On Sacrament and Participation

Sacrament.  What a loaded word.

For much of my Christian life, it was a dirty word.  It spoke of the domination of Christians by a legalistic hierarchy with a dubious history.  It referred to going through the motions of empty ritual in an attempt to earn salvation.  It represented everything that was wrong with the Church, and even when us good Evangelicals perform the same practices, we use a different word (ordinances).  “Sacraments” was a dirty word.

Or so I thought.  So I was often told, implicitly even more than explicitly.  It doesn’t help that sometimes there’s some truth to that dismal view.

In the past few years I’ve become attracted to sacraments, and the more I learn about them, the more attracted to them I become.  Not any particular sacraments: I still hold to the two “acceptable” ones, Baptism and Eucharist (Communion), and while I appreciate the other five Catholic sacraments (when I can remember what they all are), I don’t think they have the same weight as the main two in terms of the regular practice of the Church.  My interest in sacraments is better worded as an interest in sacrament (no “s”), and this is something I should explain.

There is a very, very old notion that this visible world is not the only world that exists, but that there is also a spiritual world that is connected, or in some way corresponds, with our world.  Traditionally, we refer to these worlds as Heaven (the spiritual reality) and Earth (the physical reality).  Many religions have developed quite specific ideas about these two worlds and the ways in which they are interrelated: some see these two worlds as being somehow in conflict, with the physical world being evil while the spiritual world is good, and we are sparks of spiritual light trapped in physical bodies of darkness.  This is called Gnosticism, and it got really popular right after the Church began.  That’s not what I’m going to talk about.  I want to talk about how the Christian Church sees this interrelationship.

Jewish concepts of the spiritual world and the physical world were much closer: God lived among Israel in a tent, and He marched out to war with them in the spring time, and the gods of other peoples and territories feared Him.  This is getting a little bit closer to the Christian notion.  The Jews saw spiritual forces in the concrete events of history, and there was nothing ethereal about the actions of these invisible, spiritual beings.  Yet at the same time, God’s throne was in Heaven, even if His house was a tent in Israel’s camp.

Early Christians inherited a mixed bag of ideas about heaven and earth, from Jews and Hellenists (Greeks) and Persians and everyone else in the cosmopolitan Roman Empire.  They certainly saw heaven and earth as two realms, distinct but highly interrelated.  Jesus told Peter that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven; there is a strong notion that heaven and earth mirror each other imperfectly.  Historically, people have seen earthly events as being a result of events in heaven, as though earthly history is a copy of what goes on in heaven (note that this is the opposite of what Jesus said: what Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven).  The important point is that there is an interrelationship, and even more importantly, that Jesus spread ideas that went way beyond a mere correspondence between heaven and earth.  Jesus, in the Jewish traditions of prophecy and apocalypse, talked about Heaven breaking into Earth, the two realms colliding and becoming one.  He described this collision and the order that would come from it in a sort of contradiction in terms, a blending of heaven and earth: the Kingdom of Heaven.

To the Jews, the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven would mean that God would live among them again: Jesus certainly meant this when he used the term.  The strange thing was that he used the term to refer to the things he was doing rather than with the appearance of God in a pillar of fire.  He spoke of the Kingdom being present (already!), even in the midst of Roman Palestine, but there was no sign of a new state or world order – only a man healing the sick and feeding the poor, sometimes in miraculous ways, often in very ordinary ways.  He spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven when he cast out demons and performed miracles, but he also spoke of it when he commented on how his disciples were arguing with one another over petty things.  This Kingdom of Heaven was surely a mix of heavenly and earthly things!

The really tricky thing about this Kingdom is that sometimes it’s here, and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes Jesus talked about it in the future tense, sometimes in the present.  This has led theologians to talk about the “already/not-yet” of the gospel, sometimes called the “eschatological reserve” because it refers to the fullness of the Kingdom that will, according to Paul, come when Christ returns.  Right now, he says, we only get a glimpse of it – like a down payment, or a pledge, of what’s to come.  It’s an enticing idea, but it’s not entirely what I want to talk about either.  Here’s the good part:

We get to participate in this pledge of a new Kingdom.  Just like Jesus did, we get to do certain things that actually transform our entire reality, if only for a moment, into the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s this great TV show called Fringe that’s all about “fringe science,” and a key plot point in the whole series is that there is more than one dimension.  These two dimensions are mostly alike, but not entirely.  A few fringe scientists discover how to open a portal between these two worlds, these realities, and the results shake up both worlds.  But the image I want to impress on you is that, to cross between these two worlds, these scientists do something that causes these two similar but slightly different worlds to vibrate on the same frequency, so that for a few moments these two places become one and the same place.  There is an overlap that occurs, and for a moment, one world appears in the other.  Just a glimpse, but enough to allow elements of one world to pass into the other.

