Some years ago C.S. Lewis attempted to explain how angels could pass through walls. He suggested that they could pass through walls not because they were somehow less substantial, but precisely because they were more substantial. Their reality was greater than the wall just as a rock is more substantial than water or air. It was a theory he posited from himself and not from Scripture so you cannot read into it something more than his imagination. Yet it is not without merit. What the Scriptures and the Church describe as “mystery” is exactly that which is real, more real, and really real -- even more so than what we observe with our eyes or smell with our noses or taste in our mouths. Christ in water and bread and wine are not images or symbols or ideas but the very real reality that is not less substantial than the water or bread or wine but more so.
St. Paul hints at this: …for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18) The apostle does not discount the reality of the things that are seen but impresses that which is unseen (except by faith) with a greater reality -- one that exists not only in the moment or simply in time but eternally. In this, St. Paul would call out those who keep the form but dismiss the substance or content. We all know those who mouth the words to the creed but shrink at the idea of God in the womb by the miracle of the Holy Spirit. We all know those who like the idea of the Eucharist but who refuse to deposit anything more than symbolism in the eating of the bread and cup. Of course, these sacraments symbolize what they do but they fulfill the sign and do not leave the rest up to us and our imaginations. They do what they sign and deliver what they promise. They are the most real things of all for they transcend the moment or time to bestow an eternal gift and grace.
I fear that we miss that. Even when we believe and confess Christ present in and with the bread and wine, our tendency is to see the power of this in individual terms and largely sentimental ones. That is because we see everything in that light. From our personal identity to our sexual preference to our choice of gender, life has become merely individual and feeling based. So it is and should be shocking to us that this real reality of the sacraments doe snot depend upon us and our appreciation of them. Irrespective of anyone's personal belief, Christ is where He has promised to be and not merely the idea of Christ but the Lord Jesus in all His fullness, bestowing the riches of His cross purchased gifts and grace. Of course it matters if we believe this -- for what benefit and blessing is there in such communion without faith! But the reality of what is there does not depend upon our believing -- only our fruitful reception of this mystery.
Sadly, we too often reduce God's gifts and grace to mere help so that we can accomplish this. We give credit to God but we presume to believe that what God supplies is the little bit that is missing in us and in our works. We forget that every reality is real only because of God's will and purpose and there is nothing that exists apart from His will and desire and power. For Lutherans this showed up in the brief period in which receptionism was taught. Christ is present only in the actual eating and drinking and not before when the Word is addressed to the host and cup and not after in what remains following the Communion. The end result of a salvation in which we contribute most but God pushes us across the finish line and a sacrament in which we must supply something for Christ to be present is the same -- a theology of works that cannot redeem but will only condemn.
The problem of the Pharisees was they they presumed their efforts and even their understanding had to contribute to God's grace and they were offended by the thought that with man nothing is possible but with God all things are possible. They were offended by the whole idea that those who had contributed little or even nothing would receive anything. This is why Jesus' parables of the laborers who receive the same reward was so outrageous to them. While this surely scandalized the whole idea of saved by grace, it also affected their rejection of Christ's sacramental grace wherein He promised something more than was there -- more than the bread and wine that were the result and gifts of the faithful.
St. Paul himself found this offense when his imprisonment shocked and scandalized some of those to whom He had proclaimed the Kingdom of God. They were offended by the idea that the Kingdom of God could exist while its apostle was captive and in chains. In this respect, we find that the health and wealth preachers who have paraded as faithful servants of the Kingdom have fallen into the same trap. God's grace must result in earthly blessing and benefit or how can it count at all? Sometimes we find ourselves in the same trap. We presume to put words in God's mouth. God would not want us to suffer or God would not want us to endure poverty or God would not want us to lack resources. We miss the mystery. There is a reality greater than the one we experience now. We are in this world but not of it -- given birth in baptism to a life greater than death and fed and nourished in this life by bread which is not just bread and wine which is not just wine but the glimpse of the eternal and its foretaste here in time. In so many ways it hinges on the idea that there is a reality more real than the one we see or touch or think or feel. And this is the reality we meet in the efficacious Word and the mystery of the Sacraments -- that which really real, which bestows in this moment what only eternity can behold in full.