Sunday, April 23, 2023

Tools of the Trade (2)

It was a long but exciting night, even if, outside, all was darkness. Liberian and his wife Junia were tired and hungry – they'd been fasting for two days in preparation, making their final breaks with their old pagan lives.1 Over the past couple years, their Christian neighbors in the apartment next door had – somehow – gotten them interested in this odd new religion. Finally they were convinced, and so here they were, turning their backs on the city's gods and spending all night listening to scripture readings and teachings. Now it was time to go.2

Through the dark Roman streets they made their way. Sunday would soon dawn on them. By the time the first rooster crowed, with all still dark, Liberian and Junia stood at the banks of the Tiber.3 Bishop Soter was there, blessing casks of oil.4 The presbyter who led them was there, a deacon and a deaconess were there. Bishop Soter asked them each whether they renounced Satan and all his servants and works; Liberian and Junia both said yes.5 Then, one final time, Soter anointed them with oil and told any lingering demons to take the hint.6 Now, now they were ready. Removing their clothes,7 Liberian stepped down into the water with Soter and the deacon, and as Liberian shivered, Soter inquired into his faith – did he believe in God the Father, did he believe in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, did he believe in the Holy Spirit who indwelt the church and gives life to the dead?8 Each time, Liberian said he believed, and each time, Soter dunked him beneath the waters. He was born again, cleansed of everything. The deacon helped Liberian up out of the water; the deaconess helped Junia down in. Now it was her turn. When both were finished, Soter anointed them in thanksgiving and left.9

Once Liberian and Junia had dried off and dressed, the deacon and deaconess led them to the church.10 There, the bishop was waiting. Once again he anointed them, invoking the Holy Spirit to give them strength; and he laid hands on their heads, calling the Spirit to seal and fill them. They knew that Soter was linked by a chain of hands and heads all the way back almost a century and a half, to the hands that were nailed to the cross. Now, through that physical chain, Liberian and Junia found their personal Pentecost.11

Turning, they saw the church filled with their new brothers and sisters – their neighbors included. Now worship began. Called together, they confessed their failings,12 listened to readings from the holy writings,13 heard Bishop Soter teach.14 Liberian and Junia, no longer dismissed, were welcomed to join in the sacred prayers of the people15 – and they exchanged the kiss of peace with all around them, certifying that no divisions marked this great family.16 The deacons carried forward the loaves of bread Liberian and Junia brought yesterday, and wine and water to mix.17 Bishop Soter offered a prayer of thanks;18 Liberian, Junia, and everyone chanted an amen back.19 And when the sacrifice was consecrated and offered up,20 it was his hands that gave them their first food and drink to break the fast – spiritual food, spiritual drink.21 Saying prayers of thanksgiving afterwards, they were dismissed. The more well-to-do poured their coins into the deposit box as they went, an offering to the Lord; and Liberian and Junia, before they emerged into the Sunday sunlight, gave whatever they had.22 They were new, and as they emerged into the sunshine, they got to know some of their new brothers and sisters as they strolled Rome's streets.

That's what it would have been like, to become a Christian in second-century Rome, over eighteen centuries ago – tangible, raw, ritualized, and communal. At no point would a Liberian or a Junia have been left alone. How could they be? Christianity has never been meant to be lived out alone. And while, yes, there's a fine tradition of holy hermits that rose up later, for none of us is that our story. This year, we've been talking about our great human journey, and we've talked internally about what that looks like – the graces God infuses – but not so much externally. Liberian and Junia just hit lift-off on their great human journey to behold the face of God, and they were not alone when they began, nor were they alone as they took those unimaginable first steps.

When we read about the beginning of organized Christianity in Acts 2, we hear that the new Christians from the day of Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Luke doesn't write 'prayers'; he writes 'the prayers.' Last Sunday, we talked about how Jews and Christians alike at that time had scheduled times of prayer in the day. Where possible, Christians gathered together to pray them. And certainly they gathered together early on Sunday mornings at the church.

