Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Hidden mercy. . .

Western Christianity seems unduly preoccupied with substance and accident.  We find it hard to get away from the categories of change -- what changes and what does not.  So Rome insists that everything that is real changes and all that is left is the least real part of bread and wine.  And Lutherans insist that there is, indeed, a change, but the change does not replace one neatly with the other but adds something to what is there.  So it is still bread but now also Christ's flesh and still wine but now also His blood.  Rome insists that there can no Real Presence without Transubstantiation and Lutherans insist that Real Presence has nothing to do with a philosophical theory of how Christ is present.  In both cases the issue is really about what is manifest in bread and wine, in eating and drinking what the Lord gives and promises.

The great Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, once rather famously said that sacraments do not make things into something else so much as they reveal things to be what they are.  In other words, it is not about what changes or how but the God who reveals what is hidden. Why is it that some are preoccupied with what changes and others are focused on what is hidden there, apprehended only by the eyes of faith, received with grateful faith,  Lutherans and Rome continue to fight it out about what changes, if it changes, or what remains the same and who makes it happen.  In the end, I am not at all sure Luther was as keen on fighting it out on this turf as some Lutherans were.  For Luther as it should be for Lutherans the focus is surely on what God has hidden there.  We do not apprehend it as we do acknowledge it, trust it, receive it with joy and thanksgiving, and are transformed by it as the Spirit brings the promise to bear upon us.  Perhaps because Luther was less the systematician than exegete and his theology more Biblical than anything else.

Not long ago I preached on the parable of the dishonest steward.  I cannot think of any preacher who wants to preach on such a text.  It remains one of those words we wish Jesus had not spoken or we would rather have had Jesus say something else.  But it is a text one approaches simply on the basis that Jesus said it and therefore we must hear it for the Word of God is less about us and what we think than about God and what He chooses to reveal.  Can we not say the same about water and bread and wine and the voice that absolves?  They are wonderful things but hardly what we would have chosen to be where grace is given and Christ accessible.  Yet, there He is.  In parable and Sacrament what is gained comes not by cracking the nut but by hearing it with faith, believing it, and rejoicing at the mercy hidden therein.  This happens by the Spirit.  And what a joy that is!

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