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N.T. Wright on Word and Sacraments: We Need Both

(Part 1 of 3)

The following is the first of a three-part series based on a transcript of a lecture given by Dr. N. T. Wright at Calvin College on January 6, 2007. Much of this lecture is based on his previous writings, especially Simply Christian (HarperCollins, 2006). We are grateful to Dr. Wright for allowing us to share this lecture with our readers over the next three issues. In this issue the focus will be on the sacraments in general; RW 90 will focus on baptism; and RW 91 on the Eucharist. An audio recording of this and other lectures can be found at http://www.calvinseminary.edu/calendar/lectureCalendar.php?archive=1.

Sacramental Time and Space

Certain actions are like words. They say something, sometimes even more than words say. For instance, a handshake or a kiss is a physical act that communicates all sorts of things that would be quite hard to put into words.

Actually, the most important things in life are routinely difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets and playwrights: to explore and to help us probe the borders of language, to make new connections and create new metaphorical possibilities. Because if you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe to somebody else what happened.

That’s how it is with a great many things in life. Words alone make us feel poverty-stricken. But when we can actually do something with our bodies that enables us to say “this is what it’s all about,” the result is something far more profound than words.

Sacraments are like that. They are actions that speak, that communicate beyond words.

Post-enlightenment rationalism still infects Christianity to the point where we think that reality is an intellectual formula with which we can tie everything up. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”

Sacramental Theology

Sacramental theology is all about discovering, “in fear and trembling,” how to allow that Word to go on becoming flesh. It’s like the sequence in Luke 24: Your heart burning within you is the Word catching fire within you, and then Christ is there in the breaking of the bread. The action in the breaking of the bread is the reality the word describes.

I was at an ecumenical conference on the Eucharist recently in my home diocese. There were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Reformed participants; it was a wonderful day. We were all trying to show how the Eucharist energizes the church for mission. And the more we all went at it, the more it actually became very exciting.

When we really understand the Eucharist as the gift that enables us to reappropriate the reality of the great past redemptive events, and also to anticipate, in physical reality, the redemptive events that are to come—when the earth shall be full of the knowledge and the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea—then we have a direction and energy for the mission of the church. That is, to go and feed the hungry and care for the lonely, to house the homeless, to find work for the unemployed, and to minister to prisoners, drug addicts, and others who are among “the least” of our brothers and sisters.

I find it very moving to see the way in which people who don’t have an explicit theological framework know in their bones that the road that takes them out of church where they just celebrated the Eucharist is the road that takes them out into the community where they must work with the people who have the greatest need.

It’s the “Mother Teresa effect,” where you meet Christ in the bread and the wine and thereby learn how to meet Christ in the face of the neighbor who needs you. Or we might call it the “Matthew 25 principle”: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison?” “Inasmuch as you did to the least of these you did it also to me.” There’s a close fit between welcoming and recognizing the Christ who comes to us as the one who fills heaven and earth and who now mysteriously fills this bread and wine, and the Christ who comes to us in the face of those in need whom we meet on the street or elsewhere.

My sense is that the sacraments energize us for our work in the world. What I’m talking about is more than merely pragmatic—it isn’t that we’ve learned the gospel in church, and then we go on to identify some social problems we’re going to fix. Social problems are more intractable than that, as we should have discovered over the last couple of centuries.

There was once a kind of enlightenment optimism that said all we needed was better education and more democracy, better housing and drains, and when we had such things we would basically crack the problem of evil. But evil has been striking back. And because we thought we had got it licked, we have reacted in immature and dangerous ways. I’m referring to the ways those things have played out in world politics over the last few years. I’ve written about this in my book Evil and the Justice of God.

The Sacramental Life of the Church

The point I’m making is that all Christian work in the world is a spiritual battle. It’s not just a matter of fighting for people’s souls and then moving on to implement pragmatic policies to sort out their bodies later. No, the powers that rule the world are still powerful and need to be reminded of their defeat by Christ on the cross. And it is only as we are energized as baptized people and equipped as Eucharistic people that we are able to go calmly and confidently into the arena of the struggle, whatever it may be, from campaigning for justice to creation care. It’s because we are, as it were, new exodus people through the sacramental life of the church, that we are enabled do those things—not, of course, at the exclusion of prayer and Scripture.

The second point I want to make is about Word and sacrament. Don’t think that because I was asked to speak about sacraments today, that I actually only believe in sacraments. The sacraments not only do not displace the Word, but the higher a sacramental theology you have, the more you need a high theology of the Word to flesh it out. The precise point of the sacraments is that these are the moments when the story comes to life.

If you simply took some water and, without a word, splashed it over someone—young or old—or if you simply broke some bread and poured out some wine, without a word, those actions could mean any of a number of things. From the very beginning—as in Luke 24, as in Acts 2—the Word and the sacrament, the teaching and the meal, together with prayer and fellowship, go with one another, reinforce one another, and energize one another.

It is tragic that in many Christian traditions over the last four hundred years there’s been a polarization between Word and sacrament. I know churches that have become so anxious about the misuse of the sacraments that they’ve actually reordered their entire worship space so that the pulpit is prominent. In some cases they almost seem to suggest that the Word is the only thing that matters, and the sacraments are kind of embarrassing things that happen off on the side somewhere without really having any focal point within the architectural or cultural scheme of things.

On the other hand, there are some churches where the sacraments occur with a mumbled liturgy and a minimum of preaching and explanation. The sacramental action seems to be the whole thing, a lot of people moving around and doing things that really have very little Word to give them life and direction.

We need both. And those two traditions need one another. Christian worship is a response of the whole human being and the whole human community to God’s grace and love for the world. It catches us as whole beings—that’s part of the joy and the risk of sacramental life. I sometimes think that people back off from sacramental life because it is risky. It involves the emotions. If you actually let yourself enter into the sacrament, it can be an extraordinarily moving thing. Sometimes people who like to keep their emotions bottled up prefer a cool, rational religion of the head, which hardly engages the heart, let alone the body itself. So when we put the package together like this we find in it a theology of new creation within the theology of the promise of Isaiah 6—the whole earth being filled with God’s glory—the promise of Romans 8, and so on.

I was taught that there are basically two sacraments. But I would prefer to say that the whole world is God’s sacrament—or at least is full of God’s sacramental possibilities. Of course, as soon as you say that, it sounds as though you’re halfway to pantheism, and I hope you know that’s not where I am headed. But I do believe that “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) is an eschatological promise. I believe God’s grace will flood the world. The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It’s the brooding of the Spirit that will bring forth a new birth (Gen. 1; Rom. 8). The world that was originally charged with the grandeur of God, and still is, according to the seraphim in Isaiah 6, will once again be filled with the very life of God. And that’s what we’re looking forward to.

Baptism and the Eucharist are advance signs of that. And that’s why they matter.