The material elements do not merely represent, but they participate in the reality to which they point. They are not mere signs, but symbols that mediate a spiritual reality. The signs become symbols because God does something through them.
I think there’s an interesting argument to be made that marriage meets this definition. Now the Catholics have said this for hundreds of years. The Protestants rejected this idea. But it bears some reflection.
In conventional Christian marriage theology, we consider marriage to be a covenant among God, the bride, and the groom. And there’s much truth to this.
In the typical Protestant wedding ceremony, the preacher concludes by pronouncing the bride and groom husband and wife. He typically precedes the announcement with something like, “By the power vested in me by the State of Alabama and God Almighty, I now …” Now, by any definition, that’s sacramental language!
I mean, the minister is, by the power of his words, binding the bride and groom to a solemn covenant with God. God’s power is mystically attached to the words of the preacher.
However, it’s just not true. I mean, God nowhere gives the preacher the power to effect a marriage. It’s just plain not in the Bible. Rather, the State of Alabama gives that power to preachers. So it’s not a sacrament.
Except it is. Just for a different reason.
In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright offers us a nearly forgotten lens through which to view scripture. You see, the purpose of God’s work in this universe is to bring heaven and earth together. I explain this in these two posts: Part 1 and Part 2.
Now, it all starts in Eden, where God and man walked together in harmony. It’ll end when heaven and earth are rejoined in a new Eden with the Tree of Life replanted in the middle.
In the meantime, God works diligently to bring heaven and earth together, and we respond by doing the same. God dwelt among the Israelites as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. His very Glory was among them, shielding them from enemies and showing them the way. They received God’s law from his own hand, and God fed them with his own food. Of course, most of the Israelites died in the desert despite the blessedness of their existence.
God then dwelt in the tabernacle, and forgave the sins of his people. He won battles for them and raised up leaders to protect them. And the Israelites managed to let his ark be captured by Philistines, and they insisted on a king who, just as God warned them, conscripted and enslaved his own people.
God then dwelt in the temple, from which he forgave sins and blessed his worshipers. And the Jews so abandoned the God who dwelt among them that God turned them over to the Babylonians and allowed his home, the temple, to be destroyed.
God then came to his people as the incarnate Son, and walked among his people and taught them his words. And they crucified him.
Even so, the Son arose, as first among many to be given a heavenly body in preparation for the New Eden. The Son returned to heaven, but sent his Spirit to dwell among his people — teaching them love and unity.
But, sadly, God’s people, despite supernatural empowerment, keep finding ways to be hateful and divisive. And yet the Spirit still strives with us, and despite our weakness, even today the Spirit does marvelous things through those he indwells.
And so, the story of God’s work on earth is both one of bringing heaven to earth and the earth rebelling against heaven, pulling itself away from Eden.
Now about marriage: You see, the natural, the perfect, the ultimate state of man is Eden, from which we’ve fallen. And in Eden, man is married. It only makes sense: God lives in perfect, intimate community in the Trinity. He gave us a little heaven on earth in marriage.
But when man fell, a curse fell on the male and the female, leaving them destined to strive with one another, making it hard to recapture the bliss of Eden.
Since I was a teenager, I was taught that sex in marriage is a foretaste of heaven, which I believe. It makes sense. Being one with another is how things are in heaven.
After the Son came to earth, marriage changed. Jesus became the example of how husbands should treat their wives — letting go of superiority and becoming sacrifices, like Jesus. And the Spirit empowers men and women to be more like Jesus and so to have more Eden in their marriages.
But, you may object, some of the greatest misery ever suffered by anyone is in marriage. A failed marriage is one of the most awful things any one can suffer through. But, you see, it fits the pattern.
Satan could never have been cast into hell but for once having been in heaven. The Israelites would not have died in the desert but for being freed from slavery. And divorce would not be so painful but for the Glory of God found in marriage.
Now about the church: You see, heaven also comes down to earth in the church. We are the Kingdom of God. In the church we enjoy a foretaste of heavenly bliss. We enjoy the very presence of God in the Spirit who indwells us. We enjoy the very presence of Jesus when we gather. The church is the bride of Christ. Even those among us who remain single enjoy the blessing of marriage to Jesus through the church. It’s heaven when we let God be God among us.
It’s hell when we mess it up. A divided, fighting church is hell on earth for the same reason that hell is hell to Satan — he’s separated from God, the source of all joy.
When we divide, we not only break the command to be united, we deprive ourselves — quite literally — of heaven on earth. Indeed, we turn heaven into hell. And this is why God gave us a salvation that’s easy and light. He wants us in heaven. And yet we foolishly insist on piling burdens upon burdens on one another.
Division in the church is like divorce in a marriage.
(Mat 19:6b KJV) What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
It’s a fearsome command. You see, marriage is a sacrament — not the wedding. Not the preacher’s words. The marriage itself. The being married is a sacrament. This act of a man and a woman brings heaven closer to earth.
But so is being united with brothers in Christ. It’s a gift from God, but our actions decide whether we get to enjoy it. We either accept it and enjoy the blessing, or we try to be wiser than God and refuse it. And when we do this, we blaspheme the sacrament. Indeed, we push heaven away and build a little bit of hell right here on earth instead.