Vocational Sacraments: Called to Christ-Centered Work

Part three of a series.

On my list of four things we can learn from the sacraments about vocation, the first is:

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 hold together, according to Colossians, and that would include my daily work.

Christocentrism is clearer in the Lord’s Supper than in baptism. Baptism is the more overtly Trinitarian of the two sacraments, insofar as the only explicit doctrinal requirement associated with it is that it be done in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. But it is still Christocentric in that it is ordained by Christ (he is the one who told us to do it in the name of the Trinity, after all) and in that it is only through Christ that we get into the life of the Trinity (as the High Priestly Prayer in John 17 makes abundantly clear).

We talk a lot in the faith and work movement about whole-life discipleship, and how vocation is the key connection between our faith and how we live our daily lives. If that’s so, baptism is the ritual of entry into the life of discipleship to which vocation calls us – which means baptism itself is vocational. As Romans 6:3 emphasizes, baptism is a sign and seal not only of our entry into the church but of the new life we are to live in Christ. Through baptism God shows his promise to cleanse his people (hence the water) and his claim on his people that they are to walk, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it in its section on baptism, “in newness of life.” The cleansing and the new life are interdependent.

Martin Luther once said that if you are under attack by the devil and he will not yield to texts of scripture, you should try saying “get away from me, I’m baptized!” We might consider a parallel appeal to baptism as a mark we bear in our daily work – perhaps especially in resisting the temptations we encounter there.

The Lord’s Supper is of course much more overtly Christocentric. In it, we gather to remember and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We are admonished, with grave warnings against potential harm and even death, not to participate unless we “discern” the body of Christ; if we participate unworthily we will be guilty concerning Christ’s body and blood. But for those who participate faithfully it is a “cup of blessing,” a communion with the body and blood of Christ.

As the water of baptism symbolizes cleansing, the bread and wine symbolize God’s providential care for our needs – his provision of energy and power. Implicit in this is a more outward-looking and missional emphasis. We are not only to become clean, but to get busy burning calories for the Lord. The death of Christ not only cleanses us for a new kind of life that will be pure and worthy, but empowers us for a mission to which that life is to be dedicated.

It has been widely noticed in the movement that bread and wine are products of human work. We don’t consume corn and water in the Lord’s Supper. But this point can be pressed further. Bread and wine are not only produced by work, but by work that is fairly complex. They involve not just sweat but ingenuity; the first person to bake bread was a genius, to say nothing of the discovery of fermentation (although, to be fair, the biblical language is also consistent with the use of unfermented wine).

Not only that, but these products admit an enormous potential range of human creativity. Even the most primitive socities are able to make bread and wine, and thus to celebrate the sacrament. But not all bread is alike, to say nothing of all wine. Churches that just buy the cheapest elements available should consider how the expression of human creativity in the making of bread and wine can enrich the sacrament.

I have dwelt here on the Christocentric element, which I think the most important. But before leaving the subject, we should also notice that the sacraments are not only Christocentric but ecclesial and temporal. And if they are, so is vocation.

Christ gave the sacraments to the church, and not just to the church but to the visible church – and not just to the visible church, but to the institutional church. They are the church’s most visible and tangible distinguishing mark. If the sacraments call us to our daily work, then the outward proclamation of that vocation is ecclesially grounded. Of course I say this without prejudice to questions about how we relate the authority of the institutional church to scripture and to culture; that’s a separate question. The point here is simply that the institutional church is not optional or even peripheral.

The sacraments also take place within history. We will focus next time on their presence within God’s material creation. Here, we are looking more at time than at space. While the sacraments of the church are prefigured in Old Testament rituals, their institution by Christ represents the outbreaking or eruption of the church as a result of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. They are the marks not only of the church, but of the progress of redemptive history. And, of course, they are eschatological, as the Great Commission (“until the end of the age”) and Paul’s instructions (“proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”) make clear.

Our daily work is, like the sacraments, a sign that Christ has arrived and is working. As we enact the long-term consequences of his redemptive work in our own work, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And he is with us in our daily work, even to the end of the age.

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