Thank you for your invitation and your welcome. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get here till yesterday afternoon, but it’s a treat to be here today. I’ve been asked to speak on the Sacraments; particularly, I think, on what it means to be sacramental ministers, a central and vital part of ordained ministry. I don’t often get asked to reflect on this and it’s been exciting to see ways in which my usual work these days – exploring scripture in its own context – may bring some insights.
I begin in a perhaps unlikely place: the book of Numbers, chapters 13 and 14. The children of Israel are on the way to the promised land; and, after a year spent mostly encamped near Sinai, they are almost there. That desert is, after all, only a few days’ journey across as the buzzard flies. So Moses sends spies into the land to figure out what to do next: twelve of them, one from each tribe. After forty days they return, bringing a branch full of grapes from the Wadi Eshcol. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, are excited and encouraging: they insist that Israel’s God will lead them in, despite the obvious dangers. The other ten are gloomy: yes, it’s a prosperous land, but it’s a scary place; they have giants there! – and we’ll never make it. It would be better to go back to Egypt.
Moses is appalled. God is furious. The ten spies die in a plague, and the people are condemned to forty years wandering from which only Joshua and Caleb will emerge alive. And in the middle of this scene, a bolt from the blue to a modern reader but utterly appropriate for a biblically attuned theologian, God backs up what he says with a promise (Numbers 14.21): As I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.
I confess that for years I used to cite that verse as an odd parallel to the great promises in Isaiah, Habakkuk and the Psalms about all the earth being filled with YHWH’s glory, but without seeing why it comes right here in Numbers. But one of the great things about living with scripture is the way you see more and more as you go on. Now this text has become for me a crucial hint at the larger depths of meaning in both Old Testament and New.
The clue is in the meaning of the Promised Land. This is the people’s promised ‘inheritance’. In Romans 8 Paul uses the same language to speak of our present Christian pilgrimage towards our ‘inheritance’. But what is this ‘inheritance’ for us? Generations of Western Christians have assumed, without question, that the ‘inheritance’ is ‘heaven’, the place where God lives and where we will go after our death. Many have borrowed the language of middle Platonism and spoken of heaven as our ‘true home’ from which we are presently exiled but to which we hope to return. And with that, at a stroke, Christian spirituality, Christian reading of the Old Testament, and perhaps above all Christian sacramental theology are turned in a different direction from what we find in scripture itself. For Paul in Romans 8, the ‘inheritance’ is the entire, redeemed creation: God will do for the entire cosmos at the last what he did for Jesus at Easter. Thus the whole world is now God’s holy land. New creation does not mean abolishing the present world and replacing it with something different – particularly not about abolishing space, time and matter and replacing them with an abstract or supposedly ‘spiritual’ alternative. New creation means abolishing death itself: the old corruptible order will pass away, and the new one, says Paul, will be born from its womb. We mustn’t be seduced into reading this Platonically. That merely colludes with death. The biblical promise of new creation is about the abolition of death, of the corruption that leads to death and the idolatry and sin that produce corruption. That old world will pass away and the new one, says Paul, will be born from its womb. And in that new world, as he says in 1 Corinthians 15, God will be ‘all in all’.
Thus for Paul – and here in Numbers itself – Israel’s promise of the holy land is the down payment, the advance foretaste, of the much larger divine purpose. We see this already in the promises to Abraham, and in the extension of those promises to David in Psalms such as 2 and 72. The Land is just the start. God claims the whole earth as his own.
Thus, when God’s presence fills the Tabernacle in the wilderness, so that, when they arrive in the Land, God will dwell in the midst of his people, that is not the end. The promised land is a signpost to the fact that the whole world belongs to the creator God. Israel must not be inward looking or self-satisfied. God is saying, in Numbers 14: All right, you don’t think you can even get into the Land; well, let me tell you, my presence and glory will not only fill that land but also the whole earth.
And with that promise we find signs and foretastes, like the grapes which the spies brought back from the promised land. The ultimate new creation, in which space, time and matter will be infused with the glorious living presence of the creator God himself, is anticipated in the present in all kinds of ways. The Israelites, while still in the wilderness, ate the fruit of their promised future. That is how the church’s sacraments are meant to function. They come to us heavy with God’s new creation. And those who are called to ministry, and in particular sacramental ministry, are required to stand at the fault lines, to know the dangerous joy of sacramental life. That is what I’m talking about this morning.
