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Our Sacramental Nature
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity XX - 10/10/17
Is. 52:7-10 Psalm 96; 2 Tim. 4:5-15 Lk. 10:1-7
We live in a sacramental world, which is one of the watersheds between the Biblical world and the secular and pagan worlds. A sacramental world is one in which the spiritual is manifested by the physical.
The Anglican Book of Common Prayer definition of a sacrament is something physical which is an outward and visible sign of something inward and spiritual. The physical embodies or manifests something spiritual. The invisible become visible, tangible, hearable, smellable, and/or tastable. Our bodies manifest us.
The spiritual is primary and the physical secondary. The physical is not secondary in the sense of "second-rate", it is crucial to the functioning of the spiritual. It is secondary in that it is created by the spiritual, exactly the opposite of secularism, where everything emerges out of the physical, even minds which supposedly are created by our brains.
In our heavily materialist Western society, where even Jews and Christians are subverted by materialist ethos, our sacramental natures are badly compromised, and we make poor witnesses for our Lord.
The physical world of time and space is what becomes the stage upon which God brings together His creatures in a community. Our having bodies which are located in time and space makes us uniquely identifiable among each other. We can each know where we are, when we are, and who we are.
So far as I am aware, there is no other humanly known way in which a community of spirits can function together. How angels go about this business of community is somewhat of a mystery, but they do seem to have some kind of bodies. Our bodies identify us each as a unique spirit among other spirits. Unless I am perhaps psychotic, I never get myself confused with anyone else, and rarely, if at all, get other people confused with each other. And if I do confuse two persons, there are ways of sorting out the confusion.
In a materialist world, all spirits, that is, all persons, evaporate into functions of matter. Our brains are said to be the place where our minds are manufactured. So there is no real spiritual being, only the mental something-or-other caused by functions of the brain. We are reduced from persons to machines. Materialism is the least stable of all worldviews because it is so hostile to persons and personal relationships. There is a world of time and space, but there is no meaning to it.
In the pagan world, there is a kind of sacramentalism. There are religious rituals using physical objects to convey spiritual meaning, generally offerings to the gods and goddesses to get them to do something friendly towards their worshippers.
But the pagan world is not about relationship, and especially not about love relationships. It is about power struggle to keep oneself afloat, to keep oneself and one's people from being run over, enslaved, or annihilated by the neighboring person, tribe, or nation. The world is about dominating one's neighbor so that one can survive, not about loving one's neighbor. The sacramentalism of the pagan world is just another part of the power-struggle, another way to support and sustain oneself and one's tribe.
So, the sacramental nature of the Biblical world is no small matter. It has been unfortunate that we Christians have come to blows, some times savagely, about the sacramental nature of the world -- especially Protestants and Catholics.
Protestantism, at its worst, downgraded the sacraments, and turned Christian faith into a sterile, intellectualized, and legalized version of atonement with God, more like Islam than like Biblical Christianity. And Catholicism, at its worst, turned the sacraments into a mechanical ritual, more for the monetary control of the laity by the clergy than for the salvation of souls. In both cases, the issue was more control rather than true freedom in Christ.
The Anglican Church, despite all its faults, foolishness, and wanderings astray, at its core has been led to a viable, full, and rich understanding of the relation between the spiritual and the physical, and, in that respect, is very much akin to Eastern Orthodoxy. An article available at the back in the new tract rack tells some of the story.
All this has to do with our patron Saint, Luke, who was a physician. That would have meant that Luke was familiar with various healing herbs and potions, some of which are still in use today, such as aloe vera, and various exercises which might help alleviate or cure a physical problem. Our collect recognizes Luke for his service as a physician -- "Almighty God, who didst inspire Thy servant Saint Luke the Physician, to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of Thy Son; Manifest in Thy Church the like power and love, to the healing of our bodies and our souls..."
Both our bodies and souls are in need of healing. Both have been damaged in the Fall. Neither St. Luke nor anyone else in the Bible suggests that Luke should have given up his life as a physician, and, though we hear nothing of the matter, we can assume that Luke continued to use and recommend those ways of healing which he had learned. He must also have added to his healing ministry a life of prayer, and a life filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Church has been afflicted with a temptation to draw lines of separation between things which belong together, such as masculine and feminine, body and spirit, law and grace, to name a few. In the economy of God, these things are "both/and", not "either/or". As I described above, the spirit and the body are meant to be complementaries, not enemies, so that life can be about loving personal relationship, not power-struggle. That is an idea hard to understand in the secular or pagan mentality.
We no doubt understand how we get broken physically, but how do we get broken spiritually?
You can get broken only if you have a nature which can get broken, a natural way for things to be which can be distorted. There is a human nature, an optimal way for your body and spirit to be, in order for you to know and pursue your reason for existence.
God did not design us just willy-nilly, anything will do. God had a very specific reason for the design He place into us humans -- given to us in the Decalogue and the Two Great Commandments. God was planning a community of those who would love Him with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and love their neighbors just like they love themselves. That goal was expressed in different ways in Scripture, such as, "What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Or, St. Paul's hymn to love, ending with those three things which endure: Faith, Love, and Hope.
