Anyway, I am no longer in Iraq. In fact, I came back just after Thanksgiving and have been home ever since. After coming back I applied to get back into Seminary, and after being accepted, I moved back to Fort Wayne. I have been in classes for over a month now and am more than half way done with the quarter. Iraq seems little more than a bad dream to me now. Actually, it wasn't such a bad dream, but I wouldn't beg for them to send me again any time soon.
Since coming home I have been doing a lot of thinking about how the Lord comes to us in the Sacraments. This got started as I was debating sacramental theology with a vehement ex-Catholic and a Greek Orthodox theologian. The ex-Catholic reminded me why it is important that we do not lose sight of the Sacraments, while the Greek Orthodox theologian helped me to focus upon the centrality of the sacramental life to faith. So, with all that behind me as I returned to Seminary, the fact that one of my classes this quarter is on Grace and Sacraments seemed quite appropriate.
Carl Jansen, a theologian in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) is quoted as saying that when Jesus ascended into the heavens 40 days after His resurrection, He ascended into the sacramental life of the Church. During my vicarage year I preached a sermon on Ascension Day in which I said something very similar, although not nearly so eloquently. I was simply making the point that it was the ascension of the human nature of Christ to the ubiquitous right hand of the Father that assured us that His human nature, ie. His incarnate body and blood, could and truly were present in each and every piece of consecrated bread and every drop of consecrated wine. However, the way Dr. Jansen put it says so much more.
The last words of Christ recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew are, "Behold, I am with you to the end of the age." Jesus is not speaking of some mystical, spiritual presence that gives us a warm feeling in our hearts, He is speaking of a very real, tangible presence that is seen and touched in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. He is also present in His Word, when we read it, when we hear it read, and when it is proclaimed or preached (that is, when a sermon is actually based upon the Word of God, and not upon human opinion). This is the Sacramental life of the Church, and it is not an independent life, but a corporate life. Those who are forcibly separated from other believers by circumstances are the exception, but those who choose to separate themselves are simply separated, for they have chosen to live apart from the Body of Christ.
Christ is not a long way off in heaven, looking down upon us "from a distance" as the popular Bet Meddler song supposes. He is still right here, wherever we gather together around the Word and Sacraments of God. In Baptism we are baptized into him, and so we live in Him. In the Word of God, it is not as though we were reading a letter from a friend far off, but more like that friend were sitting right there with us, speaking to us. In the Eucharist, He gives himself, his very body and blood, as a sacrifice that we are invited to eat, and in this way He comes to live in us.
Evangelicalism tells us that Jesus comes to live in our hearts when we invite Him in and choose to make Him our Lord and Savior. But Scripture tells us, "Who ever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." Eternal life is nothing else than the life of Christ joined to our life. This we have by faith, and that faith is born in Baptism, informed by the Word, and fed in the Eucharistic meal. This life is corporate in more than just the group of people with whom we come together to worship, for it joins us to all believers from Adam to the end of time, and it links us to the wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride. Christ is the host and the meat of this feast, and as we partake of it, we become partakers of Him and all the gifts that brings.
Sanctification, that all too elusive requirement of true Christian living, is impossible without this Sacramental life, for without Christ we can do nothing. The branch separated from the Vine cannot bear fruit, for it has no life in it. But, when we are joined to this Sacramental life of the Church, we are joined to Christ, and his life flows through us. In this way, our life, hopes, dreams and desires become saturated with his life, hopes, dreams and desires. The old man must also be cut off and destroyed, which happens through confession and repentance, for the old man cannot tolerate being exposed. But confession and repentance, without the pure Gospel of absolution, would only lead to death. But water does not only kill, but it also gives life, and so confession must be followed by absolution, that announcement that all our sins are forgiven. This is the only way to the Sanctified life, and is the outward proof that we are God's children. Sanctification is the Sacramental life on display. "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Amen.