The Biblical Framework: Space and Time
Let’s put on the table the basic elements of a biblical view of space and time. We should really do ‘matter’ as well, but it will emerge on the way.
Start with space, with cosmology. The modern world has assumed some kind of Epicureanism: if there is a heaven, it’s a long way away and there is no commerce between here and there. People often assume this is a modern invention but in fact it’s simply the modern version of an ancient philosophy in which, if the gods exist, they have nothing to do with us, so that the world just does its own thing. Within that worldview, sacraments are bound to look like a bit of sympathetic magic, which is then relished by high-church worshippers and, for the same reason, rejected by low-church ones. Many modern Christians, faced with the culture in which heaven is distant, have tried kinds of Platonism: our souls are bound for heaven and we can taste it now. Sacraments then become visual aids, and perhaps more than that, soul-strengthening infusions of grace. But for many who confuse Platonism with the gospel, it’s still problematic: how can physical objects and actions convey spiritual realities? Mightn’t that mean justification by works? One muddle on top of another. Many low-church folks are consequently somewhat afraid of sacraments, rejecting infant baptism and scaling down Eucharistic celebration into an optional extra for those who still want it, to be excused by saying that, well, Jesus told us to do it.
But in the Bible – not because it’s an ancient worldview over against our modern one, but because it’s the Jewish and Christian alternative to Epicureanism, ancient and modern alike – in the Bible heaven and earth are not far apart. They were designed in the beginning to work together, to overlap and interlock; and they are designed in the end to come together in a rich and glorious fusion in which, as in the best marriages, each is more truly itself while being more fully united with the other.
Many scholars have pointed out that this heaven-and-earth reality, as in Genesis 1 and 2, is basically a Temple. Temples in the ancient world were explicitly designed as heaven-and-earth buildings, places where the twin halves of reality would come together. Conversely, the wilderness Tabernacle, and then the Jerusalem Temple, were designed explicitly as creation-buildings, heaven-and-earth spaces. In a world gone wrong, God calls Abraham to reverse and undo the sin of Adam, and God calls Abraham’s family, once they know themselves to be redeemed slaves, to be the Tabernacle-bearing people, the people who carry about with them the small working model of creation as the sign and foretaste of the creator’s ultimate intention. As in Numbers 14, God will do for the whole of creation what he does, dangerously and intimately, in the Holy Tent. That, by the way, is why Exodus 40, when the Tabernacle is filled with the divine glory, is followed at once by Leviticus. It’s a kind of health-and-safety code for the people called to live with God in their midst.
All this is because humans are made in God’s image. The image is the focal point of the Temple, the effective symbol of that heaven-and-earth symbiosis. The calling of humans in general, Israel in particular, and the special calling of Israel’s anointed priests, then prophets and kings, is to stand at the fault line, to know the dangerous joy of living at the threshold of heaven and earth. The task is to sum up the praises of creation, and of the peoples, and present them before the creator, and to be image-bearers, angled mirrors reflecting the divine glory into the world. Sacramental ministry is one sharply focused instance of the calling of the whole people of God, and the whole people of God are called to as the true humanity. And we who live with the New Testament know that everything I’ve just said in these last sentences comes into clear, unique focus at one point: Jesus himself. Jesus is the true human. He is the anointed one, in all senses. As Israel’s Messiah, he sums up Israel in himself. As Christians, we retrieve the biblical cosmology in and through him, in the power of his Spirit. Paul insists in Ephesians 1.10 that God’s eternal plan, his Passover-shaped purpose, always was to sum up in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth. Colossians weaves the same point into its great poem of Messiah and creation. And, with this Jesus-focus, we are both anchored in real history and ourselves committed to making real history: to a ministry in which, as Paul says, whenever we break the bread and drink the cup we announce that he is Lord, that in his death he has overcome the world, and that in his resurrection the new world has been born.
There, then, is the first fault line. Despite our surrounding culture, and despite the misunderstandings, distortions, and anxieties that have beset sacramental life because of those cultural and philosophical pressures, all Christians are called to stand at the dangerous fault-line between heaven and earth; and those set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands to be the church’s representatives and authorised servants are called to do that on behalf of the rest. That is as true of preaching as of sacramental ministry, but that was the topic of a different lecture.
I stress: standing at the threshold is not comfortable. It is not easy. It is demanding. It is dangerous. It’s much easier to be an Epicurean with Christian footnotes. It’s much easier to be a Platonist with Christian overtones. But it’s much less biblical.
