I often get asked why I shifted from my early Evangelical Christian foundation and found a spiritual home in the Anglican tradition. Without missing a beat, my answer is always the same: the sacraments.
Bread. Water. Wine. Oil. Hands. Ordinary things which become for us conveyors of God’s presence and God’s grace. We are physical, embodied people. So is our Gospel … and so is our Church. The sacraments assure me that our faith is not just a set of abstract, idealized statements about God. Our faith is manifested in signs and symbols — the touch of a hand, breaking of bread. Our faith is not an intellectual exercise about “believing” the right things. But our faith is about touching, tasting, and encountering God in ways that go beyond propositions and language.
So, it should come as no surprise that Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching For Sunday, deeply resonated with me. I have long felt an affinity with Evans’ reflections on her own spiritual journey, as she relates it on her blog. Not just because we are the same age and share a name. Like Evans, I know what it is to be a good southern Evangelical, and what it is to have a neat and tidy childhood faith knocked down and rebuilt. And now it would seem that we have both had our faith renewed at least to some degree by the sacred mystery of the sacraments:
“When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again. They got God out of my head and into my hands. they reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed, it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They remind me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.” (xvi)
Yes, pretty much that.
I don’t pretend to be much of a book reviewer. Then again, Searching for Sunday is the kind of book that defies critical assessment. It does not pretend to be a worked out idealized theology of the church. For which I am profoundly grateful. When I was in seminary, our systematic theology professor made the comment: There is no such thing as the “invisible church”, there is only the church. In other words, there is no abstract spiritual assemblage of those souls redeemed by the blood of Christ. There is only the church. Living, breathing women and men struggling to live out lives following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Sometimes imperfectly. But always tangibly, physically, in relationship with one another.
Evans’ book is as perfect a testament to the muddled, messy nature of the “visible church” as any I could imagine. Through third-person anecdotes and personal reflection, Evan shares genuinely profound insights into the ability of the church to both hurt and heal its members. It would be easy to focus on the “negative” aspects of church experience that Evans describes: What happens when the church makes no room for divergent political opinions? For people suffering mental illness or depression? How do we account for the pain the church has inflicted on LGBT people? But, perhaps it is that same realness of the church that is its blessing and its curse. The church is real … it is human. And if it is human, the church has the power to inflict tremendous pain.
As Evans reminds us, though, we are always pulled back to those pesky sacraments. The sacraments which remind us that God is present here–in the material things of this world. A touch of the priests’ hand in the sacrament of reconciliation offers the assurance than sins have been heard, and absolved. A touch of oil on a forehead offers the promise of spiritual wholeness. And it is the same human hands which have the capacity to hurt that perform these sacraments, both in formal liturgical rituals and in the sacramental nature of everyday life. It is indeed the human reality of the church which offers the promise of hope, of reconciliation, and redemption. Recounting her participation in the Episcopal confirmation service of two close friends, Evans notes that our baptism vows do indeed speak to the heart of our faith, lived out in the community of the church: “Repent. Break bread. Seek justice. Love neighbor. Christianity seemed at once the simplest and most impossible thing in the world” (194).
In the end, I think Searching for Sunday presents all of us who would call ourselves Christians with a lofty challenge–the challenge to love one another, even in the midst of profound differences and disagreements. To remember that a faith grounded on the central truth that God became a person cannot just be a matter of ideas and convictions. It must be lived out in our bodies and in relation to one another. When we break bread together, we are one body — we are the church. Messy, frustrating, but a refreshingly real gift from God, even when we don’t realize it.