This was originally delivered as a sermon at Washington Community Fellowship in the fall of 2010.
In the season of autumn, we are often treated with stunning, breath-taking days of beauty. I cannot help but be reminded of the poem “God’s World” by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies! Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
… Lord, I do fear,
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, — let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
Here, surrounded by falling leaves, Millay is sending God a message. Don’t let any more leaves fall or I shall be consumed by glory! I will be immolated by the fiery passion this beauty is birthing! But in those same falling leaves, is there any message that God is sending us?
I pondered this while reflecting on the sacramental life in the woods of our home at Corhaven in the Shenandoah Valley, soaking in the sun on a warm autumn afternoon, surrounded myself by the falling leaves, thinking about Walt Whitman’s observation, “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and everyone of them signed by God’s name.” Fr. Ernesto Cardenal reflects on this that the leaf is a fragrant handkerchief that bears God’s monogram in one corner, and he dropped it intentionally to remind us of him. Cardenal goes on, “We find initials of God in all nature, and all creatures are God’s messages of love addressed to us. They are flashes of his love. All nature is aflame with love, created by love in order to kindle love. This is the reason for being of all beings…all things speak to us of God.” (To Live Is to Love)
Finding God in all things–this is the sacramental life. Things that are visible and tangible to our senses more and more become the vehicles whereby we are able to see the invisible and hold in our hands the intangible. The sacramental life is where the invisible becomes more real than the visible, the spiritual more alluring than the physical; it is a life in which, more and more, we “consecrate” things around us to God’s service and receive all things– as small and common and ubiquitous as leaves– as blessings from God. More and more of the world around us becomes visible signs of invisible realities.
Historically, a sacrament has been understood by the church to be “a visible sign of invisible grace.” Baptism makes visible our dying with Christ and being raised with him. Marriage makes visible the sort of relationship Christ invites us into. Eucharist makes visible the body and blood of Jesus. I shade that definition of sacrament just a touch, and say a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” The sacramental life then, Richard Foster tells us, “focuses on making present and visible the realm of the invisible spirit. This way of living addresses the crying need to experience God as truly manifest and notoriously active in daily life” (Streams of Living Water). I only take one small issue with this. When we live sacramentally, we are not making present the realm of the spirit. No, we are becoming present to that which is always there, that which is waiting for us to wake up and open our eyes and see it, open our hands and receive it, and open our hearts to the God who is here, always, looking at me with eyes of love. When we live this way, everything becomes a means to take us to deeper truths, to the ever-present Holy and Living and Loving God who walks everywhere and whispers in everything, or shouts. When we live the sacramental life, every leaf falling or still hanging on the tree can speak to us of God’s love, and everything else too.
I’ve been asked to speak on the Sacramental Life, in part because I’m an Anglican. That’s interesting because I suppose I could talk from my tradition about every one of Foster’s six streams of living water: not only the sacramental but also the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, and evangelical traditions. All of these are deeply present in Anglicanism; it is a gloriously and notoriously broad Christian tradition, intensely struggling to hold our family together precisely because of its breadth. But you’ve asked an Anglican to talk about the sacramental life I assume because we put the sacrament of the Eucharist near the center of our corporate life of worship and in some cases private devotion. In this we approach the Catholic tradition, from which we draw many of our forms of worship, polity, and devotions. And so I think it’s probably true that if we want to really hear most deeply about the sacraments and the Eucharist, all of us should probably engage the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. Yet, it is also true that when it comes to the sacramental life, this is one aspect that hopefully shows up in every Christian tradition. I mean, what Christian of any stripe ought not to be striving to find God in all things, where literally every minute of every day can shimmer with his incandescence?