The second fault-line has to do with time, with history and eschatology. The modern western world has usurped and then pulled out of shape the ancient biblical view of history and eschatology. The two great movements of the last two centuries, the idea of ‘progress’ we associate with Hegel and the agenda of ‘revolution’ we associate with Marx, are parodies of Jewish and Christian thought. Hegelian progress is Jewish providence-theology with God subsumed into a steady evolution; Marxism is Jewish apocalyptic with God left out. It isn’t enough for us Christians to wring our hands at their obvious mistakes, written in blood across the twentieth century. We must see, and enact in our sacramental life and the teaching which explains it, the radical Christian alternative.
For the Jew of Jesus’ day, history was divided into two: the present age and the age to come. They would be back to back: the present evil age would rumble on, and then the age to come would arrive and everything would be restored in a blaze of justice and peace. Some Jews, including those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, supposed that God had secretly inaugurated the age to come with them, so that they were the advance guards of the new day that would shortly dawn. Such hopes were crushed by Rome. But the early Christians held a radical mutation of that belief. They believed that, with Jesus and his death, resurrection and present lordship, the ‘age to come’ had indeed broken into the world, even though the old age of sin and death was continuing on its dark path. The early Christians, in other words, were like Joshua and Caleb celebrating the branch of grapes from the promised land. They believed that they were already tasting the fruits of the age to come. That is why new powers had been unleashed – as well as new persecutions from the official representatives of the old age. Think of Galatians: Paul begins by saying that Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, and ends by saying that what matters is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but new creation. It’s already begun. And this is part of the key to 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, where Paul almost takes it for granted that the Eucharist is to be understood within the story of the New Exodus. Like the Israelites, Christians are to celebrate the dangerous divine presence in their midst, and learn to live accordingly.
For many Jews, then and now, this sense of the Age to Come breaking in to the present age happened every Sabbath. Every Sabbath was a little segment of the future, coming to meet us in the present. That was why some joyfully strict teachers insisted that you shouldn’t touch a weapon on the Sabbath; in the age to come swords will become ploughshares. Nor should you kill even a fly; in the age to come all species will live in peace. And so on. Thus, just as the Temple spoke powerfully of the overlap of heaven and earth, the Sabbath spoke equally powerfully of the new age breaking in already into the old. The Sabbath was to time what the Temple was to space. Sabbath, of course, was linked back to creation itself; but the point was that the Age to Come will be the New Creation, not a different sort of thing but the rescue and ultimate renewal of God’s wonderful world.
Let me add an important footnote. For the last hundred years and more western readers have been told that Jesus and his first followers thought the world was going to end any moment, and they were obviously wrong. This theory has been used to relativize anything and everything in the New Testament, from Christology to sexual ethics. But it is radically mistaken. I and others have argued that point at length elsewhere. The early Christians did indeed think that they were living at the overlap of the ages. But for them the point was not that the world was about to end, but that the new day had dawned and they, still dazzled with its brightness, were called to live in its light.
You see, Christianity was never ‘a new way of being religious’. The western Enlightenment has tried to reduce it to that, so the gospel can’t get out and rain on the modernist picnic. The Jesus-movement was always about something that had happened: that, in and through Jesus, the world was now a different place. Of course, the western Enlightenment has stridently insisted that Christianity has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But that’s because it has stolen our story. For the Enlightenment, world history reached its climax in the western culture and politics of the eighteenth century, which we are now supposed to be implementing, the novus ordo seclorum which Thomas Jefferson put on your banknotes. There cannot be two climaxes to world history. That is why the Enlightenment has marshalled all the forces of pseudo-historical rationalism to deny the significance of Jesus and particularly of his resurrection. Like Adonijah trying to usurp Solomon’s inheritance, western culture has ignored the fact that the true king has already been named. And if Christians make their peace with the usurper, our sacramental life will degenerate into a ritual which may make us feel good, may hold us back from total apostasy – the symbols are still powerful, even when we put them in the wrong framework – but will not have the effect it should.
Sacraments in Space and Time
So what happens if we think through the Christian sacraments, and our sacramental ministries, within the biblical framework of space and time? The main point is that the sacraments declare, by their symbolism which comes from the ancient story of Israel and reaches vivid focus in Jesus, that the new age has already begun; that, as Jesus taught us to pray, God’s kingdom is becoming a reality ‘on earth as in heaven’.
