eat something, I feel so sick, and besides why should I keep the fast since I can’t partake of communion yet anyway; and so on). But finally, I dragged myself in front of the icons, lit the candle, and began praying. And a most dismal display it was, too. Not only did I not feel enlightened, anyone else joinging me would have feel the deep pit of slack that emanated around me.

But when I was done and as I was heading out of the house, somehow, God had blessed my feeble efforts, and I felt prepared to worship.

Then I got to service and heard: “It’s not the grand decisions which form the basis of our destiny. It’s the accumulation of all the small ones.”

Thank God for his great mercy. And may he continue to save me. And may I continue to work our my salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it is He who works in me both to will and to do his good pleasure. And may I one day hear, “Enter into your inheritance in the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Glory to God in all things.