I did not come to Anglicanism by birth… hardly. I grew up Plymouth Brethren, who formed two centuries ago largely in reaction to the Anglican Church! And then I became a Baptist, who in the early days of the Church of England were an easy and regular target of persecution by Anglicans, even to death! But then in the mid-90s, I traveled around the world for 18 months, and what I saw then and how my own soul had been growing led me to look for a different denomination. I wanted to be in a tradition
- that confidently held to the belief in the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of Scripture
- where beauty was recognized as an important part of worship
- where I could exercise a social conscience without being branded as liberal
- where I could ask true questions about God, the world, and the spiritual life and not be looked at with suspicion
- that did more than simply nod at church history before the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and rather recognized the value of the Church Fathers and certain aspects of Catholicism
- that would provide a good platform for working towards Christian unity between the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church traditions
And God led me like a laser beam to The Falls Church in northern VA. And I became Anglican. And a few years later, the Baptist in me finally bent the knee and I became ordained a priest, for four reasons, and one of them was this: I wanted to dive as deeply into the sacraments as I could, and lead others to the same, and particularly the Eucharist.
For years when I received communion, I felt like I was peeking through a door that opens into a majestic new reality that has earth-shattering implications for how I live. Kneeling down to receive the bread and wine, the feeling came stronger and stronger… ‘something’s going on here.’ And for a while now I’ve felt like I stepped inside that door, and began to really look around… or began to let myself be washed in the flood of warm light and heat that is God’s love and magnificence coming through the sacrament, and a cycle started. The more we understand the Eucharist, the more we feel when we take it; and the more we feel, the more we want to understand, and the cycle goes on.
Shortly we’ll celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, when we celebrate the Son of God, Jesus Christ, humbling himself and taking the form of a human being, the great descent. And it is in the Eucharist, Mother Teresa observes, that Christ continues his great descent, and continues to humble himself by coming to us in bread and wine. She said, “The [Eucharist] is the spiritual food that sustains me—without which I could not get through one single day or hour in my life. I know I would not be able to work one week if it were not for that continual force coming from Jesus in the [Eucharist].” He came, and in this sacrament he keeps coming.
The German reformer Martin Luther had a famous argument with Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, over beers. Zwingli believed that the bread and wine changed not one whit in communion, it’s purpose was remembrance only. Luther however– being more Catholic than most Protestants today– disagreed and protested vigorously; he took his finger and scooped into the froth on the head of his beer and wrote on the table… “EST,” the Latin for “IS” and drew a circle around it signifying the wafer of bread and said “This IS my body.” (Hoc est corpus meus) For Luther, Jesus said the bread was his body and so it was.
From the Gospel of Matthew, 26.26-28
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
An old Anglican way of looking at this– stereotypically undefined and remaining comfortably in the realm of mystery– comes from the pen of the poet and preacher John Donne. He basically says in rhyme: whatever Jesus meant… this we believe.
He was the Word that spake it
He took the bread and brake it
And what that Word did make it
I do believe and take it.
It’s important I think to remember that for 1500 years, the Church universally understood that _somehow_ the bread and wine of communion became the body and blood of Christ for us in real-time. And even now, combining the traditions of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some other Protestant expressions, I would guess 75% of the world’s believers believe that Jesus is in fact _somehow_ uniquely present in bread and wine of Holy Communion. In this we remember indeed his Passion, and yet there is more going on at the Table.
At the lowest common denominator, we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. We believe that he feeds us spiritually with his body and blood in this sacrament. We believe that _somehow_ the impact of what happened 2000 years ago comes to us in a special, powerful, and real way when we join the disciples in the upper room and eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus. We believe that “Something more is going on here than simply remembering what happened 2000 years ago” and that Something is Jesus himself coming to us. Whatever Jesus meant, that’s what we believe.
And my goodness, if we can find a love letter from God written on every falling leaf and leaf still hanging on a tree, how much more can find the message of God’s love for us in a wafer or small piece of bread given to us at communion. Every piece of bread– taken, blessed, broken, and given– shouts this to the one who receives it, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” The sacramental life is about being able to find God in all things, and its clearest expression and deepest distillation is in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the summit of the sacramental life. Remember, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, and in the Eucharist, we can hold in our hand the very love God for us, and put it in our mouth. Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” (John 6.54ff)
Mother Teresa said, “When you look at the [Cross], you understand how much Jesus loved you. When you look at the [Eucharist] you understand how much Jesus loves you now… If I can give you any advice, I beg you to get closer to the Eucharist.”