Another way of envisioning the nature of the church is to turn to sacramental theology. The idea of sacrament, which is traditionally defined in terms of the visible/material serving as signs of invisible grace, allows us to peer beneath the surface of our ecclesial realities. In seeking to reenvision the church sacramentally, I’m not just suggesting that the church is the place where we receive sacraments, but that being in community we experience sacramental grace. If the church is by definition the living body of Christ in the world, then it’s a visible sign of Christ’s spiritual presence. As a sacramental sign, the church brings to an alienated and estranged world the reconciling and transforming work of the Spirit. It’s as Leonardo Boff has written, “the sacrament, sign, and instrument of the now living and risen Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit.” [Boff,Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, 150.] Where the church as the body of Christ is present, working compassionately by caring for the homeless, the jobless, the oppressed, the imprisoned, then Christ is present and grace is made visible.
The church isn’t the only sign of God’s gracious presence in the world. To say this would limit God’s ability to be present in ways that lie outside the walls of the church (“there is no salvation outside the church,” for instance). The church is, however, a foundational sign, a “thin place” where we can encounter the creator. Thin places, are sacramental moments, “a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us.” Thus, it’s a means of God’s grace to humanity, even to the creation itself.
These sacramental thin places may come in many forms, ranging from geographical places such as Jerusalem or Rome or the mountains or the sea, to music or the arts. They are places “where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us.” [Borg, Heart of Christianity, p. 156]. Because worship can be a thin place, the church as a visible entity offers the possibility of experiencing life-changing encounters with God. Unfortunately, in spite of our decision to make time and room for worship, we don’t always recognize God’s sacramental presence in our midst.
In the Protestant tradition two sacramental acts stand at the center of Christian experience, making visible to us God’s gracious embrace of humanity, Baptism and the Eucharist. These means of grace or thin places help us gather our hearts into the presence of God so that we might taste a new relationship with the creator.
Baptism is a sign of God’s covenant, a means by which we are initiated into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). It’s a tangible way of identifying with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection as we begin a new life as covenant children of God (Rom. 6:1-11). Baptism by immersion powerfully symbolizes the change of life that entering the covenant brings. In this watery grave we find ourselves “transformed after the likeness of Jesus Christ.” Although baptism is not a mechanical conduit of the Spirit’s presence, it is a symbolic marker of our status as “spirit-filled” persons. As bearers of the Spirit, we’re thereby all ordained to ministries of the gospel.
The Eucharist acts as a sign of the tangible nature of the real presence of Christ’s body, a body into which we have been born through our baptisms. In Baptism and Eucharist, the disciples of Jesus are initiated into the new covenant. By participating in this meal we’re joined to his destiny, as we share in the meal of remembrance. The first meal and its re-enactments hold the promise that the separation entailed in death will be transcended in God’s new realm. In these two sacraments we are swept into the covenantal relationship with our God. We become heirs of the promise that allows us to share in the goodness of God’s reign.
Although the sacraments have often been the cause of division (the reality of our differences often are magnified sacramentally), they’re intended to be signs of unity. Paul wrote that “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). This stands as a reminder to the church that the barriers that keep us separated at the altar are signs that the body of Christ on earth is unhealthy. Health involves finding wholeness or unity at the table, so that in partaking of the
one bread we become part of one body in Christ. As sacramental signs themselves, Baptism and the Eucharist remind us that the church as the body of Christ is the visible sign of Christ’s gracious
presence in the world.
Excerpt from Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013), pp. 163-165. Unfettered Spirit was named a Top Ten Book for 2014 by the Academy of Parish Clergy.