Vocational Sacraments: Working in Body and Spirit

Part four of a series.

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

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

We began to look at the significance of this intersection last time, when we saw how the sacraments involve God having entered into time-space history to redeem it. That is the cosmic backdrop of daily work; the unfolding war between God and Satan. Now we turn to the front line of the daily battle, which is the frontier between body and spirit.

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard puts this frontier at the center of spiritual formation. It is at the center of daily work as well, which is not surprising since (as Willard himself noted) daily work is the primary place of spiritual formation.

The decisive issue is sometimes framed (including in scripture) as whether spirit will govern flesh or flesh govern spirit. That is a valid metaphor, but by itself it is subject to misinterpretation. A more precise formula would be that the decisive issue is whether my spirit will govern the flesh through which I work, and the matter upon which I work, in accordance with what I know to be right; or whether my spirit will yeild to the wrong desires it experiences within itself, prompted by the stimuli of my flesh and the matter arround me as they are arranged before I govern them. (The hazardous stimuli I recieve from my flesh and the matter around me are, to a very great extent, the long-term effects of my own earlier sinful mismanagement.)

The point here is that through my daily work, my spirit will exercise control over my flesh and the matter around me regardless. But will my spirit exercise that control to conquer (“subdue,” in the bluntly martial language of Genesis 1:28) and reorganize the material world for righteousness, or will it merely engage reactively and conform to the world’s immediate stimuli in a process Willard called “sin management”?

Now, what does all this have to do with the sacraments? It is essential to the nature of a sacrament that material objects and actions are used as signs of spiritual realities. The sacraments provide a model of how spirit conquers and reorganizes the material world for righteousness. In the sacraments, the righteous indwelling of the material world by the spiritual world is so complete that powerful effects are promised from their right use and powerful dangers threatened from their wrong use. (It is the nature of these effects that drives many of our debates over the sacraments. Those debates are so important because they express what we believe about how the spiritual world indwells the material.)

The sacraments are therefore a model of what our daily work is to do – use the material world to manifest the spiritual. I am to drive the truck in such a way as to make the truck a manifestation of Christ’s holy love in that context, as the water is a manifestation of Christ’s holy love in the context of cleansing me of sin to enter the church, and the bread and wine (products of human work!) is a manifestation of Christ’s holy love as it sustains me in the Christian life.

This is what has led some to go so far as to describe daily work as sacramental. I do not go so far, because the sacraments are ecclesially grounded, whereas work is a common inheritance of the whole human race. However transformative Christ is for the Christian’s daily work, work itself is the legacy of Eden, not of Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost. But I very much appreciate the desire to recast the world of daily work as a place where the spirit indwells the flesh.

One more word before I’m done. The essential importance of this daily encounter between the material and spiritual worlds is why I am so alarmed at the movement among many postmodern theologians to deny that there is any distinction between nature and the supernatural. Granted, both come from God and are constantly in God’s presence and under God’s care, so it is important not to overdraw the distinction and try to keep them in hermetically sealed containers with no interaction. But the attempt to bring them closer together by erasing the line between them is fatal. We cannot bring body and spirit into an encounter with one another if they are not distinct things. This is one major reason why “pomo” theologians, who always set out with a ferocious call to arms, always conclude in the dead end of irresolvable ambiguities. Spirit cannot conquer flesh if flesh is spirit.

Word and world come together in the sacraments, not because they are the same, but precisely because they are different – one has arrived to reclaim the other.

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