Friday, June 30, 2017

The Sacraments Aren't Valid Because of Me...And that's the Most Comforting Thing Ever

As a newly ordained priest, I'm still getting used to the whole concept of alter Christus. Priests stand in the breach between the congregation and God, as Moses stood in the breach between Israel and God (Ps 106:23; NRSV):
Therefore, he said he would destroy them--
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Not only that, but the minster represents Christ in the liturgy. He prepares the feast of the Lord's Supper and invites the people to participate.

This raises some interesting theological questions. Christ is perfect. Priests are very imperfect. Does this invalidate the Sacrament? What if a priest secretly doubts the Gospel or is in some serious, unconfessed sin? Can they still administer the Sacraments or is the congregation "duped" into receiving something invalid?

One of the reasons relationships often fail is because of unrealistic expectations. Friendships, marriages, and many other relationships fall apart because one of the participants in the relationship expects perfection from the other allowing no room to be human. Assuming that the priest "makes or breaks" the validity of the Sacrament is just another unrealistic expectation. The priest is not the reason a Sacrament is effectual, Christ is.

One of the most relieving parts of the 39 Articles of Religion is in "Article XXVI: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments":
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.
 Did you catch that? God has chosen to work through the Sacraments to bestow upon his people grace. He uses the common to convey the sacred. This is true of his ministers too! The imperfect is used as a vehicle for the perfect. During the Mass, the sinful, broken, wounded priest can be used by a holy God. What a picture of grace!

This isn't an excuse for priests to be immoral or lack doctrinal commitments required of orthodox Christians. This is, however a powerful reminder that God's grace prevails. Thank God it's not contingent on me and that the parishioners at our church don't have to wring their hands and hope I live a worthy life.

Even for priests...especially for priests, Luther's words ring true: simul justus et peccator. I am simultaneously righteous and a sinner. It is comforting to know the objective reality of grace in the sacraments. It's objective not because of any effort on my part but because Christ is so loving that he has bound himself to pour out grace through the Sacraments, even if the priest isn't perfect.

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