We’ve seen that the Orthodox Church has a very different view of the sacraments from the Western churches. The West sees the sacraments as two or seven distinct ways by which God’s grace is brought to believers by human action.
The Orthodox believe that life itself is a sacrament. Some actions are specific sacraments, but God’s grace cannot be limited to seven specific acts.
Let’s take this definition from Wikipedia,
The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, views the sacraments, what it typically calls the Holy Mysteries, not so much as dispensers of grace, but instead as a means for communing with God, an entering into and participation in heavenly things while nevertheless still on earth in this life, viewing the Church and indeed all of creation sacramentally.
I like this definition a lot. Hence forth, this is what I mean by being a “sacramentalist.”
Now, this is not just bandying words. As I hope to show, seeing certain aspects of our Christianity through this lens can greatly deepen and enrich our understanding — and our experience of God.
I like the Orthodox view very much. Rather than looking for symbols that do something, we can venture down a more interesting path. What can we do that causes God himself to act in this life and in this world? How can we become participants in the power of the Patriarch of the universe? How can we transcend flesh and bones and experience a taste of heaven in the here and now?
Let’s try to deepen our understanding more. I begin with the work of the Holy Spirit.The Holy Spirit indwells Christians and does so in an effective, powerful way. I explain this in the lessons that begin the Amazing Grace lesson series:
Now, the Holy Spirit lives in each of us in a way that’s similar to the way God dwelt among the Israelites during the Exodus and while the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple stood. And God’s grace is most certainly mediated to us through the Spirit.
This means that Christians have a closer relationship, a closer presence, of God than non-Christians. And the Spirit influences how we think, what we want, and so how we live.
We are promised that if we “keep in step with the Spirit” the Spirit will bear fruit in our lives, changing us into people who display “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-25). And so, somehow or other, keeping in step with the Spirit or being led by the Spirit (5:18) allows God to change us.
Therefore, Christian living can be a sacrament, bringing us very real gifts from God.
To this we must add prayer. James promises,
(James 1:5) If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
God promises to give spiritual gifts to those who pray for them. As Solomon wrote,
(Prov 2:3-5) [I]f you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, 4 and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
Just so, Paul prays for the Ephesians,
(Eph 3:16-19) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Evidently, I can pray for someone else to receive spiritual gifts from God! Now, if this isn’t sacramental, I don’t know what is! We are promised the power to have God himself bring good gifts down from heaven to empower and encourage us.
Now, this is all nonsense for those who deny that the Spirit affects who we are and how we live, other than through the word. And certainly the word changes us. But these promises tell us that the changes worked in us are not merely human effort. Rather, God himself is working within us to make us the people we were always meant to be.
The lessons I linked to above give further examples.
Now, we should add Bible study to this. You see, we are not left on our own in interpreting the words —
(1 Cor 2:12-14) We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
We are plainly taught that the Spirit helps us understand the words God has given us. In other words, as we hear or read, the Spirit opens our heart to understanding. We can (and often do) frustrate the Spirit’s work. But the Spirit is there for us if we’ll accept his work within us.
Thus, studying the Bible is sacramental, as it’s a human act that brings God’s grace to the reader far beyond the mere reading.
And there’s more, as we’ll consider in future posts.