In this scene, a bridge appears in a place where the bridge has been destroyed.  This is because, in the other dimension, the bridge is still there; it was never destroyed.  In that moment and that particular place, the two worlds were becoming one (until Peter stopped it).  What Jesus did, and what Jesus still does through the Church, is make much more than a bridge appear: he makes Heaven (which is very often used as a euphemism or symbol for God Himself) appear.  And we get to participate in this action.  One of the ways that we do this is through the sacraments.

Sacraments are in a very strong sense an acting-out of the Kingdom of God.  We rehearse regularly for this future world, and in so doing we represent it here on earth in symbolic ways.  In Baptism, we are symbolically identifying ourselves with Christ in his death and resurrection, dying to the old earthly life and rising again to new life in the new Kingdom.  In the Eucharist we not only remember the concrete Christ of history, but we also identify with him by partaking of his body and blood, becoming one with him in flesh as we do in Spirit, simultaneously remembering his death and committing ourselves to follow him to that very death.  We are, symbolically, making ourselves identical with Christ; we’re making a crossing-over point, and Jesus is walking across that bridge.  In the sacraments, we act out the Kingdom of Heaven; in so doing, we make it appear in our world.

What a beautiful thing!  We are not just singing about what Jesus did, we are participating in it! (albeit in a symbolic sense).

But as beautiful as sacraments are, they’re not enough.  Jesus’ actions didn’t make the Kingdom of Heaven present in a symbolic way.  He made it present in a very concrete way, through his ethical action.  At this point I’ll turn it over to Jurgen Moltmann, who says it better than I can paraphrase in Following Jesus Christ in the World Today:

Christian messianic ethics celebrates and anticipates the presence of God in history.  It wants to practice the unconditioned within the conditioned and the last things in the next to last.  In the economic dimension, God is present in bread; in healing, as health.  In the political dimension God is present as the dignity of the human being; in the cultural dimension, as solidarity.  In the ecological area, God is present as peace with nature; in the personal area, in the certainty of the heart.  Every form of his presence is veiled and sacramental; it is not yet a presence face-to-face.  God’s presence encounters human persons in the concrete messianic form of his liberation from hunger, oppression, alienation, enmity and despair.  These messianic forms of his presence point at the same time, however, beyond themselves to a greater presence, and finally to that present in which ‘God will be all in all.’

God’s real presence as bread, as freedom, as community, as peace and as certainty thus have the character of exploding the present.  To act ethically in a Christian sense means to participate in God’s history in the midst of our own history, to participate in the comprehensive process of God’s liberation of the world, and to discover our own role in this, according to our own calling and abilities.  A messianic ethic makes people into co-operators fo the kingdom of God.  It assumes that the kingdom of God is already here in concrete, if hidden, form.  Messianic ethics integrates suffering people into God’s history in this world; it is fulfilled by the hope of the completion of God’s history in the world by God himself.

Messianic ethics makes everyday life into a feast of God’s rule, just as Jesus did.  The messianic feast becomes everyday life.  As Athanasius once said, ‘the resurrected Christ makes life a feast, a feast without end.’  As we celebrate the presence of God’s kingdom by identifying with and serving the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the lonely, and the powerless, Christian ethics becomes a sacrament.  Then in our normal daily life in the world, politics becomes worship (Rom. 12:1-2).

Jesus the Activist, and the Importance of Non-Violence

I have a friend who always says that Jesus was completely a-political.  In some sense I suppose she’s right: he always avoided partisan issues (e.g. Pharisees vs. Sadducees).  But is the realm of politics limited to discussing which party or system of governance we follow?

