A few years ago, there was a “Call to Action” in United Methodism. It urged the following: “A number of practices that foster congregational vitality are known to the church and we can and must choose to dedicate attention, leadership, and resources to cultivating them in every congregation” (p. 15). Strangely, however, the sacraments — baptism and communion — did not appear in the list of practices that foster congregational vitality. It’s a telling oversight, one that surely falls into the category of taking for granted what is faithful and familiar.
So let’s attempt to de-familiarize the familiar in such a way that we might again trust (trust is belief at work!) that sacraments are vital practices, means that mediate true life. We can do that with a quick trip forward to heaven, and then back to Jabbok.
In Rev 5, a question is broached: Who is worthy to open the scroll, who is able to unveil the mystery of God? John weeps, because there is “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” who can do it – until an angel announces “see, the Lion of Judah” (Rev 5: 5, NRSV). And then John sees between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a…Lamb! John hears “lion,” but he sees “lamb.” Not just any lamb, either but “a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6): slaughtered, yet standing; crucified but risen, Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world acknowledged as the Lion of Judah.
In his commentary on this passage, Joseph L. Mangina cites Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote, “The Lamb is God’s mode of involvement in, and commitment to, the world; the Lamb is both ‘worthy’ and ‘able’ not only to symbolize God’s involvement but to be it” (Revelation [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010], 84). Surely sacraments are exactly like that. Surely what Balthasar says of about the Lamb could be said about the sacraments of the Lamb. Sacraments, too, are both worthy and able not only to symbolize God’s involvement but to be it.
Just as we hear lion but only see lamb, we hear “be born again” yet we see a few drops of water. We hear “become to us the living bread”; we see croutons or crackers or a bit of bread. We hear “the cup of salvation”; we see…grape juice. And yet, like the unveiled mystery in the heavenly throne room, the lion is the lamb, the slaughtered one stands alive; drowned to sin we rise in Christ, breaking bread we see the risen Lord.
In Gen 32, Jacob is attacked, questioned, wounded, and blessed, or we could say he is grasped, judged, marked, and reborn. The mysterious, spectral nature of Jacob’s nocturnal wrestle with a man/angel/God suggests that here we again face a duality like the lamb who is lion, the crucified who is risen. Indeed, early Christians found in Jacob’s wound a prefigurement of the wounds of the crucified and risen one, found in this struggle a prefigurement of Golgotha, and thus of the paschal mystery that sacraments re-member and re-present. David F. Ford rings the changes on these parallels: “On the cross too there is wrestling, there is wounding to the point of death, the identity of a people and of God is at stake, and there is eventual blessing” (Self and Salvation: Being Transformed [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 195).
What both passages suggest, when connected to sacraments, is that before a “call to action” we need a “call to passion,” both in the sense of recovering the paschal mystery at the heart of baptism and communion, and in the sense of recognizing that sacraments are not first something we do, but a divine doing that we suffer. Sacraments are our most vital practices, both in the sense of being essential and being life-giving. They are this precisely because in them God does what needs doing, in them the worthy lamb unrolls the scroll, in them the mighty God wins us from sin and death, in them Christ takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us to the world. To this holy mystery we can and must choose to respond in kind — dedicating our attention, leadership, and resources just as God has: entirely and irrevocably.