Lesson 1: Sacraments as a Means of Grace

Sacrament of BaptismTalking to Derek last week, I was reminded that I wanted to push myself to look at the commandments and sacraments from a modern perspective. All of us are conditioned to use old concepts when speaking of ancient traditions. They roll off our tongues without much thought. There is certainly no great harm, except when we try to explain to others or ourselves what we mean. Some of the old understandings do not make much sense anymore.

While talking to my friend, I remembered I had written that words are means of grace by which God comes to us. This kind of thought assumes God lives somewhere else, such as a place named heaven, and once in a while stops by to visit us. This ignores our scientific outlook, as well as biblical attempts to proclaim God’s presence among us. When Jesus’ followers talked of the Risen Christ or the Holy Spirit, they were trying to express a new liberating insight in the context of their thought world. We do well to do this with modern concepts.

It makes more sense to say the means of grace are ways that God reveals his presence to us. The challenge is discerning the divine right here among us. We know God is with us when he speaks, just as we detect another person is with us in a dark room when they speak up. We also know we are not alone when God acts. Defining the sacraments as means of grace identifies them as God’s actions.

The dilemma has always been how to discern which words and actions are God’s and which are not. That is part of what Martin Luther meant when he said a sacrament is not the water, bread, and wine alone but each of these together with God’s word. The Word identifies that these are being used by God to save us. God promises to be there when we engage in these actions.

This liberates us from trying to explain how a sacrament works using concepts from the world of magic. God is present not in a small piece of bread or sip of wine but rather in the action of eating and drinking with each other and God.

This way of thinking brings a new dimension to the sacraments that we usually overlook. When we have faith in God’s promise to participate in the cleansing of baptism we begin to see God’s presence in all washing, whenever we remove impurities from our bodies, souls, or world. We discern God’s presence whenever we wash our hands, take a shower, wash our car, forgive those who sin against us, leave our failures behind us, right an injustice, or perform any other form of purifying.

God is present when we participate in the Eucharist at Church and our eyes are opened to seeing him sharing all meals with us. Whenever we gather around a table with family or friends or strangers, God is there as well. God is present with us in all acts of sharing, all acts of love. If we discerned God’s presence, we would certainly be more inspired to act according to his will wherever we find ourselves.

Of course, that always brings up the question of God’s presence in catastrophic acts. Is God present in the devastating floods in West Virginia or the mass shooting in Orlando? Certainly; however, that does not means he is responsible for actions caused by human sin or accidental evil. The sacraments remind us God is always present in cleansing and loving actions. God is there enabling us to heal and continue in love.

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