Take Baptism. Baptism reaches back, as John the Baptist was doing, to the crossing of the Red Sea. John’s movement, and Jesus’ public career which began there, was an explicit New-Exodus movement. There were many such movements at the time; but, as Jesus said about John, he was indeed the Elijah who would come, preparing the way for Israel’s God in person. Jesus then took the symbolism of baptism and applied it, in advance, to his own death. Then Paul fuses the two meanings together, so that baptism refers both to the incorporation of Jesus’ followers into his own death and life and to their recapitulation, in the new Exodus, of the Red Sea crossing, pointing forward to the inheritance.
Notice what that means. When we hear the full Exodus-overtones, baptism is not only about being rescued from the slavery of Egypt, of sin and death. It is not even simply about being given the new Torah, the law of love, as our way of life. It is about the living presence of the living God, like the pillar of cloud and fire, coming to dwell with his people. Paul picks up the hint from Isaiah (63.14), Nehemiah (9.20), and Haggai (2.5): what God did then with the cloud and the fire he will now do through his Spirit. This is what baptism means. It isn’t about doing a bit of magic with the water. It’s about being incorporated into the story of the new Exodus, the new creation.
You see what happens? If you take the symbol out of the narrative where it makes sense, the whole thing falls apart, as with some modern debates about baptism and the Spirit. Put it back in context, and just as heaven and earth meet dangerously in the sacrament, so past, present and future are fused together into the living reality of the baptized Christian, called to live now in the world whose motto is ‘forgiveness’ and whose motivation is the Spirit. Baptism is indeed a ‘visual aid’, but only because it is primarily the effective, Jesus-shaped sign of new creation, long promised but now brought into startling, community-shaping, world-changing reality. Baptism isn’t about magically turning this person, this baby, into an automatic Christian. Baptism is when the whole Christian community celebrates its identity as the Messiah-people, the Jesus-shaped people, the death-and-resurrection people, the rescued-for-the-world people, the people of the age to come which has already been launched; and, in celebrating our messianic identity, we welcome this candidate, that candidate, to join us in the family thus characterised. To use that precious symbol, as some have done, as a way of suggesting that no new creation was necessary, because God was happy with the old the way it was, is a gross distortion that could only have come about when the church had lost its moorings in both the Jewish context and its messianic fulfilment.
What then about the Eucharist, seen within this eschatological framework? It too looks back, obviously, to the foundational events of Passover and the wilderness wandering, when Israel was being shaped, often against its will, to be God’s people in the present creation and for the new creation. Think of the Exodus story: the lamb’s blood, rescuing the people from death, the crossing of the sea, the new vocation sweeping along an unready and grumbling people, the giving of Torah, and above all the gift of the Tabernacle so that God himself would dwell with his people and lead them to their inheritance – all of this is taken up and squashed into a dense moment of high drama in the Last Supper, as Jesus does the simplest things, breaking bread, pouring wine, washing feet, and charges these, as the world itself is charged with the grandeur of God, with such explosive meaning that the world has not stopped shaking ever since. This is where the fault lines in space and time point to the fault line in matter itself. The simplest of elements – bread, wine, water – are pulsating with God’s promises, freighted with God’s future.
Of course, Judas receives bread and wine and has his feet washed – and still betrays. Of course Peter has the same, and still denies. The mystery of the spies, the ten and the two, is acted out in a new variation. One of the reasons, I think, why Eucharistic controversy has been so fierce in the church, particularly but not only in the sixteenth century and its various aftermaths, is that here we touch the nerve centre. I have often found this when I am called upon to teach or preach the meaning of the cross. Trouble – serious distraction – arises from one quarter or another. When Jesus wanted to teach his followers the meaning of his forthcoming death, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. This is Jesus’ own explanation of the cross. And if the cross is where God wins the victory over the powers of evil, we shouldn’t be surprised if the powers of evil do everything they can to distract and distort it. That’s why sacraments are dangerous. We shouldn’t be surprised that the church has found it difficult and threatening to think through what they mean and celebrate them aright. Grave suspicions are aroused when the low-church Christian sees high-church Christians genuflecting – are they worshipping a piece of bread? – and the high-church Christian is shocked to see low-church clergy rattling through a few liturgical prayers in a half-hearted, apologetic way, desperate not to appear ‘ritualistic’ or take too much time away from the interminable worship songs: don’t they realise they are handling dynamite?
