According to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace” as well as, and this is often the sticky point, “a means whereby we receive the same”. This definition, when applied to Holy Communion, can open a can of worms for most Protestants that all of the priests of the realm won’t get the lid back onto the top of. For someone like me who comes to a historic form of the faith from a decidedly non-historic – in my case Pentecostal – form, the language can be forbidding and the implications earth-shattering. Nevertheless, it has become my conviction that this language is not only correct but really helpful in understanding the nature of Communion, that is, once we examine what exactly is being claimed about it.
First of all this language of “spiritual grace” can be tricky. What is meant by grace here is not merely a state of God’s liking you more than you deserve; we Christians all agree this is the case. Grace here is much, much more than “favor”, even unmerited. Grace is power, specifically the power of God to do in and for us what we could never do in and for ourselves. Receiving God’s grace means receiving God’s power to work in us according to God’s intention for us. God heals us of our alienation, our sin, even of death itself. Our posture toward this healing and restorative power is decidedly receptive. This says so much more than just that we cannot work hard enough to get to heaven or that only God can make decisive action to save us. This says that our natural and continual posture toward God is a stretching out in openness to receive what is extended by his hand. We reach out our hands not to grasp, but to receive God’s grace freely extended. Classical Christianity does not see this as the case only in the moment of conversion, but every moment of our salvation thereafter. God is extending and we are reaching out to receive.
This grace we receive from God in Christ works on the external life, emanating from our core into our lifestyles, relationships, our ways of being in the world, but this grace that works on the outside happens on the inside. It is “inward and spiritual”. St. Paul prayed for his Ephesian congregants “that you might be strengthened with power by his Spirit in the inner man”. This is a prayer for grace, the power of God doing the humanly impossible within the human heart. How then do we commemorate this reception of grace from God’s hand? How do we pose ourselves receptively as we continue to be saved? What are the signs of the power of God, in Christ, by the Spirit, imparting grace consistently to the hearts of believers? In the act of the Eucharist (that classic – dare we say original? – word for Communion) we approach a Table, prepared faithfully by ancient design for the gathering of the saints of every age. We stand or kneel reverently and hold out our hands. A person dressed in a manner that indicates that he or she is acting not independently but as a representative of Christ and of his Church, dressed to blend into rather than to stand apart from this particular Table, places into our hands and presents to our lips the “Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven”, the “Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation”. We receive. We say “amen”. We take our places again within the crowd of saints to offer thanksgiving and receive priestly blessing for the mission ahead. Eucharist, self evidently, is an “outward and visible sign” of the power we receive continually on the inside to feed on Christ and to be Christ’s together.
The second part of the BCP’s description of sacrament, though, is for some a real difficulty. It makes a claim that cuts against every bit of our American rugged individualism and Protestant bias calling us to believe again in the Church. The Church asserts that sacraments are a “means of grace”, that is, that participation in sacrament is a way itself in which grace comes to us. Again it is important to distinguish between grace as the favor of God at the moment of conversion and grace as the power of God working in us as we are being saved. Grace comes to us constantly and effectively, administering to us the mercies and peace of God, keeping us in Christ, healing us and “restoring our souls”. The Church, in her vocation to live the Scriptures, acknowledges ways in which Jesus, by the Spirit, ministers grace to us. At baptism he gives us power to become the children of God and to receive the Spirit. At Eucharist he feeds us with his body and blood, continuously joining us to himself and to one another and making present for us his once-for-all sacrifice for sin. In Eucharist we receive Christ. In the body we eat bread and drink wine. But inwardly this outward action is received as the body and blood of Jesus. This is not, as some modern Christians have asserted since Zwingli, a symbol of what happens at conversion. Nor is it merely play-acting or rememberance through object-lesson. We receive “by faith and with thanksgiving” the Christ of God in our hearts by the action of eating the bread and wine we have consecrated in his words for this purpose. Because it is outward as well as inward we call it at the same time bread as well as body, wine as well as blood, true food, true drink.
One reason that this doctrine of the apostolic Church is difficult for even many Christians to receive is because it contradicts what many of us were taught about the nature of salvation. We are accustomed to the language of “moments of conversion” rather than that of salvation process. We emphasize a “personal relationship with God” with little or no corporate dimensions at its heart. We encourage folks to make “decisions for Christ” without acknowledgement of the whole person in grace. Salvation is often seen by us as the result of either our own personal decision to be saved or God’s sovereign act of saving us very personally, individually. Becoming a part of Christ’s body, the Church, was seen as a result of salvation rather than what it is intended to be, a synonym for salvation. Sacrament reminds us that we are not saved alone, that we are saved into the people of God and into the coming renewal of all things. Sacrament reminds us that we come to “Our Father” rather than just “my Father”. Just as we received initial grace in a posture of receptivity to the offering of Christ, so we receive continued grace in a posture of receptivity to the life of Christ’s body. I can be a Christian, I reason, alone in my living room. But I cannot be the Church there. The Church gathers in order to give that which the Church receives, the grace of God.
The Eucharist is the primary worship act of God’s people. Without it we are far too consumed with personal interests, even in our other forms of worship. Eucharist brings us together to open hands that have too often been clenched, to feed on mystery that transcends the functionality of other meals, to worship in the holy passivity that is the root of reverence. It calls us to submit to an outward, visible sign and to an inward, spiritual power which both amount to grace.
Grace be unto us all.