Vocational Sacraments

Part one of a series.

Jenn Woodruff Tait is right that one of the biggest theological lacunae in the movement is our inattention to the sacraments. Having already written a post for this blog entitled “Let’s Bicker about Eschatology!“, naturally if Jenn invites me to bicker about the sacraments my only response is: “Challenge Accepted!” So here’s a blog series on how the sacraments are indispensable to our daily vocations.

Let’s start with a small dose of fussy methodological throat-clearing. Jenn framed this issue in terms of the dominance of evangelicals in what is called the faith and work movement, and making sure mainliners are adequately included in the movment. I’ll accept that as a road into the topic.

If nothing else, it has the advantage of putting the problem of managing theological diversity regarding the sacraments front and center. The magnitude of that challenge is exemplified by the fact that many of my brothers and sisters with roots in the Radical Reformation don’t even accept the term “sacraments,” saying “ordinances” instead; I will use “sacraments” without intending to exclude them, but note that right at the outset we are already treading on ecumenical eggshells.

Let’s distinguish several separate (though interrelated) questions so we don’t mix them up and think we’re talking about one when we’re talking about another:

  • The theological question of what a sacrament is and does;
  • The theological question of how large a role, and what kind of role, sacraments play in the total doctrinal and practical system;
  • The ecclesiological question of who is “mainline” and who is “evangelical,” and who is not captured by that binary;
  • The sociological question of what is called the faith and work movement versus what actually is the faith and work movement (I’m not sure whether the Roman Catholic equivalent of the faith and work movement doesn’t actually outweigh our informally-but-overwhelmingly Protestant movement – the Catholic version is just not typically called “the faith and work movement”);
  • The historical question of the role mainline and evangelical leaders have played in the movement, which has not always been what it is now.

At this point I can hear a faint voice in the back of the room – it sounds a little like Will Messenger – asking when we’re going to get to the topic of work.

End of fussy methodological throat-clearing. Let’s talk about work.

Martin Luther once said when you are beset by the devil, if he doesn’t yield to texts of scripture, tell him: “Get away from me, I’m baptized!” Given how beset by the devil we are in our daily work, it sure would be useful if we thought we could call upon our baptism to protect us from the evil one as we fight the holy war day by day in our workplaces. But can we? If so, how do we understand that?

The image of “many members and one body” is widely used in our movement to illustrate how we have many particular callings to carry out one faith. Yet one does not often hear the closely related phrase “communion of the saints.”

The incarnation is widely discussed in the movement as demonstrating God’s affirmation of the material world – and in particular his affirmation of work, given that when he took on humanity he took on the calling to physical labor. Yet one does not hear much about how we eat and drink that same physical body of Christ we draw on so often to illustrate God’s affirmation of his world and its work.

Given how much we suffer in our daily work, it sure would be useful if we thought we could draw strength from the bodily suffering of Christ to persevere in our workplaces. But can we? If so, how do we understand that?

And can a theologically diverse movement find a way to bring these truths to people without breaking down into factional squabbling?

One thing is clear. God has given these rituals to be (among other things) distinguishing marks of his people in the New Testament era. And if anything is clear from the legacy of the Old Testament – try reading Leviticus, for example – it is that God does not create rituals arbitrarily. He has definite purposes for the rituals he gives his people, even when those purposes are not always clear to us.

In this series I will try to articulate how the sacraments call us to our daily callings, in a way that I hope will be open to Christians of different theologies. But there is no secret about which view of the sacraments I subscribe to, and I hope others will chime in with their perspectives.

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