They were a family at prayer. And they were a family in fellowship. That's what it says: “the fellowship.” To be a Christian meant sharing in something together, it meant a mutual encounter, face-to-face, in person. No Sunday went past in which Liberian and Junia – so long as they were physically able to get there – wouldn't have come to share the same physical space with other Christians, including either Bishop Soter or one of his presbyters. Anything less would not have been 'the fellowship.' Lately, in our denomination, we've been having a discussion on whether there can really be any such thing as a 'virtual church,' a purely online experience that's the equivalent of real physical gathering.23 And the answer is, obviously not. 'Cyberspace' is not space. Chatting online is not gathering. The church really must gather bodies and souls alike, or else it is not church.

Hebrews reminds us to be “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). But what do we meet together for? First and foremost, for worship! Christians are drawn together by the call of God, by the grace of God reaching out and inviting us in, to be joined together for worship. That is what it is all about. That is the summit of Christian living; everything else supports it. When we read portraits of eternity in the last book of the Bible, the servants of God gather around the throne, “and his servants will worship him,” and “they will see his face” (Revelation 22:3-4). Worship is the principal action that lasts for eternity; it's what most directly leads to the face of God. The fellowship is a fellowship, not just to be sociable, but to worship.

Often in the context of that worship, the fellowship is a fellowship of confessing our hope. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). Over and over again, the psalmists spoke of giving thanks “in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1). “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!” (Psalm 149:1). We confess our hope when we recite the creed, when we sing our hymns, when we give thanks or say amen.

And the fellowship is a fellowship of encouragement, of discipleship. So “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works..., encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17) – just so is the physical, tangible gathering of Christians in local space and local time a prime venue for sharpening each other, for building each other up in the faith, for inciting each other to love and goodness.

These things – worship, confession, encouragement – are defining differences between real Christian gathering and just a friendly get-together. And the trouble is that, too often, we have been content to think of church and fellowship hall as a place for friendly get-togethers, more than we have as space for real Christian gathering. But these were built and dedicated for one paramount purpose: an irreplaceable physical gathering of the godly for worship, confessing our hope in the Son of God by his Holy Spirit, and stoking faith into the blaze of love that can't help but give off the smoke of blessing. That is real Christian gathering. That's why the church has always thought of church gatherings as so vitally important. Listen to how they talked about it – they said:

The people... should gather in church, and come together always, that none should be absent and so reduce the church through their withdrawal, so as to make the body of Christ defective in a limb. … Since you are members of Christ, you should not scatter yourself from the church by failing to gather with others. Since, as he promised, you have Christ as your head, present with you and communicating himself to you, do not neglect yourselves, nor distance the Savior from his own members..., nor lend precedence to worldly affairs over the word of God, but put them aside each Lord's Day and hurry to the church, for she is your glory. For what excuse shall they who do not assemble on that day to hear the saving word and to be nourished with divine and everlasting food give to God?24

The reason why all these things happen principally in person is because God made us physical beings. Bodies aren't just a secondary aspect of who we are, much less an obstacle to who we are. We are ensouled bodies – that is what we are. We are made to shape our inner lives and express our inner lives through our senses and actions. That's true in everyday things, and it's true in spiritual things. For just that reason, God chose to meet us in ways that have a very physical and public aspect. Chief among them are something we call 'sacraments.'

In our denomination, we don't talk very much about 'sacraments.' But it's actually a word that does show up a couple times in our articles of faith, however much we ignore it. Maybe this is a word that's a little bit obscure to you. It's an old Latin word, and before Christians started using it, it could refer to a deposit of money placed in trust, it could refer to the oath of allegiance that a new recruit took when joining the Roman army, and it could refer to certain religious rituals of initiation into what were called 'mystery cults' or 'mystery religions.'25

In developing those meanings, Christians from the second century onward (at latest) began to speak of some of their physical practices as involving sacraments – physical things and actions that included spiritual power. An early Christian explained a sacrament as when “there is an act that touches the flesh..., but a spiritual effect” that happens through it.26 Later, somebody defined sacraments like this: “Under the covering of corporeal things, the divine virtue very secretly brings about the saving power of those sacraments.”27 Down through the ages, God's people have argued over exactly what sacraments are and how many there are, but I like one definition where sacraments are “sacred signs instituted by Christ who uses them as his instruments to efficaciously realize the sanctification they represent.”28 So sacraments are symbolic actions which Jesus himself picked out. They have to be signs representing something that directly causes holiness. And not only do they have to symbolize it, they have to actually make it happen. How? Because Jesus is the one who does it. Every time a sacrament really takes place, Jesus has committed to be the one actually doing things.

