The Sign as a Seal
From an Outline of the Faith in the Book of Common Prayer:
"What are the sacraments? The sacraments are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." (BCP, p. 857)
In the reading from Romans for today, Paul holds up Abraham as the epitome of both what faith, and righteousness, look like from a human perspective. He brings the challenge to a head of what it means to present the Gospel to both Gentile and Jew in talking about what it means to be recognized as righteous by God's grace. For a faithful, or at the least observant child of the Law, righteousness would come from obedience. The problem is, as we have seen so far in our readings from the Hebrew scriptures, obedience has always been a stumbling block for us as we seek to follow God's will for us in our lives. That reckoning as righteousness that Abraham receives from God? It is based on Abraham's willingness to embrace God's promise that he will be the father of nations, even when he and his wife are nonagenarians. The good news is that God can always draw water from a dry well...the challenge comes when we try to model that righteousness and live a life that is an outward sign of the grace given.
Too often, I find myself stumbling over the rocky trails of life, seeking a way to model and live into the grace that God is working through me for the sake of the world. Yes, as a member of the Body of Christ, I can look to the sacraments as way, a means really, of manifesting that grace...but that requires of me a mind primed and open to God at work in the world, and of God at work in the world through me as a member of the Church. Easier said than done, because as Paul reminds us, constancy is not one of humanity's best virtues.
I think Paul's intent has the key to resolving this dilemma lying in the heritage we receive from Abraham. It is not the sure certainty that God chose us out of all the nations to be "all that and a bag of chips." It is rather our willing embrace of Abraham's submission to God's will. As a friend of mine once said regarding his desire to make an ongoing, public witness of his faith in Christ, "Live your life in such a way as to have it beg the question..."
Why do we do what we do? What are these outward and visible signs?
They are signs that we submit to God fulfilling God's promises through us. They are the seal of the spirit, making witnesses of us that God is doing through us more than we can ever ask or imagine...but in that witness? The world becomes a holier place, and we become a holier people.