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A Guide for Sacramental Living

March 4, 2013

“A Guide for Sacramental Living” Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9 © 3.3.13 Lent 3C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In his history of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta (The Church That Stayed), author John Robert Smith shares the comments of a schoolteacher in the city in 1868. The educator, Elizabeth Sterchi, wrote in a letter to friends that Atlanta had become populated with people “of the most savage tastes, given to fighting, murdering, stealing, quarreling, begging, stealing, and drinking. It does seem to me that the devil himself has taken hold of this place.” An atmosphere of permissiveness had settled over Atlanta. Yes, the armed conflict had ended, but the moral struggle went on, with the churches in the thick of the battle.

As terrible as post-Civil War Atlanta sounds, it had nothing on first century Corinth. Imagine a city so immoral and corrupt, so full of licentiousness and perversion, so lacking in socially redeeming values that its very name became synonymous with debauchery. Corinth was such a place. The Greek verb for partying with no rules or boundaries was “corinthianazein,” “to live like a Corinthian.” Even some of the temples were little more than brothels, since the worship of Aphrodite involved so-called “sacred prostitution.”

The fledgling church in Corinth was faced with much the same dilemma that confronted Central Presbyterian and other churches after the Civil War. How was the church to respond to and live in the midst of such a corrupt and thoroughly immoral environment? How could Christians best bear witness to the gospel? How could they themselves avoid falling into sin with such attractive temptations on every street, when the very culture encouraged loose living?

For the Corinthians, there seemed to be only two possibilities, and the congregation divided into sides over how to approach the situation, just one of the many concerns that threatened to split the church. One faction said that Christians must shun the world. They should keep separate from their neighbors, forming a kind of holy enclave or sub-culture. Believers must live a very simple life, denying any form of bodily indulgence. These people advocated not only fleeing sexual relations outside of marriage, but even foregoing intimacy within the bonds of matrimony. For another example, meat offered to idols was tainted intrinsically in their view by pagan worship, but it was the best meat sold at the market, and there were no labels on it that alerted the buyer to where it came from. So this group said if you went to a dinner party, it was better to ask a rude question about the source of the lamb or beef on your plate than to eat meat that would poison your soul.

The other faction we might call the libertines or free-thinkers. Paul calls them “the strong.” They insisted that Christians could move in society, no matter how corrupt, as they pleased. They were free to eat meat offered to Zeus; enjoy life, including sexual pleasure; and generally be free of fear that they would be tainted by their society. The power of the resurrected Christ, given to believers in the sacraments, served as a kind of shield against temptation and sin.

I suppose they thought of baptism and their weekly Eucharist as a vaccination against evil. Or maybe the sacraments were like that oral antiseptic you can spray in your throat and be guarded against germs you breathe in for six hours. So if you stuffed yourself with bread and drank plenty of wine at the Lord’s Table or sprinkled your hands with holy water from time to time, you were safe.

Paul tells them they have it wrong. The sacraments don’t protect believers, insulating them against the world. We’ll hear more from him as we go along this morning, but what I want to do is expand the focus away from the specifics of Corinth and reflect with you a bit on how baptism and Eucharist shape our everyday lives.

Of course, there are plenty of other people doing the same thing. If you Google the phrase “sacramental living,” you’ll come up with blogs, newsletter articles, and books. Some come from a Roman Catholic perspective, others from no particular denomination. One writer even says she and her family don’t have a congregation at the moment.

Maybe the place to begin is by refreshing our memories. You recall perhaps from Sunday school or catechism or a sermon that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 66). So, if we are to live sacramentally, if we in fact become sacraments to others, our presence and speech are as nourishing and satisfying as hearty, fresh-baked bread; our joy as warm and heady as a rich red wine; our compassion as life-giving as water to a thirsty land. We become the body of Christ to our neighbors, our families, our communities. We embrace with his arms, touch with his hands, speak with his voice, give of ourselves as he gave.

Ian Wrisley is a construction worker, writer, and former pastor. In a post on his blog “Secular Saints,” he observes: “[Jesus] wasn’t presenting a metaphysical puzzle for his followers to sort through; he was serious about what he meant we should do. We should act as though his kingdom is real, as though he is the savior of the world. When people live in that way…everyday encounters are sacramental….

“Sacramental living takes each piece as it comes, and finds God in it” (“Sacramental Living,” http://secularsaints.blogspot.com/2005/11/sacramental-living.html ).