For Jesus and Paul, the meal said it all: as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the death of Jesus to the world until he comes. To be baptized and to feed at the table is to be new-creation people because we are Jesus’ people. All the different angles of this meal, the different insights and spiritual nourishment we gain from it, focus on this: that in Jesus of Nazareth, whose subsequent resurrection would mark him out, as Paul says, as Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s God came to dwell in person with his people. He was the true Temple-person, the place where heaven and earth met, the one in whom the New Age arrived dramatically in the midst of the old. His was the flesh in whom the divine Word came to ‘tabernacle’ in our midst.
Of course, the Last Supper was the culmination of Jesus’ regular habit of feasting with his followers, often with all the wrong people clustering around. This was one of his great kingdom-signs. They reached dramatic levels when Jesus fed large crowds from tiny scraps, again a sign of new creation, leading directly in the gospels to the question of who Jesus really was. Once again, when we set all this within today’s prevailing Epicurean world, the split-level world where heaven and earth can’t touch one another, we are forced to talk about ‘miracles’ which, in our culture, means a distant God reaching into the world, doing something odd, and going away again. That gross caricature is not what the gospels had in mind. They believed that the creator, who had never been inactive in his world, was now doing the new thing he had promised. And he was doing it in person, in the person of Jesus. The signs which Jesus bequeathed to his church are not simply visual aids of the death of Jesus, and the fact that it was and is life-giving for us. They are, again, like the grapes from the Wadi Eschcol in Numbers 13. They are gifts coming to us from God’s future. They are part of the new creation, reaching forwards into the present time, so that we are not only tasting, as we say, the bread of heaven; we are sharing in the life of the age to come. The God who has promised to fill his whole earth with his glory is filling this moment, these gifts, these people, with that glory in advance. And we who minister this blessed sacrament are thus standing at the fault line between heaven and earth, between past, present and future. It is a dangerous but joyful place at which to stand.
Let me say two words about the danger – which corresponds, of course, to the danger the Israelites faced when handling, or mishandling, the Ark of the covenant. First, there is the danger of over-familiarity. We know the words; we know the actions; we can do them in our sleep, indeed sometimes, because of bad planning or because of pastoral emergencies the previous night, we sometimes feel as though we are doing them in our sleep. Beware. You are standing at the fault lines between heaven and earth, between past, present and future. Of course, if you approach the sacraments flippantly, rather like the Narnia children inspecting the wardrobe to see if Lucy’s tale was true, you may indeed find that ‘nothing much happens’, and you may be tempted thereafter to take things even more casually. I wouldn’t prescribe any particular form of preparation, though many are on offer in the church’s traditions. Our personalities are very different and one person’s preparation and concentration may be quite unlike someone else’s. But you must devise ways, suited to the person God knows you to be, to remember with every word and every gesture that you are playing music written in heaven, and heaven’s highest inhabitant wants his song to be sung well.
The second danger comes perhaps from an over-emotional involvement. When we really take the sacraments seriously they can be deeply moving; and when we are deeply moved we are very vulnerable to other emotional pressures and temptations. There is a reason why, when you play snakes and ladders, there is a particularly nasty snake waiting in the very last few squares. Again and again the moment of deep devotion may only be a step away from disaster. I suspect that is the sad reality behind some at least of the scandals that have rocked various churches. The sacramental life is about the union of heaven and earth, and there are points where our desire for God and our desire for one another, though ideally working in healthy harmony, can get horribly confused. All Eucharistic ministers should read John 13 and 1 Corinthians 10 on a regular basis and learn humility, wisdom and caution.
Throughout this lecture so far I have tried to understand the New Testament’s sacramental theology in the light of Israel’s scriptures and the Jewish world of Jesus’ day. Despite our lip-service to the authority of scripture, this has often not been done. That is partly why we have been faced so often with the Platonic going-to-heaven theology, rather than the biblical new-creation theology, and my point is that our sacramental theology and practice have suffered as a result. The only antidote I know, but it’s a very powerful one, is the biblical eschatology of Ephesians 1 (heaven and earth coming together in the Messiah), Romans 8 (new creation born from the womb of the old), 1 Corinthians 15 (death destroyed so that God is all in all) and not least Revelation 21 and 22 (the New Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven, rather than vice versa). The great biblical story is not about souls being saved and making their way from earth to heaven. It is about God coming to dwell with humans, rescuing them for that purpose and making creation itself over anew, so that it will be filled with his glory, his wisdom and justice, as the waters cover the sea. That is the ancient Jewish vision which, as Paul insists, Jesus came to fulfil – or, as we should say, God came to fulfil in Jesus. This is the vision which is anticipated when the Holy Spirit fills God’s people as the advance sign and creative means of setting forth his worldwide mission.