Today I was driving a feed truck, but I really wanted to be in Winnipeg.  On any other day, Winnipeg is one of the last places I would want to be.  But today, Winnipeg hosted two major events that I had hoped to attend: the Slut Walk, in which people protest the horrible idea that the way a woman dresses makes her responsible for her own rape; and most of all, Occupy Winnipeg, the Winnipeg counterpart to Occupy Wall Street.  This movement started on Wall Street, as people gathered in public spaces, “occupying” them by their continued presence, as a reminder and a statement that these spaces are indeed public–that our country belongs to us.  Since then, Occupy has become a movement that’s spread to Europe, Asia, and Australia.  Today, Occupy protests occurred in many major Canadian cities, with thousands gathering in Toronto and hundreds here in Winnipeg.  This has become a global movement, and a major impetus for social change.  Does Jesus have anything to say in situations like this?

Perhaps we’re more comfortable with Jesus speaking to people’s needs: feeding the poor, healing the sick, touching the untouchables.  Nobody has a problem with associating those things with Jesus.  They were his M.O., the things that characterized his life and, to a large extent, his legacy.  Consider this, then.  The things that the people at Occupy are protesting include: injustice in regard to economic crimes; promised jobs that have not materialized (i.e. the poor are growing in number, and need to be fed); a medical system that exploits the sick; and a growing class distinction, as the middle class disappears into poverty and the rich get richer.  Among other things.  It isn’t very difficult to draw lines between these social/political movements and what Jesus did and taught.

Do we have trouble seeing Jesus as political because he was a religious figure, rather than a politician?  Trick question: in Jesus’ day, there was no distinction.  Religion was politics and politics was religion, not just because the Emperor claimed to be a god; it was not the pride of the emperor that caused the religious and political systems to mix, but the mixed religious/political system that enforced the pride of the emperor.  The “separation of church and state” is useful, but we’re naive to think that these two spheres don’t overlap in their demands on us.

Do we have trouble seeing Jesus as political because he didn’t protest?  Because he didn’t engage in civil disobedience?  Because he didn’t advocate direct resistance to the powers that be?  In point of fact, he did all of those things.

Jesus protested against the unjust religious system that held his people in bondage.  He taught against this system, and called its leaders (the Pharisees and Sadducees) to account, to their faces.  This religious system victimized people financially (through heavy temple taxes) and spiritually (through intense legalism), creating a class division between the rich and pious religious leaders, and the poor sinners.  God had set up a system that would have guaranteed a more just and equitable society: every 50th year was called a Year of Jubilee, in which all land which had been sold reverted to its original owner, and all debts were cancelled.  Jesus proclaimed a Year of Jubilee when he read the words of Isaiah:

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:17-21

Jesus engaged in civil disobedience.  He marched into the outer temple court (the court of the Gentiles, the only place Gentiles could come to in the Temple), which the religious authorities had allowed to become a marketplace for the selling of sacrifices and the changing of money, and he turned over the tables of the merchants, driving their animals out of the Temple courts with a whip.  Don’t think that the merchants were breaking the rules by being there, or that Jesus’ action wasn’t a type of active resistance to an oppressive regime.  The religious authorities were getting rich off of the religious observances of the people, and the court of the Gentiles was where the financial transactions all took place.

Jesus engaged in active resistance to unjust use of authority, and he taught others to do likewise:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer, But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” – Matthew 5:38-41

We tend to see this as “be a doormat to whoever picks on you,” but it was actually instruction on non-violent direct resistance.  A Roman soldier or citizen could treat non-citizens however they liked, so they treated them inhumanly: it was common practice for them to slap a non-citizen with the back of their hand.  A right-handed person’s backhand slap would fall across your right cheek, so by turning your left cheek to them, you were forcing them to slap you forehand, which was a strike reserved for other human beings.  Rather than passivity, it was actively (and non-violently) reinforcing one’s status as a human being.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist social oppression.

Similarly, the instruction to give your cloak to the one who sues you for your coat is not generosity, but active non-violent resistance.  A court in that day was a public place, and elders or representatives of some higher authority would hear the complaints of the people.  In 1st century Palestine, the land was controlled by the state, the religious authorities, or rich landowners.  If someone couldn’t pay the many taxes, or their rent, or any other debt, they could be sued; if they still didn’t cough it up, they’d go to prison or sell themselves into slavery to pay the debt.  In Jesus’ example, picture a wealthy landowner suing someone for their coat – presumably, the last of their possessions.  All the person has left now is their “cloak”, which is a euphemism for their undergarment.  In this situation, Jesus suggests that this poor person also remove their undergarment and give it to the one suing them, showing everyone in this public place how the rich have taken absolutely everything from the poor.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist financial oppression.