So God designed our nature to be able to love Him and our neighbors. That meant, and means still, a community in which we are open to each other, vulnerable to each other, get to know each other at a deep level, and support each other at any cost to ourselves -- living in the light, as directed by the Spirit of God.
But, not just anybody can do that. You have to have a certain kind of inner stability and strength to do that. That kind of openness is not common, nor is the unity which it inspires among the children of God. You have to have those two stabilities, personal and moral, you have to be able to stand on your own two feet as an adult, knowing who you are, and you have to know the difference between right and wrong, your moral obligations. You have to know who you are and where you are going.
When you lose those two stabilities, you become incapable of loving either God or your neighbor. Instead of open and free, you become inwardly turned and defensive.
St. Paul describes the process in Romans 1:18 ff. We first subvert the truth, we then lose track of who God is, leaving us worshipping the creature rather than the creator. Then, because we have a false god who cannot do the job, we fall into compulsive, self-destructive activities. We become power-centered, and good-feeling-centered, not good-relationship-centered. That is a terribly self-destructive way to live, but that is way secular and pagan people end up living.
We then have souls which are broken, we are incapable of loving God or neighbor, even when we want to do so. Paul himself describes that situation with the residue of the Fall within himself in Romans 7. He finds himself doing that which he does not want to do, and not doing that which he wants to do. He has internal contradictions. That is a broken soul, just as broken as an arm or leg. Even though I know and want to do the right thing, I am unable. I am broken and need fixing.
With the advent of modern psychology in the late 1800's, psychologists began to develop secular theories on how to fix our souls (our psyches) using "psychology". It seemed to many that with our new grip on "science", we could tame the world, fix its brokenness. Many good things happened because of science, but science got co-opted into the power struggle, and thus we produced the most brutal century (so far) in all human history -- the 20th.
So, how do we get spiritually broken? The same way your new car might get broken -- if we do not follow the Manufacturer's instructions. In Biblical history, God has given us a reason for our existence. If we pursue other reasons, contrary to that of God, then we will get broken -- just as Paul describes in Romans 1. We become incapable, spastic, compulsive, addicted -- not just unwilling, but unable to change our behavior to that chosen by our Creator.
In reaction to the secularization of the healing professions, many Christians retreated into a spiritualist mentality, rejecting healing as though it were competing with salvation. Christians began to say things like, "Just pray and read the Bible, that is all you need." Christians began to fear that the new medical sciences springing up, especially psychology, would make the spiritual life irrelevant. That is, of course, just what some secular people wanted..., and promised. There was a rejection among many Christians of what they called the "therapeutic" mentality, the substituting of healing for repentance, confession, and atonement.
And, indeed, the secular world did promise us a repentance-free world. They told us that all that morality just made us feel perpetually guilty. We needed only to be psychoanalyzed and all would be well. It did not work, of course, the world's way of dealing with the Fall only produced more confusion, sin, and brokenness.
But we Christians ought to have read our Bibles more carefully. Jesus spent a large part of His time healing the broken, and St. Luke's vocation testifies to the goodness of the medical arts. We live in a sacramental world where the physical is right at home with the spiritual, and either side of our nature can be broken. The Bible is not a "spiritual" book, it is a sacramental book.
We should have spotted Satan's once more "divide and conquer" strategy. We should have realized that we are in a "both/and" , not an "either/or" situation. We need both atonement through repentance and forgiveness and healing of our brokenness. We do have a human nature which becomes very fragile when separated from the nurturing power and the directing authority of our Creator. Our brokenness needs to be fixed as well as our sins forgiven.
Only as we attend to both aspects of our needs will we mature into whole, healthy, and holy persons in the service of God and one another.
The sacramental nature of God's world runs all through Scripture -- beginning with "in the beginning". God, a spiritual being, creates the whole of the physical world, and then creates the human race in His image, male and female. Our sexual nature is an outward and visible sign of something in the nature of God. The Bible is by far the earthiest of all scriptures. The Bible alone takes time and space seriously as the realm in which God will reveal Himself. The Bible alone sees history as Godís story-line, inviting us creatures to join Him in that story.
The Bible alone securely unites body and soul into a person, a freewill creature of God who can have an open and full relationship with his Creator.
What other deity says to His followers: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (John 14)
What other deity invites us to call him "Father"? "Our Father... who art in heaven..." Pray like that, Jesus says.
What other deity descends into the flesh-world of His creatures -- for any reason at all -- let alone so as to rescue them, at great cost to Himself, from their own self-destruction?
The sacramental nature of our world is the foundation which separates Biblical religion from all other religions of the world. Other religions will be either spiritual or material. None of them show the capacity to unite spiritual with physical, for any reason at all, let alone to create a family bond between God and man.
The sacramental nature of reality keeps us from floating off into spiritualism, the loss of all personal identity as we evaporate into the cosmic consciousness and so lose our individuality and personhood. And our sacramental nature ensures that our physical side remains the servant of our spirit, our "donkey", as St. Francis called his body, carrying him from place to place.
Personhood erodes in non-sacramental worldviews. Our
sacramental nature thus keeps us real as persons.
Dear God, the heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, heal and restore to us that wholeness of ourselves -- so that we might become unashamed, vibrant, wholesome witnesses for you in a broken and sinful world, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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