It is said that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality. It is also said that a sacrament effects what it symbolizes; that is it actually makes something happen.
The Jewish Bible is full of sacramental signs and events, for example, the Passover meal and lamb’s blood.
God commands Moses to have the people celebrate a sacred meal. The details are strictly spelled out. Before the meal, some blood from the lamb is to be spread upon the lintel of the doorpost. This is a sign. When God sees that sign, He says He will pass over the Jewish households and spare their firstborn. It is to be a perpetual ordinance.
Did the lamb blood actually save the first born of the Hebrews that night? Yes. It was symbolic and real at the same time.
Does eating the covenant meal incorporate one into God’s people? Yes, but so did circumcision; however, those who refuse to comply with the expectations of this covenant meal are “cut off” (Ex 12:19). So the meal is sign, symbol and reality of communion with God!
Jesus reinterprets that same Paschal meal, the focus is now on Him (the lamb on a cross whose blood spares us). It is His body, the bread, and His blood, the wine, which we eat and drink. This meal connects us, figuratively and literally, to His sacrifice. It ritually and actually unites Him to us and we to Him.
BUT, the relationship of ritual and liturgy to real life is difficult to understand: Does a marriage ceremony really add anything to two people’s decision to cohabitate? If you love and trust God does pouring water on your head make that any more, or any less, true? And if you feel close to Jesus in your prayer? If you feel like He lives in your heart? If you hear Him speak to you in His Word? Well, is eating a piece of bread and sipping some wine really necessary?
Many of us have had a profound sense of encounter at this altar rail. We have heard Him say “Take and eat, Take and drink” and obedient to the command we have come forward. But it is also true that profound encounters take place elsewhere. Lots of Christians would say a church service as the last place to find God.
So why did Jesus do it? Why did Jesus tell us to baptize people? Why did He tell us to anoint the sick? Why did He tell the church leaders to forgive and unbind sins? And why did He say “My Body and My Blood” at a meal which was already meaningful? Why, in other words, couldn’t Jesus be satisfied with our minds, our heart, our faith and the invisible realities of salvation?
In the end, though I do not understand ‘the why’ I do believe “the that”; Jesus said to do it and He said what He meant.
To eat the bread and drink the cup is to share in the life of Christ. To share in His life is to become, like Him, a servant. The meal makes real the life of Christ in us. Baptism and Eucharist, like faith, REALLY save us and truly incorporate us into the life of Christ.
As I once shared, it makes little sense to argue about what is most important part of breathing, inhaling or exhaling. Perhaps the invisible and the visible are both needed in this world because this world is constructed of the visible and invisible. Perhaps faith and sacraments are provided to us by God because GOD Himself sees a value in both. If other Christians deny or denigrate that reality, who am I to judge? But as your priest I must tell you that the twin realities of faith and sacraments are revealed in Scripture as created by God to bring us to everlasting life. Faith and sacraments have long been embraced by the church as the legitimate and God ordained means to find fullness of life.
Rituals and sacraments do not stand alone as magic. There is a demand for faith, and beyond faith, for faithfulness and obedience. To trust Jesus is also to follow Him. To have faith in His blood and His cross is also to offer Him my own body and soul to Him; and to pick up my cross to follow.
I think rituals do serve a function. I think that they mediate the reality. I think spiritual communion with Jesus requires the physical communion which we celebrate here this night and each Sunday. And I think it worth our while to treat His presence, through faith, with reverence and gratitude; and to leave this place afterward and live a life worthy of the One who dwells within us.