This morning, we heard the story of two imagined Romans, Liberian and Junia, being baptized. Already in the early church, baptism was called a sacrament. And by that, they meant that it wasn't really Bishop Soter who was doing the work; it was Jesus, borrowing Soter's hands. “Those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). Baptism is literally, physically a washing, but it symbolizes washing away sins, dying and rising, and being born all over again to a new life of faith and holiness. It's what Hebrews means when it invites us to “draw near... with our hearts sprinkled clean... and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). God “saved us... by the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), for “unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Therefore, in the sacrament, Jesus does wash away sins, does bury and raise, does give a new birth, whether you believe or not when it happens. That's why it horrified Christians if somebody tried to rebaptize someone who'd already been baptized – that was blasphemy against Jesus and his real work in the sacrament. I pray for some other pastors I know who gladly rebaptize people who just don't 'feel' like their first baptism was good enough. Validity doesn't hinge on our feelings; it hinges on Jesus! That's why early Christians would baptize even babies who couldn't speak, much less have personal 'faith feelings.'29

This morning, we also heard about Liberian and Junia going into the church and being anointed and having the bishop lay hands on them. While at first that was thought of as an extension of baptism, eventually it was seen as a sacrament all its own – call it 'chrismation' or 'unction' or 'confirmation.' Our denomination says nothing about it, but to most Christians in the world even today, it's obviously a sacred sign, instituted by Jesus Christ, which represents something sanctifying – being “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:3) – and so actually achieves it, so long as it's done validly.30 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter preached (Acts 2:38). This is just another way in which, through our bodies, God promises to meets us.

Of course, once Liberian and Junia were in the church, the bishop lifted up the bread and the cup, gave thanks, broke the bread in sacrifice, and had it distributed to the people. Today, we tend to call it just by the experience at the end: 'Communion.' Some have called the whole experience “the Lord's Supper.” Early Christians put their focus on the thankful prayer, and used the Greek word for thanksgiving: 'Eucharist.' Here we have a physical thing – bread and wine – given as a sign of sanctification instituted by Christ, in which he actually gives us what he promises. So Christians believed very strongly that, when Jesus gave the bread as his body and the cup as his blood, he meant it – he became present in them, changing them. One Christian, writing well before Soter was bishop, said that “this food is called among us 'eucharist,' of which it is lawful for no one to partake except one believing the things that have been taught by us are true, and who has been washed in the washing which is for the forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives in just the way that Christ handed down. For we do not receive these things as common bread and common drink, but... we have been taught that the food which has been eucharistized by a word of prayer which comes from him is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”31 Remember: How does Hebrews say we enter the holy places? “Through [Jesus'] flesh.” And how do we have confidence to do it? “By the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19-20). The flesh and blood of Jesus are indispensable for our flesh and blood and soul to approach God's holiness. And so, the early Christians said, Christians can be given “the sacrament of the eucharist” at least every Sunday morning.32

Some Christian groups today admit just two sacraments – baptism and the eucharist. Others count a perfect seven – baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, plus rites of reconciliation, anointing of the sick, ordination, and marriage. That's a whole lot to get into this morning, so sadly, we can't. But the point is, sacraments are tangible realities where, building on the nature God gave us as embodied people who traffic in signs and symbols, God works to draw us objectively closer to him, provided we receive his grace the right way. And that is what the great human journey is about: getting closer to God, until at last we see his face and become like him. The point of a sacrament isn't to show off our faith to those around us, though that can be a byproduct. The point is to receive more of God's life poured into us in these ways we can see and hear together. Another early Christian pictured us as houses whose furniture consists of “the sacraments of the faithful which they who have been initiated know.”33 He added that the sacraments are what 'marry' us tighter and tighter to Jesus.34 A non-sacramental Christianity isn't just a contradiction in terms; it's a handicap on the great human journey.

Luke, in Acts, brings these things all together. After being baptized, the new Christians joined “the fellowship” where they “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and... to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Liberian and Junia would've learned one Sunday morning what that verse meant, because it's exactly what they found in the church: Bishop Soter continued on the apostles' teaching, and broke the bread for the sacrament of the eucharist, and led the prayers for the fellowship. And everything happened in an embodied and well-ordered way. We know from that time that no local church just made everything up as they went along – we have the texts of prayers they prayed, ritual call-and-responses, and descriptions of symbol-heavy actions.

