Since the Reformers, there has been an impulse within Western Christianity to erase particular marks of sacred time and space. The desire ranges from a fierce iconoclasm that sees idolatrous popery as the bane of true religion to a polite bourgeois discomfort with physicality or difference. In contemporary American religion there is also the particularity of our inherited discomfort with anything that resembles hierarchy or appears undemocratic.
Within the Episcopal Church we see these impulses in a variety of places. Watch the distrust of the House of Deputies for the bishops of the Church and you can see that democratic impulse alive and well. Read the justification for Holy Women, Holy Men – everybody is affirmed and the concept of sainthood is redefined as setting a good example. Listen to the debates over Communion and Baptism and you can also hear the discomfort with difference as there seems to be incredulity that we should set any bar, let alone a high one, to participation in sacred mysteries.
This is the point – for many there is no such thing as a sacred mystery anymore. The notion that particular people, places, moments, or things can be set aside as blessed (as different) is increasingly deemed retrograde.
The danger of this sort of liberal Protestantism is that when we cease to see particular moments as communicating something of the divine then we will, eventually and I believe inevitably, cease to see that movement anywhere.
There is a commendable impulse that underlies much of this – the desire to see all of life as sacred and all people as blessed and valued by God. It is and they are! Absolutely!
Yet, we also believe that God is doing something new with people in Baptism. Even if your understanding of the Fall is a muted one there is still some bit of redeeming grace that we expect in that moment. In the Eucharistic feast we expect that God is coming among us is some special way even if Real Presence is a step too far for some.
God does something unique with the common in particular moments. These moments are the means by which we have sure and certain hope – they are the means given to us by Christ for the sanctification of humanity. After them, we are different. We are changed as we become a new creation. We are set aside as we are no longer that which we were.
The concept of holiness necessarily requires a sense of and belief in difference. The Church invites people to a different life – a renewed existence in the Body. The Sacramental life of the Church is the means by which we see and know that God makes use of the simplest of elements to transform our very being. If we can’t articulate this simple fact, that God changes things, then we are left in a profoundly disconcerting theological place for we are left with human device and the limits of reason as the sole measure of God’s action in the world.
Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.
The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.
I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.
The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.
The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.
That difference is expressed in our liturgical seasons, in our rites and Sacraments, in our service in our communities, in our work of love and reconciliation, in our life of prayer, and in our self-sacrifice. A Church which denies difference denies its own calling and fails in its essential witness to bring others to consecrated life.
Understanding ourselves as changed and transformed is not hubris – it is an act of profound humility that recognizes that it is not we ourselves who bear witness to God but Christ living through us.
Just as the common becomes holy on the altar, we creatures become holy at the altar rail. We become another part of the feeding of God’s people even as we are fed. Each Baptism and Communion is part of the striving toward the Kingdom of God, the yearning that echoes in time and memory, and promises that human frailties and fractions can be bound up in the laboring grace of the divine and consecrated to God’s use.
This is the difference.
Baptism prepares us to be servants of God in the world as we are bound together in grace and sustained in love. We receive this grace and become agents of God’s reconciliation in our communities. The peace we receive from Christ is one that is grounded in overflowing abundance even as it demands that we offer all as we serve and thus find perfect freedom.
In Baptism we are different. We are changed. Thanks be to God.