Wikipedia claims that John Wesley was born on today’s date in 1703. That’s incorrect. He was actually born on June 17th. So there: Wikipedia is not always right.
I was all excited, thinking I could write a blog about John Wesley because it was his birthday and then discovered the truth.
Life is cruel. Now what do I write about?
I could write about the incident in today’s One Year Bible reading. King Jehoash visits Elisha because the prophet is old and sick. Elisha tells the king to beat the ground with arrows. The king does so but only half-heartedly.
“YOU MISERABLE WHIM OF A KING!” the prophet shouted. “Now you won’t have victory over all your enemies.”
But what can I possibly do with that story?
Of course, there is the New Testament reading, about Paul’s visit to Ephesus. He finds believers in that city who have not yet received the Holy Spirit. So he lays his hands on them. Then they receive the Spirit and speak in tongues.
I have been writing lately about the importance of sacramental life, so that New Testament story seems the way to go. Something spiritual occurs when St. Paul lays his hands on people. It’s not mere ceremony; they know immediately that something has happened.
It is called sacrament: when a material thing or human action becomes a conduit for spiritual life.
I know: people get nervous when I teach about the sacraments. Some get worried. They fear that we will somehow undo the Reformation – if they know anything about the Reformation. Others get bored. Why should I spend valuable time talking about something that is “merely symbolic?” (As if it is possible for anything to ever be “merely symbolic.”) Few people seem convinced that sacraments are something vital to their spiritual life.
What gets me is the question that I sometimes get about sacraments: “Do we have to receive sacraments to be saved?”
Can a man and wife love each other without “making love?”
Well, yes. In some cases, usually involving illness or injury, a couple must learn to be intimate in ways other than what is usually expected. Many people in such a marriage love one another truly and fiercely. In the same way, it is possible for a believer to love his Lord devoutly and faithfully without experiencing sacramental life.
An exception is not a norm, however.
Normal love between husband and wife involves the union of body, mind, soul and spirit. In the Service of Holy Matrimony (can we still call it that?) we remind everyone present that marriage is “a figure of the union between Christ and His church.”
The words remind us that a covenant between a husband and wife involves the whole person: body, mind, soul and spirit.
So does a covenant between Christ and His Church.
Early believers experienced signs and wonders. They also broke bread. They prayed. They also sat under the apostles’ teaching. They saw visions. They also pooled their resources to take care of poor people.
The early Church did not divorce matter and spirit.
Neither should we.
Christian life and spirituality is unavoidably sacramental; it pulls together material and spiritual life. That is what healthy spirituality looks like.
Elisha discerned something about Jehoash’s character by observing the king’s behavior. The way he went about things revealed his inner life. His half-hearted way of hitting arrows on the ground revealed a half-hearted approach to life, governance and battle. He would not succeed. The fruit of his reign would be somehow connected to the manner in which he carried out spiritual instructions.
St. Paul laid hands on the believers in Ephesus because they had not received the Holy Spirit. I know that modern Evangelicals don’t believe that is possible. Maybe not. Probably St. Luke had not been to seminary before he wrote the Book of Acts, but I’ll leave that one alone. The issue here is that the believers did not have an experience with the Holy Spirit that Paul thought they ought to have. So, he laid his hands on them and then they did.
So what are we to think? Doesn’t it seem in this passage as though perhaps the act of laying on of hands in the Lord’s name actually accomplishes something spiritual?
That’s what we mean when we speak of sacramental action: that we do something natural and God responds by doing something supernatural.
The thing that seems to tie all this together is that the Bible doesn’t recognize this extreme split between nature and spirituality. Human actions reveal inner life and may become a conduit for spiritual force.
John Wesley discovered this. He was an Oxford educated catechist, out-of-touch with himself and others; unemotional, harsh, perfectionist and boring. Then one evening “his heart was strangely warmed.”
Hardly a holy-roller moment! But he began to preach all over England. As he did, people fell out of trees, collapsed on the ground weeping and wailing, and reacted in all sorts of strange ways.
He didn’t like it.
So he made the people stop. But the fire went out. So he stopped trying to control the Spirit.
Spirit is connected to physical emotion and movement. Life is like that.
Sacramental reality is simply the human acknowledgment that spirituality manifests in physical ways.
Sometimes we know what that will look like. Sometimes we don’t.
Wesley didn’t like the way the Holy Spirit showed up. Too his credit though, he hungered for God too much to stop it. Like Elisha and St. Paul, he learned that Biblical spirituality is irrepressibly sacramental.