Finally, a Roman soldier could demand that a non-citizen carry his pack for him for up to one mile – and no more.  Jesus suggests that, if asked to carry the pack of his oppressor, a Palestinian non-citizen should offer, even insist, to carry it two miles.  An act of kindness, but have you ever heard of “killing them with kindness?”  This act of kindness would put the soldier in danger of being court-martialed for abusing his power, on the one hand, and should make him see the non-citizen as a person more worthy of respect, on the other.  In this, Jesus counselled his followers to resist political oppression.

Is there any question of why they killed him?

The early church carried on being political after Jesus ascended.  The phrase “Jesus is Lord” was a direct riff on the imperial slogan “Caesar is Lord.”  The Apostles were preaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection, against the direct orders of the religious authorities, who had the authority to imprison and torture them.  The Apostles simply said “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20).  Paul was imprisoned over and over again, and was ultimately executed (as were several of the other Apostles).  These men were deemed enemies of the state, because they carried on Jesus’ message.

So yes, Jesus has something to say about protests, civil disobedience, and non-violent direct action!  Rather than wondering at the notion of Jesus being political, we should be wondering at the notion that the Church today is not.  Again, this does not mean that we should be picking a “Christian party” to rule our country, but rather that we should be speaking out against injustice and insisting on the full status and rights of human beings (and I would add our environment to this as well).  This is a very exciting time to be a Christian, because there are so many people who are finally willing to stand up for something.  In some ways, the people down at Occupy are more like Jesus than most Christians – scandalous!  Theologians talk about the scandal of the gospel (that God would become a human, serve humans, and die for humans).  The scandal of the gospel today is that it actually demands that we stand up for others and make a difference in our society!  We should be out there with the Occupiers, because they need us.  We have something that they need.

When I look at movements like Occupy, I see a lot of angry people who want to see change, but their demands and their grievances are all over the map.  These movements are not overly organized, and tend to collect people from every imaginable group of the oppressed, dispossessed, disenfranchised, and disturbed, including every special interest group you can name.  To make real change, a movement needs focus – a list of real demands, a manifesto if you will.  We have one, as taught by the Son of God.

Another downside to large protest movements is that they often make the mistake of incorporating violence.  All it takes is one person taking a swing at a cop, and suddenly there are mass arrests, beatings, and new legislation to crack down on protests.  Tonight I watched a documentary called Capitalism Is the Crisis, and it was quite good for the first half.  The second half seemed to be advocating anarchism and violent resistance.  Ironically, when it comes to protests the anarchists seem to be the best organized, and groups like the “Black Bloc” turn peaceful protests into firebombed police cars and broken shop windows.  Last summer in Toronto this gave the police all the justification they needed to perpetrate the largest mass-arrest in Canadian history, arresting over 1100 people and holding most of them for several days without charge, subjecting them to all kinds of abuse.  Any time someone speaks out against it, though, it’s easy for the government to paint all protestors as violent thugs, and thus justify their actions.

Jesus was not just an activist, he was a brilliant activist.  He broke a lot of laws, but only unjust ones.  He paid his taxes, and never used violence.  He was, in a word, blameless.  That is what gave his teachings authority: because he was right!  All governments, even dictators, govern by the consent of the people, because if the people rise up then no government can stop them.  All governments, therefore, have to at least pretend to be legitimate and just.  So if a law is obviously unjust, they can’t be publicly seen to be punishing people for doing the right thing by disobeying it!  Jesus was a public figure, so any mistreatment of him by anyone would be widely reported; his execution seriously undermined the authority of the political and religious regimes that ruled Palestine, and spawned a movement that ended up taking over the world’s greatest empire.

Today, we’re all public figures.  There are cameras everywhere.  Protestors are catching on, chanting “the whole world is watching” whenever police start abusing their power.  Each and every one of us has more chance than ever of joining in Jesus’ civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.  If we’re doing what is right, then we’ll expose the “authorities” as being unjust, and any force they use against us will only further judge them.  Any time we resort to violence, we enter into a personal, human conflict; but every time we’re non-violent, the struggle is one of truth vs. injustice.

So this is my call to the Church: don’t pass up this opportunity.  People are trying to act like Jesus, so let’s show them how it’s done!