I’m an Incarnation groupie. I love me some beer and brats, sweat trickling down my face with the smell of saw dust in the air, the taste of my wife’s mouth, her small lips. And Jesus gives all those gifts to me. As the brilliant (& unorthodox?) Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann taught me: the sacraments are not creation made strange. Rather, the sacraments reveal the real nature of the whole world. God became flesh, God became food for the world as the beginning, the down payment towards God’s glorious plan to restore the whole universe to its rightful role of being sacramental, being the place in and through which people meet with their God and commune together. In other words, sacraments are not magical portals to God, as though the “natural” world occasionally hiccups and you’re Harry Potter on a spiritual trip to a heavenly Hogwarts.
But this is primarily because there’s really no such thing as a purely “natural” world. There’s no such thing as “sacraments” (as in holy portals) because the whole universe is shot through with the presence of God. At the same time, Jesus is training us to discern God’s presence faithfully, and one of the central ways His Spirit does this is through water, bread, and wine. He said to do it, so we obey, and trust Him, and seek Him there. But just as water, bread, and wine become, by true evangelical faith, places where the Holy Spirit ministers the life of the Triune God to and through His blood washed saints, so too, all of creation contains this potential. The picture of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth where God makes His dwelling forever with man — that’s the picture of this world, this material world bursting with God’s glory and presence, where the gift and the Giver are held in perfect balance establishing both without obliterating either. That’s what I mean by incarnation groupie. God is good, His creation is good, and His gifts are good.
I affirm the goodness of creation, and the greater goodness of the particular gifts of God to His people in the Word and sacraments, in gesture and ritual, in liturgy and prayer, in fellowship, song, and joyful praise. Worship can occur in any moment, but the soul gripped by grace receives these special gifts with particular astonishment and fearful joy. God is surely in this place.
But there is a hierarchy in the gifts or an order to them, and the Word comes first. The gospel comes first. The Word read, preached, sung. But this is not merely an existential claim or an ordo salutis; this is not creeping Christian rationalism. This is a historical claim. The Word comes first because the Word came first. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word became flesh and was broken on a Roman cross. The Word became flesh and His blood was shed for the life of the world. Then, and only then, when the Word kicks down death’s door, when He rises triumphant over all His enemies, then the world is made new.
But that reality is hidden and obscured by the sin and death that clings to every son or daughter of Adam. Apart from the invasion of the Spirit, apart from the fire hose of God’s grace bursting through the scales on our eyes and heart, we are all just like the dwarves in the Last Battle insisting that we are still in the dark stable, eating straw and dirt, when in fact there is a new world all around us and a lavish feast spread for the hungry.
What is true of history — first the Word made flesh, then the world made new — remains true of every person who enters this new world. The Word comes first. Jesus comes first, in the person of the Holy Spirit and becomes flesh in an individual’s life. And then, and only then, is the sacrament grace, does the Word become food, is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich a holy place where God’s presence is known and felt. Otherwise it’s all just more kindling for the fire. And this is why my friend Josh in a recent comment is mistaken. Jesus plus baptism and Jesus plus all kinds of other things is possible because Jesus is not annexed by any of His gifts. He can and does meet His people in those places, but apart from the powerful working of the Spirit making a man new, the gifts of God are just a bunch of hay and dirt in the dark.
And all of this is just to say that it’s all grace, through and through. God always initiates, always breaks through in His own way, in His own timing, on His own terms. We do not hold Him; He holds us.