Every Thursday, I take part in a sacrament. And so do many of you. Yes, at 8pm, I join my immediate neighbours and we clap to express our gratitude towards the members of the NHS who, despite their danger, work to save us.
A sacrament? Surely that’s the wrong word. But perhaps we should consider the traditional definition of sacrament: ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. Is not the inward grace my personal intention of thanksgiving? And does that not go directly to the Almighty?
In this respect we could consider a formal sacrament, such as baptism. While, depending on our particular Christian understanding of grace, we know that through baptism we are joined to Christ. But even the outward sign can vary. I remember my wife miscarrying at three months and, alone in the house and bleeding, she got her child to the bathroom and baptised him (or her). And as in many cases. the recipient was not aware of what was happening.
Of course, the New Testament goes to great pains to teach that formal baptism is essential. And not surprisingly so: Christianity was a new religion born from an old religion. For practical and hierarchical reasons, it was necessary to distinguish between the one and the other. But we know that even the most wicked man can turn towards Christ at his last moment. “betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.” (Camden)
What does turning towards Christ mean? We all know the answer to that – it is clearly described in orthodox Christianity and of course again and again in Scripture. But it must be more than that unless we think that everyone in the world, going back to our earliest ancestor, failed to get to Heaven because they never had the opportunity to know Christ, let alone follow him. Of course, we cheerfully invented Limbo which conveniently allowed us to resolve the problem without feeling guilty. Tosh! I say.
My answer is simple: love. And I mean love of self and love of neighbour. Love of self is not selfishness it is the intention and the action to develop as a fuller human being. Love of self and love of neighbour are intermixed. Even the walled in hermit must love his or her neighbour because God loves his neighbour. The self-styled atheist who seeks to save his neighbour from the nonsense of religion can be loving that neighbour through doing so.
Why must this be so? That’s an easy one: We can describe God in a myriad of ways, but they are all partial. Quite simply – God is love. Every atom of love is the expression of God – mixed up perhaps, or in the wrong context, or mistaken. But, in the end, it is God.