Thus, to sum up where we’ve got to and point on to my final section, Baptism and Eucharist together teach us the twin truths of our salvation. Think of it in terms of justification and the Spirit. First, justification. God intends to put the whole world right at the end. And in the present, through the gospel, he puts human beings right so that they can be part of his putting-right project for the world. Justification and justice go together. Second, the Spirit. God intends to flood the whole creation with his own glorious presence in the end. That is his oft-repeated though oft-ignored intention. In the present time, through the gospel, he fills human beings with his own Spirit, his own loving presence, so that we can be part of his eventual world-filling purposes. Those baptised into the Messiah and feasting at his table are to be already, in the present time, small working models of New Creation, genuine signs and foretastes of what God has in store. We are living temples, and together as a whole people-of-God-in-Messiah the Living Temple. In the present time this will mean suffering and perplexity, of course. Hope that is seen is not hope. But we must not therefore sink back into an unrealised eschatology, a sad if dogged hope. We are tasting the grapes from the Wadi Eshcol. We are new-Temple people celebrating the new perpetual Sabbath. And the sacraments are the living signs of that reality, which is precisely why, as we approach the altar, we must step warily over the forked tongue of the final snake.
Let me pause there and comment on what I’ve been trying to do, with a historical analogy. In 1530, Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli met in Marburg for the famous Colloquy at which they were discussing what had to be said about the presence of Jesus Christ in the sacramental bread. When Jesus said ‘This is my body’, did he mean ‘is’, and if so how, or did he meant that the bread symbolized or signified his body? Luther is supposed to have dipped his finger in the froth of his mug of beer, and written on the table HOC EST CORPUS MEUM, underlining the EST: this is God’s word and you can’t tamper with it, as Zwingli seemed to want to do. They failed to agree, and the Continental reformation stayed split. William Tyndale and John Frith, hearing the news, determined that this shouldn’t happen in England, which is why to this day Anglican Eucharistic theology has been cautious about over-defining what was going on. (We should note, however, that this principle of ‘tolerance’ was Eucharist-specific; the attempt in some circles to make it apply to differences of opinion about everything else is historically unwarranted as well as theologically and pastorally disastrous.) But, meanwhile, there were other theologians in the room. One of them, the Swiss patristics scholar Johannes Oecolampadius, was also a Semitist. He tried, but failed, to make the point that in the original Aramaic which Jesus would have spoken there was no word corresponding to the Latin ‘EST’. Jesus just said ‘This – my body’, setting up much wider resonances and inviting much wider interpretations. If only they had listened.
I have tried, so far in this lecture, to do something analogous to Oecolampadius. I have tried to step back from the false polarizations of today’s church, which often function as the equivalent of the Latin discussion between Luther and Zwingli, and to look instead at the early Jewish context. I am convinced, in fact, that that is the only responsible thing for a biblical theologian to do, and that since all churches give at least lip service to the authority of scripture, in itself and not simply in its much later interpreters, then we ought to expect fresh wisdom to be found there. But in making this move I know there is a problem to be faced. Despite the Pauline scholarship of the last forty years, with the so-called ‘new perspectives’ and all that, many in our churches still reflect the implicit Marcionism of a former age, in which something called ‘Judaism’ is the wrong sort of religion, precisely because it focused on this-worldly things, on place and ritual and action, whereas the Christianity we were taught was about ‘spiritual’ realities. That problem coloured even Martin Luther, and grew to a great height in the Hegelian liberal Protestantism of the nineteenth century which still greatly influences today’s church. Proper attention to scripture itself, in its proper context, is the only way to address this. But that raises a multitude of issues for another time.
Puzzles and Prospects
Two important questions to finish with. First, what might this approach say about the various controversies that have surrounded the sacraments? Second, how does this vision of sacramental life point outwards into the larger mission and life of the church?
