"So the sacraments hold this unusual place in the Church, in that they are both central to our life of faith and yet also can be so very confusing. In an attempt to clarify the connect between the sacraments and our daily lives, I’ll start with a phrase from St. Augustine: “visible words.” I find this phrase attractive because it helps me appreciate Baptism and Communion as the visible, physical counterpoint to the preaching and teaching of the church. That is, the sacraments are the embodiment of the proclaimed and heard gospel in physical form, the gospel given shape in water, bread, and wine. They serve us, then, as physical reminders of what we have heard and believe simply because we are physical creatures and remembering and believing can be so hard. And so we have the gospel preached to us so that we may hear it, and we have the same gospel given to us so that we may taste and touch and feel it with our hands and mouths and bodies.
"Visible, physical words for visible, physical people. Now, if this is true, then the sacraments will share the same character as the proclaimed gospel. That is, the sacramental word, as with the preached word, will be primarily about one thing: telling the truth. And perhaps this is where our difficulty with the sacraments begins, because to do this — to tell unflinchingly the honest-to-goodness truth — is rarely easy and almost never welcome.
" Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, describes why this truth telling can be so hard: Before the gospel is good news, he writes, it’s just news. Let us say that it is the evening news, the television news, but with the sound turned off. Picture that, then, the video without the audio, the news with, for a moment, no words to explain it or explain it away, no words to cushion or sharpen the shock of it, no definition given to dispose of it with such as a fire, a battle, a strike, a treaty, a beauty, an accident. Just the thing itself, life itself, or as much of it as the screen can hold, flickering away in the dark of the room (14).
" News, news describing the way things really are. And from such news, as Buechner goes on to explain, there is no escape, as we are confronted with who we really are, forced to look honestly at ourselves with no illusions, excuses, or hiding places.
" This is the gospel; this is the sacraments: the telling of the truth. And, as Buechner also writes, such truth is “bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart…. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding, to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy,” the good news .
" This news, tragedy before it is comedy, bad before it is good, law before it is gospel. It’s not what we want to hear, really, but there it is all the same. The sacraments tell us first the difficult truth about ourselves, and only then tell us the glorious truth about God’s loving response to us and abiding concern for us.
" And of all the truths the sacraments tell us about ourselves, the first is that we are not in control. Now, I know that you don’t need to be told this. After all, any illness, or job loss, or tragedy great or small reminds of just how precarious life is. And yet…and yet it is so tempting to believe otherwise, to try to arrange our life just so and in this way delude ourselves into believing that we really can be masters of our own destiny, captains of our fate. And so the gospel first reveals to us the difficult news that we are not in control.
" This, in fact, is the truth described in John’s gospel account this morning, as the people who witnessed Jesus’ miracle saw in him their salvation from political tyranny and wanted from him more of his miraculous power, healing, and nourishment. You see, they were not buffoons, or rabble, or miscreants. They were faithful people, for when they saw the mighty deeds of Jesus they perceived him to be from God, and “from God” – especially in this chapter, meant to them a mighty prophet like Moses, who would deliver them from Rome and restore Israel to glory just as Moses had delivered the Israelites from Egypt.
" And it’s at just this point that Jesus withdraws. For he would not be king on their terms…or on anyone else’s. Christ’s word to these faithful people was harsh; for it was the word, “No.” No to all their ambitions and delusions of power and control.
" And here’s the thing: Christ says the same thing to us. For this very reason do we baptize infants. For children simply have no say in the matter of their baptism. God, through their parents and the church, just chooses them. God, that is, unilaterally chooses to make us his own, to love and cherish us no matter what we may experience later in life, no matter what our attitude may be toward God or the Church, no matter what we may say or do, God just goes ahead and chooses us to receive the new life of Christ in Holy Baptism.
" And Holy Communion is of exactly the same character. For when we come to the table of our Lord, we come on God’s terms, not ours. For Christ comes to us in Holy Communion bodily, physically, visibly, first to say “no” — no to our desire to be in control, no to the people we wish we were or we wish everyone thought we were — so that we might then hear Christ’s “yes” to the person we actually and already are, the person for whom Christ died and to whom he now gives the gift of his body and blood.
" At the altar, you see, all pretense must give way, for when we gather round this Table on our knees with our hands up and mouths open, we are as naked and need, helpless and powerless as a baby about to be baptized. And yet it is precisely these helpless and uncomprehending persons — all of us — to whom Christ comes and from whom Christ will never draw away.
" And so what is difficult about Communion and Baptism, in the end, is very simple: we had and have nothing to do with it, not really. It is God’s action of mercy and grace alone; and so we can neither take credit for it nor control it. But this is also what is so crucial about our sacraments, for precisely because they are God’s work and not our own we can trust them. For now, when all else fails, our relationships or our sources of security, our health or even life itself — when we fail – yet God’s promise yet stands firm. For God’s word to us in Baptism and Communion remains faithful, calling us ever back to who we really are in God’s eyes, God’s beloved and holy children.
" And so I would suggestthat we invite our people to come to church – both this week and always – as themselves. Really. This seems like a simple thing, I know, and yet in so many parts of our lives we feel we must pretend, putting on a good face, not letting others in, holding vulnerability and honesty at bay lest we drown in the fear of rejection. So invite them to come to the worship and, especially, the Lord’s Table as a baby comes to the font, holding back nothing and risking all, for it is the Lord himself who invites us to share his meal, the Lord himself who nourishes you with his own body, the Lord himself who calls you to new life and hope, now and forever. We are invited to come as we are, and this is a good week to remind us that while we are not in control, we are loved for who we are.