Let me lift up three specific ways that sacramental living demonstrates such a presence of God in the everyday. First, it’s generous, hospitable living. How many in our day feel no responsibility for anyone else and have no qualms about greedily acquiring as much as they can with little thought for their neighbor’s well-being? By contrast, Christian faith, living that demonstrates the grace and care of God, is always concerned for the neighbor. That’s a common theme of both the Old and the New Testament. Love of God and love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin.

How then do we show hospitality and generosity to neighbors in the everyday? Remember: sacramental living is about being the body of Christ in every aspect of life. Does it have anything to do with how we spend our money or how we vote or how we drive or what and how much we consume? What about if we see somebody being bullied at school or the workplace or find that some gross injustice has been done? Do we bear any responsibility for the great disparity in income and privilege in our land or for the treatment of people who are different? Are we talking just about folk in our church or in our town or do we have some broader population in mind, maybe as big as the whole world?

The theological resources of our tradition give some clues. Here is the Larger Catechism about the commandment “You shall not steal”: “The duties required in the Eighth Commandment are: truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to

our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections, concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose of those things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and a diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.” A Declaration of Faith has this: “ Christ teaches us to go beyond legal requirements in serving and helping our neighbor,to treat our neighbor’s needs as our own, to care passionately for the other’s good,to share what we have. It is part of our discipline to live in simplicity, avoiding greed and luxury that threaten our neighbor’s survival. We are obligated to speak the truth in love, to listen with patience and openness, to love our enemies, to accept the risk and pain which love involves.”

Yes, I know, we’re already overwhelmed. But there’s more. Sacramental living is humble living. This one takes us back to Paul and the Corinthians. He brings down to earth those who thought they were somebody and could stand up against temptation, could be immune to the infection of sin. Remember the Israelites, he says. All of them came out of Egypt, all of them were “baptized” by passing through the Red Sea, all of them ate the manna and drank the water from the rock. But what happened? Despite the grace of God shown them, they engaged in pagan cultic acts, more of that sacred prostitution, and at the very least, grumbled about what they had. So judgment came; twenty-three thousand fell in one day, attacked by serpents.

Nobody is immune to sin. Indeed, those who seem straight-laced and good are often the ones who fall the hardest when something comes along that matches their hidden cravings, their dark desires. They’ve held back for so long that they fall hard and fast. Everyone needs to be on guard. Be realistic about yourself. Be humble, not proud and boastful about how holy or good you are. Spend less time on other people’s faults and instead heed the warning of Jesus in Luke: “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Remember what overconfidence does in sports or in business. You get lazy and lose your edge, your vision. You think what you’ve done is good enough, and you can rest on your laurels. The time when we think all is well may in fact be the moment when brokenness shatters our perfect world. Like the fig tree in the parable, you and I can be cut down.

The apostle might recommend a spiritual exercise to us. In calling attention to the history of God’s people, he invites us to consider our own history and let the reflection sober each of us. Here are some questions to ask: how do I identify with the experiences of people in the Bible? How is their story my own? What have I learned so far about how I handle testing and temptation? How have I dealt with my cravings, with pressure from my peers, with the particular possible pitfalls of my circumstances? Who am I right now? What’s going on with me at this time in my life? Do I see it as a time full of potential, a kind of fulfillment of the ages, a ford in the stream of time, a bridge to the future? Or is it a dead end, a disappointment, treading water? What are the special dangers, pressures, needs, and wants I must be aware of each day?

So sacramental living is generous. Next, it’s humble. Finally, sacramental living is abundant living. “Life’s a feast,” as the name of a gourmand website has it (http://lifesafeast.blogspot.com). The band REM had an album entitled “Life’s Rich Pageant.” And that’s what Isaiah wants us to understand. God offers us a rich banquet, the delight, satisfaction, and refreshment we know from good food enjoyed with those we love. It’s no accident that Jesus consistently compared the coming of the kingdom to people sitting down at a wedding banquet. Both he and the prophet of Isaiah were reminding us that God gives us what is best, beyond our deserving or imagining.

Because we trust in the provision of such a gracious God, we can be and are generous. Because we find our security not in what we have or the changelessness of our doctrines and traditions, but in God alone, we can be and are open to our neighbors and to tomorrow. Because nothing we have in this life can compare with the glory that awaits us, we are content to live simply and humbly.

So, “let us talents and tongues employ, reaching out with a shout of joy: bread is broken, the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard. Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the Word around, loaves abound! Christ is able to make us one, at the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and in deed express. Jesus calls us in, sends us out, bearing fruit in a world of doubt, gives us love to tell, bread to share, God (Immanuel) everywhere. Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the Word around, loaves abound!” (Fred Kaan, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ, 1975).

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