First, the controversies. I grew up thinking that Roman Catholics were heretical because they believed that the bread and wine were literally changed into the body and blood of Christ, and that the priest, having performed this magic, then crucified Jesus afresh in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Well, there may have been some, at some times, who believed something like that. But this of course is a matter of different philosophical approaches. If you ask the question, whether Jesus is really present or really absent at the Eucharist, you must say he is really present. But if the way you can say that is to borrow Aristotle’s scheme of ‘substance’ (the deep inner reality) versus ‘accident’ (the outward form and physical composition), then you find yourself saying that the ‘substance’ had changed while the ‘accidents’ had not. And with that you would give hostages to fortune as, at the popular level, people thought of it as magic, hocus-pocus. The sacrament had been snatched out of its historical context, its heaven-and-earth framework and its past-present-and-future setting, where alone it would make sense. And once we learn to see the biblical sacrifices not, like pagan sacrifices, as a bit of symbolic violence to pacify an irascible deity, but as the cleansing agent needed to enable the divine glory to dwell amongst his people, then suddenly all kinds of new possibilities open up. Within the story of creation and new creation, it makes sense – Jesus-shaped sense – to see the bread and wine as gifts from God’s future. And in that future heaven and earth are summed up, says Paul, in Jesus himself. He is both gift and giver, not by some strange alchemy but through the power of new creation. I hope and pray for a new day when Catholics and Protestants can say these things together, and, more important, can obey Paul in Galatians 2 and do these things together.
What about the question as to whether there are other sacraments as well as Baptism and Eucharist? Again, it depends what you mean. If the biblical vision of Temple and Sabbath is indeed as I have described it, and if God’s intention is eventually to flood all creation with divine presence and glory, then the whole world has the character, as I have suggested elsewhere, of an empty chalice, waiting to be filled. It is beautiful in itself, more beautiful yet because we know what it’s to be filled with. From that point of view, anything that signifies and anticipates the eventual heaven-and-earth reality can be seen as ‘sacramental’, as some Eastern Orthodox theologians have argued. We Westerners will probably want to keep a sharp look-out on such ideas lest they tip over into some kind of easy-going pantheism or panentheism. But to resist such proposals because of such dangers would be like banning all trains in order to prevent railway accidents. In particular, the formalisation of seven different sacraments in the mediaeval period was, I think, as much a regulating and limiting statute as a positive programme: some of the key moments in life were to be brought within the narrative of salvation and the life of the church, and any sense of them as sympathetic magic is the fault, not of the larger view of a heaven-and-earth overlap, but of the cultural and philosophical frameworks which were set up instead of the biblical homeland where such an overlap would make much more sense.
So can only clergy celebrate the sacraments? Most churches recognise Trinitarian baptism whoever has performed it. And, once again, any idea that the clergy possess a kind of magic character which gives them special powers is fraught with danger, as we all should know. But when, once more, we put these questions back into the narrative of creation and covenant, of new covenant and new creation, focused on Jesus and now going out into the world, we find we need to hold on to two things together. On the one hand, God is always doing surprising things, making new things happen, as in Paul’s picture of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. But on the other hand, God is the God of order and harmony, of unity and peace, as in 1 Corinthians 14. And since the Eucharist, as Paul insists, is the place where Jesus’ people are held together within the one body, with social and cultural tensions supposedly reconciled, it makes all the sense in the world that the person who breaks the bread and pours out the wine is the person who has been prayerfully set aside with the laying on of hands, not to be a different species of humanity, but precisely to represent that human vocation of standing at the fault-lines, at the threshold between heaven and earth, between past, present and future. Such a person, duly and prayerfully ordained, is also the visible and actual sign of, and link between, the wider Christian fellowship, in a diocese and around the world. The scandal of Christian disunity is already huge; one way of preventing it spreading further, as Ignatius already saw in the second century, is the solemn ordering of the church, with clergy under the one bishop celebrating the one Eucharist. To do otherwise would falsify the narrative. But that brings me to my next point.
How does this vision of sacramental life look outwards to the wider vocation of the church? Here I invoke Psalm 72. It is a vision of the rule and vocation of the true king. He will defend the cause of the fatherless and widow; he will do justice for the vulnerable and the oppressed. His dominion will be from one end of the world to the other, celebrated precisely because he does these things. And the Psalm ends, not as an afterthought but as the fitting climax: blessed be the Lord, who alone does wonderful things; blessed be his glorious name for ever; may his glory fill the whole earth, Amen, Amen. There it is again: the ultimate eschatological vision, flashed up on the scriptural screen as in Numbers 13 or Isaiah 11 or Habakkuk 2, pointing to the Bible’s cosmic eschatology.
