Growing up Lutheran, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were inseparable from my concept of church. Like pulpit and pew, the font and altar table were part of the architecture. I suppose I just took them for granted. I did not question the Lutheran view of the meaning of the sacraments as I learned them in confirmation class. I could recite the orthodox explanations. On the other hand, I never quite understood it all. The more I was exposed to other Christian views about them, the more confused I got. Eventually I arrived at a point where the diversity of explanations, coupled with the apparent Biblical ambiguity, caused me to not even want to think or talk about them. They were just one more theological minefield, and a bit of an embarrasment. Now, the more I study Luther’s theology of the cross, the more I am beginning to appreciate the meaning and mystery of the Christian sacraments.
It seems as if nothing has divided Christianity more than differing views over the theology of the sacraments. But I think this is somewhat of an illusion. What divides Christianity is still (I believe) the theology of glory over against the theology of the cross - an emphasis on the works of us over against the works of God. The sacraments are just one of the battlegrounds, albeit a highly visible one. They are out there in plain sight, confronting us, speaking to us. But what do they say?
The theologian of the cross hears the sacraments as simply another form of the Gospel. Nothing more. Nothing less. The sacraments speak the language of the cross, the language of salvation, forgiveness of sins, and life eternal. As the Gospel clothed in physical forms, they have somewhat of a mystical edge, but they are, underneath, no more or less mysterious than the Gospel. There is no difference. Thus it is not proper to elevate them above the Gospel - as was common in the church of Luther’s time - nor is it proper to lower them beneath the Gospel - as is common in our time.
The Gospel itself is a sacrament - the power and glory of God hiding in the humblest of places. The Gospel hides in a baby born in a barn. It hides in an ordinary man with little to recommend him (no visible means of support and no place to sleep.) It hides, finally and most dramatically, in a horribly shameful execution - nailed to a cross.
This Gospel in human form then rises from the grave, but does not announce the triumph to a skeptical world. Rather, he remains still humble and hidden among the people - so hidden that it later seems almost too easy for his enemies to claim that somebody made the whole thing up. Then this Gospel seems to disappear entirely - except for the word of it, spoken and written.
So now, to us, the Gospel is mere words - a bit of human language - recorded in a book written by many different authors who sometimes (to us) seem not to have gotten their stories straight. This same Gospel also comes to us verbally and extemporaneously, in the lame and tired phrases of cracked-pot preachers - people who often don’t seem to know what they are talking about and tend to be more than a little annoying. And yet, in this word of the Gospel is hidden the power of God’s Holy Spirit, testifying of a humble Savior who also happens to be the God of the Universe. And in this person of Jesus we are shown the nature of God’s interest in us - how much he loves us! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.
The Gospel is, therefore, not just a story or a piece of language. It is love clothed in language, and love has power unspeakable. The love of God hidden in the Gospel has a power that can be found in nothing else. It is a love that requires a faith to believe in it, and then it creates the faith that it requires. Thus it is a love that does not allow itself to be unrequited. One way or another, not with glory but with power, it has its way with us.
In this context, I understand the sacraments as but another form of the Gospel. This seems even more humble (and perhaps more foolish) than words alone. Now we have common water, bread and wine - nothing special. But they are not water, bread and wine alone. They come in communion with the word of the Gospel, and so they are not religious rituals we perform. They are the real presence of God hidden - not just hidden in the word, but now also hidden in the physical elements that we can actually see, touch, taste and feel.
If this were not hard enough to believe, the doing of the sacraments comes clothed in the humblest garb of all - the church. Jesus (for some odd reason) gives to the church the job of distributing his Gospel. At the same time, he seems to have allowed his church to be the most unlikely candidate to conduct such holy work. What a train wreck, this thing we call the church! This church is us! Who can honestly say they can find one speck of goodness among such self-righteous sinners?
But that is precisely the point. While we are yet sinners, God loved us. If the church were righteous, it would have no need of any gospel, much less this one. This Gospel is exclusive - it is for sinners only. And it is distributed by sinners only. Then, in the heart of the sinner, God finds his final hiding place. What more humble, unlikely place to hide than that?
So now, in light of what the Gospel actually does (as opposed to what it is), and its final hiding place, the sacramental form of the Gospel becomes clearer, at least to me. Like the Word of the Gospel, the Gospel of Baptism requires faith, and it creates what it requires. No where is this drama more clearly hidden than in the baptism of infant children. Here is perhaps the only time and place where the work of God in reaching us cannot be mistaken as our own work to reach him. The work of God in the baptism of believing adults is not so apparent, but it is nevertheless the same work. And the Gospel of the Lord’s Supper is also the same work of God. As Gospel, the bread and wine, the body and blood, come to us again and again. Each time they require a renewed faith, and then create what they require - sustaining us in the absolute certainty of God’s love and forgiveness.
We can try to attach other meanings to the sacraments. We can try to strip them of all meaning. We can try to turn them into religious rituals, signs and symbols. Or we can load them up with rules and regulations to try to convert them into laws we must obey (or suffer the consequences). But there is no law in them, and therefore no condemnation. The sacraments are the Gospel, and as such contain the real presence of the Hidden God of Love. And this Love will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish, whether we see it or not.
I understand that this does not answer my every question. Maybe it answers very few. The sacraments will always remain a source of mystery. But it is a mystery I can live with. Because while I know God is hidden in them, I also know that God is revealed in them. And the God revealed is the Jesus of the cross - the one who gave himself up for me out of love.