The Church as Sacrament to the World
December 11, 2011
Spiritual practices in the church have often been considered only for their inward expression, often referred to as works of piety by John Wesley. But the church has a responsibility to be engaged in the salvific work of Christ in the world, especially to those referred to in Matthew 25 as “the least of these.” This paper will consider how the church is meant to be concerned with social responsibility to the “least of these” by being a sacrament to it. It will begin by exploring what is meant by sacrament and means of grace. Then, it will explore why the church should be envisioned as a means of grace to the world and the theological implications of such a view. Finally, it will explore some constructive proposals of how the view of the church as a means of grace can fit within a Nazarene context.
There has been considerable work done describing the importance of the inner life of the church. Rob Staple's seminal work on the place of the sacraments called Outward Sign and Inward Grace, for example, goes far to explain the importance of sacramental practice within the church as the ordinary means of receiving God's grace. Staples quotes John Lawson's definition of “means of grace” as, “The means by which the general saving action of God is mediated to particular congregations and to individual believers.” He goes on to show Gustav Aulen's view of the means of grace as, “The constitutive factors of the church through which the activity of the Holy Spirit which creates the church takes place. Finally, Staples refers to John Wesley's perspective on “means of grace” in Wesley's sermon with the same title: “By "means of grace" I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace. I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian church for many ages; -- in particular by our own Church, which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace, and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is "an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same."
The first two authors use the phrase to refer specifically to the way God bestows grace upon believers or upon the church, but they do not necessarily limit God to this inward direction of grace. Wesley, however, even though he was referring particularly to Christians, talks of ordinary channels of grace “to men [sic]”, in general. He did not go so far as to explicitly name the church as a means of grace to the world, but he does not preclude the notion.
Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World, defines sacrament in a helpful way. “For a sacrament, as we have seen, implies necessarily the idea of transformation, refers to the ultimate event of Christ's death and resurrection, and is always a sacrament of the Kingdom. In a way, of course, the whole life of the Church can be termed sacramental, for it is always the manifestation in time of the “new time”. This implies that the presence of the church in the world is eschatalogical and, by its presence, proclaims the coming of the Lord, both past and future. He goes on to further define his view of sacrament: “A sacrament, as we already know, is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not “passage” into “supernature”, but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of “nature” into “supernature”, but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a “miracle” by which God breaks, so to speak, the “laws of nature,” but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man [sic] and nature, the Truth which is Christ.”