See what’s going on: in the Old Testament, the king is the temple-builder: David plans it, Solomon builds it, Hezekiah and Josiah restore it, the would-be later kings either cleanse it or rebuild it or plan to rebuild it. Jesus himself spoke cryptically in those terms. But the point of building or cleansing the Temple is so that the divine glory can come and dwell there, so that the Temple is the small working model of what God will do for the whole of creation. That then stands exactly parallel to the royal agenda of Psalm 72. The king builds the Temple so the divine glory may live in it; the king will do universal justice so that the divine glory may dwell throughout the world. Once again, Presence and Justice. That is the vision of the glory-filled world which, I have been suggesting, ought to inform our sacramental theology.
And that is then the vision which must sustain our mission. We are to be the Messiah-people, with the royal agenda made our own in the power of the Spirit. We should be praying Psalm 72 as the people of Jesus, the justice-bringing king, and with every Eucharist celebrating the fact that we are tasting in advance the grapes of Eshcol, the glory-filled fruit from the new creation. And in the strength of that food we go into the world to bring God’s rescuing justice and loving presence to the orphan and the widow and all who need it.
Along with mission there goes unity. You only really glimpse the church’s vocation when you see the biblical eschatology of heaven and earth. But that is a vision of a rich, diverse but harmonious unity. There is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Eucharist . . . I actually dare to believe that a renewal of rich biblical theology might be one clue at least to the renewal of our vision of unity. Ironically, as we all know, the different ancient denominations are now much closer to one another than they were even fifty years ago, at the very moment when those same denominations have big cracks opening up within them. Unity is not easy. To judge from Paul, it never was. But it remains mandatory not optional, though tragically our divisions over the sacraments themselves, the intended signs and means of unity, have built walls instead of bridges between us. I take some comfort from the fact that at least officially most major churches recognise one another’s baptisms, apart from the ongoing question of infants. And I persist in thinking, on the basis of Galatians 2, that the shared table is itself the sign and means of unity, not an extra bonus when unity has been achieved on other grounds.
But if the sacraments are about mission and unity, they are also of course about holiness. They are about the transformative joining of heaven and earth, with the corruption of earth purged away. They are about the inbreaking of God’s final New Age, not about the shoulder-shrugging suggestion that the Old Age was more or less OK as it was – rather like the bishop in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who thought that perhaps hell itself was heaven if only one had eyes to see it. All this comes together in that great heaven-and-earth letter, Ephesians, where the unity of the church of forgiven sinners, across racial and cultural barriers, is the sign to the world that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t; and where that unity demands a radical holiness, rooted in Israel’s vision of a truly human existence, celebrating the goodness of creation and rejecting all corruption of it, with Israel’s vocation now reanimated through cross, resurrection and Spirit. Marriage belongs right in there in chapter 5, the one place in the Vulgate where the word sacramentum is found. This vision of unity and holiness will then, as in Ephesians 6, have to meet the challenge of spiritual warfare. My friends, that’s where we are right now. Holiness, unity and mission: the church in theory believes in all of them. I am suggesting that if we understand the church’s sacramental life in the way I have outlined we will have both a better grasp on why these things matter and a more focused energy for working on them.
I wish there were time to work this out more fully. But the burden of my song today has been that the sacraments of the church, rather than being an odd, extraneous addition to a gospel which is about leaving behind the world of space, time and matter, are quintessential and non-negotiable effective signs within the gospel world itself. In that world, heaven and earth have come together in Jesus and come together now by the Spirit. In that world, the past – Israel’s past, Jesus’ past – is brought into the present, and at the same time the future, the new creation filled with the glorious divine presence, comes forward to meet us even in the midst of our brokenness and incomprehension. Grapes of Eshcol, again, to be eaten while still in the desert. And so we find ourselves, often despite ourselves, called to stand at the fault lines: the threshold of heaven and earth, where the tectonic plates of past, present and future grind into one another. We are called to the human vocation so that others may find redeemed and genuine humanness. We are called to the Israel-vocation, focused on Israel’s Messiah, so that the church may be the worldwide people of God. We are called to the dangerous joy which, as Hebrews says, Jesus himself held before him as he went to the cross. Sacramental ministry is a challenging, difficult and risky place to be. But it’s where Jesus stands and calls us: the wounded Jesus, the challenging Jesus, the stranger on the road, the victorious Jesus, the first-born from the dead, the one in whom heaven and earth have come together, the one who has gone ahead of us into God’s future and now sends us the fruit from that promised land. He has stood at the fault lines. He has faced the danger. He now knows the joy. In the sacraments, he shares it all with us.
Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews