Vocational Sacraments: Word and World

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Part two of a series.

If Jesus knew what he was doing when he created the sacraments, we would expect them to have much to teach us about our calling in daily life.

On the list of questions that I identified in the initial post of this series as needing to be distinguished before we could relate the sacraments to vocation, the first was “the theological question of what a sacrament is and does.” At the time I wrote that, I wondered whether it would be possible to say much about this question without running afoul of the deep disagreements I noted between different theological traditions.

Then the kind providence of the Lord intervened, in the form of a three-hour comprehensive exam I had to take for my degree in systematic theology. (Upon hearing me attribute divine kindness to such an experience, you may well find yourself asking: What’s the Matter with Calvinists? Indeed, I will admit that there is something to the old joke about the Calvinist who fell down the stairs and said: “Glad I got that over with!”)

In this case, however, the exam fulfilled its proper role, to force me to overcome my fleshly sloth and learn something. In this case, one of the things I stumbled across in reviewing three years’ worth of classroom notes is the definition of a sacrament I was taught in Theology III:

  • It was instituted by Christ for practice in the church;
  • It uses material objects and actions as signs of spiritual realities;
  • It is a means of grace for the faithful; and
  • It has a “salvific thrust.”

The last of these, we were told, is added mainly to explain why the washing of one another’s feet, which is regarded by some as a practice instituted by Christ for the church, is not a sacrament for most traditions.

Now, this definition is admittedly formulated from a Protestant view. It becomes even more so when the phrase “means of grace for the faithful” is clarified, as my Theology III professor was very careful to clarify it, as meaning that sacraments are a means of grace only for those who have authentic faith in Christ through the verbal proclamation of the gospel, as distinct from the sacraments.

However, that having been said, I think (with openness to correction from anyone who wants to push back) that this definition could be a starting point for thinking about the sacraments and vocation that need not lead us directly into doctrinal controversy. In what follows I am not attempting to smuggle a Protestant sacramentology, to say nothing of a Reformed sacramentology, into our thinking on vocation. I am trying, as someone who does happen to be unabashedly Protestant and Reformed, to think about the sacraments and vocation in a way that I hope everyone within Nicene Christianity could find useful.

What do these four elements of the nature of a sacrament show us about vocation?

1. My daily work is Christocentric, and this fact is ecclesially proclaimed and historically enacted.

When I do my daily work, I am to do it with Christ at the center of my cosmology; it is in Christ that all things, including my work, hold together. I am to hear this calling proclaimed by the institutional church; this does not mean I am hostage to the limited vision of any particular pastor who “doesn’t get it,” but it does mean that in seeking to discern my vocation, I cannot say to the institutional church “I have no need of you.” And I am to think of myself as an actor in cosmic history; I participate in the story that began with Adam and Eve, reached its shocking surprise twist with the first coming of Christ, and will conclude (no doubt with equally shocking surprise twists) with the second. When Christ instituted the sacraments, he located their meaning within redemptive history – looking backward in remembrance and forward in missional hope – and our daily work is to do the same.

2. My daily work uses material objects and actions as signs of spiritual realities.

Just as the water shows how Christ washes me clean and brings me under and into the life of the triune God, and just as the bread and wine (made by human work) show how Christ feeds my faith, my daily work manifests the holy love of God in action. I do not go so far as those fashionable po-mo theologians who reject the very distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds, on grounds that to distinguish these things must mean separating them, such that one has nothing to do with the other. However, I agree that we must be constantly aware of these worlds’ mutual indwelling. In fact, the main reason I insist on keeping the old distinction between nature and supernature is precisely because we cannot affirm their mutual indwelling unless we distinguish them.

3. My daily work is a means of grace.

Dallas Willard was right to identify work as one of the most important spiritual disciplines. God uses my daily work to strengthen my faith and shape my character. In fact, when daily work uses material things to manifest spiritual realities, it is such a powerful means of grace that it is almost a sacrament itself! Only the special ecclesial status of sacraments – and, depending on your theology, their serving as “seals” as well as “signs” of grace – prevents us from considering work a sacrament.

4. My daily work participates in the ongoing drama of the world’s redemption.

Romans 8 indicates that the physical world – the very rocks and trees – are groaning, crying out to be liberated from Satan’s rule in the present age. As people who live in God’s inaugurated kingdom make good use of the world through their daily work, they begin this liberation. We ought not to confuse faith and good works, nor think that we can build the New Jerusalem (which comes down from heaven in Revelation 21). Nonetheless, Jesus does not just save the world in two easy steps; the drama of redemption is not just two scenes, with an extremely long intermission between them (during which we are encouraged to spend a lot of money on popcorn at the ecclesial concession stand). As we do our daily work in the life of God’s kingdom, we bring the first coming of Christ back to remembrance and create foretastes of the second coming.

I’ll unpack all four of these in future posts, Lord willing. In the meantime, please pray that I passed my exam!

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