The word Christians came to use for worship gatherings that were well-ordered and embodied in that way was 'liturgy.' It was an old word for a public work provided to the people by a benefactor, or for the ministry of a priest in the temple. And the author of Hebrews, in calling Jesus our heavenly high priest, describes him literally as “a liturgist in the holy places” (Hebrews 8:2). We can call our well-ordered worship 'liturgy' only because, through the ministries he organized on earth, his own liturgy in heaven is extended down into our midst, into our worship – so that when we gather for worship and do things the way we're supposed to, with community and word and sacrament mediating his presence to us, Jesus is the high priest working in, among, and through us to glorify his Father and sanctify us.35 And in the liturgy of well-ordered worship, Jesus shapes us, gives us his vision of the good life, trains our hope for heaven and new creation, and touches us himself.36

Last Sunday, we discussed some optional tools for enhancing our prayer lives. But all we've discussed this time is no option. The fellowship, the sacraments, the liturgy that brings word and sacrament together in a gathering – these are essentials for all of us, if we want to advance on our great human journey toward the face of God, to be made like him and live before his face forever. And that's what it's all about. The Lord be with you. Amen.

Almighty and ever-living God, our Father, you have created us as flesh and blood, and breathed into us the breath of life to make our souls alive.  And when we had fallen so drastically into sin and become stained with death from birth, you sent forth your Son from heaven, that, by the mystery of his passion and resurrection, he might make a holy offering to you.  Being tangibly baptized into this mystery, we rise again in newness of life by your grace applying Christ's infinite worth to us.  You call us confidently forward, touching us all the way as only you can, to hear your word and eat from your table, there to feast from your grace hidden within.  And we don't have this as lone atoms adrift in the void, but together, as the whole body of Christ.  Through his flesh and his blood, we your people dare to enter the holy place where Christ our High Priest, our Heavenly Liturgist, leads us, as we are sanctified, in glorifying you; and in your glory, we are being made holy, more and more ready to behold your face.  And so to you we give thanks for all these things, but most of all, for yourself, for you give your very self to us in all the ways we are able in this life to receive you.  Now lead us onward and upward, we pray, that we might be discipled through fellowship and sacrament and liturgy into the very image of your Son, changed from glory into glory, and so in heaven take our place in him.  Amen.

1  Didache 7.4; Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 61.2; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 20.7.

2  Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 20.7-9.

3  Didache 7.1; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.1-2.

4  Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.6-7.

5  Tertullian of Carthage, On the Chaplet 3.2; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.9.

6  Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.10.

7  Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.3, 11.

8  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 61.3, 10; Tertullian of Carthage, On the Chaplet 3.3; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.11-18.

9  Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.19.

10  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.1; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.20.

11  Tertullian, On Baptism 7-8; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.22-24.

12  Didache 14.1.

13  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.3.

14  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.4.

15  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.5; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.25.

16  Didache 14.2; Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.2; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.26.

17  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.3; 67.5.

18  Didache 9.1–10.6; Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.3; 67.5; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 4.31.4; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 4.1-13; 21.27.

19  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.3-4; 67.5.

20  Didache 14.1-3.

21  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 65.5; 67.5; Tertullian of Carthage, On the Chaplet 3.3.

22  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.6.

23  “Ecclesiology and the Virtual Church,” The EC Leader (April 2023): 3-4.

24  Didascalia Apostolorum 2.59.1-3.

25  See, e.g., Titus Livius, From the Founding of the City 10.38.2; 39.15.13; Apuleius of Madaurus, Metamorphoses 11.15.

26  Tertullian of Carthage, On Baptism 7.

27  Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 6.19.40.

28  Lawrence Feingold, Touched by Christ: The Sacramental Economy (Emmaus Academic, 2021), 38.

29  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Luke 14.5; Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21.4.

30  See, e.g., Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 6.19.50-52.

31  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66.1-2.

32  Tertullian of Carthage, On the Chaplet 3.3.

33  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Exodus 8.4.

34  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Exodus 8.5.

35  Christopher Carstens, Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books, 2020), 15-16, 26, 33.

36  James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), 62-69, 86.

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