Peter J. Leithart over at First Things writes beautifully about our trust in God’s presence sacramentally — in bread, wine, and water — and what a sacramental understanding of God’s promises means for our faith:
For many Christians, sacraments are locked in a winner-take-all battle with faith. Are we reconciled to God by faith or by baptism? Do we feed on Christ by believing or by eating bread and drinking wine? When we place too much emphasis on sacraments, many believe, we run the risk of wrecking faith on the shoals of superstition.
That’s not the biblical outlook, nor a classic Protestant one. God imprints His name on us in baptism, and we trust that God will preserve us in His favor as we keep faith with the faithful God who has sealed us. Jesus offers Himself by the Spirit in bread and wine, and we trust that He does indeed feed us, giving Himself for our life at His table.
We may not feel it. We may not see it. We may be terrorized by the shadows of Hades, or wander in a dry and desolate land. But we remember we’re baptized, we keep eating and drinking, and we trust God to do as He’s promised. This isn’t faith in the magic of sacramental performance. Rather, we trust the God who gives these gifts and gives Himself through them.
Some of you are already pastors, and others aspire to ministry in word and sacrament. Faith is as crucial for you as for those to whom you minister. To be fruitful, sacraments must be received in faith; they must also be administered in faith.
Pastors are summoned to believe that these puny rites are mighty acts of God. They don’t always appear to be such. You baptize a little girl who grows to young adulthood and slips into restless rebellion. There seems to be no fruit, no sign that she got anything out of baptism besides a dampened head. Yet you trust that God has pledged Himself to this young woman, and claimed her. You call her to conform her life to her baptism, since her baptism is the decisive truth about her. You warn her not to despise the gift that she has received. You’re tempted to think her baptism impotent, but you believe in baptism even against apparent evidence, walking by faith not sight. You have more confidence in baptism than in your own pastoral judgment.
A middle-aged man in your church is an alcoholic, off and on the wagon for decades, mostly off. He’s been disciplined time without number for his drunkenness, his inattention to his family, his wastefulness, and the host of other sins that cluster around addiction. He’s back at the table now. Apart from communion, he hasn’t had a drink for six months, but there are few other signs that anything has changed. The only difference seems to be that he used to let the bread and wine pass and now he doesn’t. You want to grab him by the shoulders and shake sense into him. You want to harangue and browbeat and pressure and manipulate; you want to take over. What you don’t want to do is wait for the Spirit to renew him. But trusting God’s pledge in the Eucharist means trusting that God is at work to remake this man even when the signs of that remaking are all but imperceptible.
Jesus the Son will build His church by the Spirit through His word and signs. So in faith – the faith that is patient, persistent, kind, restrained, gentle, humble, hopeful – we speak the word, sprinkle the water, break the bread, pour the wine, waiting on God to bring the promised harvest.
Leithart is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative confession which has come closest to any confessional group to acknowledging and accepting my call from Jesus to preach and teach the Gospel. Though the fine folks at First Reformed in Chatham, part of the Reformed Church in America, probably would have called me too. Which is funny, because my theology is definitely Lutheran and not reformed.
But Leithart’s understanding of sacraments here seems far more Lutheran than Reformed. I wish I’d said this. I know I believe it. In fact, I want to be Leithart when I grow up. I really do.