God’s good creation is saturated with divine presence, and the creation mediates moments of divine-human encounter. We recognize God’s beauty when we watch the sun rise, we hear a divine voice in thunderstorms, and we sense God’s presence in a cool breeze on a hot day. God is present to us through the creation. In other words, creation itself is a sacrament of divine presence, a means of grace.
From the beginning the creation has also struggled with chaos, and we experience that chaos in tragic moments. Though the creation is good, we yearn for its liberation from chaos when God will redeem it from its enslavement to death. In other words, we anticipate a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation, where chaos is eliminated and there is no pain, no disease, and no death.
But we are not totally lost in the present nor without hope for the future. Rather, God has gifted the church with a present experience of new creation, even while we yet live in God’s good creation strewn with chaos. Scripture calls these gifts “baptism” and “breaking bread.” The church has often called them “sacraments,” and with good reason.
“Sacrament” basically means “mystery.” Indeed, the Eastern churches refer to baptism and breaking bread as “mysteries.” The mystery is not rooted in some kind of superstition or magic. It is “mysterious” because God works through these gifts within the creation that we might participate in the new life that Christ has inaugurated, experience the future, and taste the joy of God’s new creation even now.
God’s gifts of water, food, and drink often give us a sense of joy, peace, and loving communion within the good creation; and these same gifts, through the work of God in Christ, give us joy, peace, and loving communion in the new creation. Just as the creation itself is sacramental, so also are the gifts of baptism and the breaking of bread.
Baptism and breaking bread are means by which we experience the new creation through elements in the present good creation. The “mystery” of the sacraments is this: God shares new creation with us through these moments of divine-human encounter.
In baptism, we participate in the death of Christ that frees us from the bondage of corruption and we participate in the resurrection of Christ that empowers our new life in the present. Through baptism, we participate in life of the new creation because we put on Christ and are united with Christ. Raised with Christ, we sit with Jesus in the heavenlies and reign with him. We are new creatures within the new creation that fills the heavens.
Through the Lord’s table, we are nourished by the life of the Son of Man who sits at the right hand of God. The communion of his body and blood gives us life, and as we sit at his table, the living Messiah sits with us. The table is enveloped by the life of new creation, and as we eat and drink with Jesus we participate in the coming kingdom of heaven that is already here but not yet fully realized upon the earth.
God, through the sacraments, offers life, joy, and hope. These are moments when heaven comes to earth, where—as N. T. Wright likes to say—heaven and earth overlap. Creation is good, but new creation is better. New creation is the union of heaven and earth.
The sacraments, however, are not intended for mere comfort, nor are they offered as a ticket to “heaven.” They call us into deeper discipleship. We follow Jesus into the water in order to follow him into his kingdom ministry. We eat the broken bread in order to be broken for the sake of the world. The new creation life—the kingdom life—of the sacraments calls us to be instruments of that life in the present creation.
The sacraments, then, are not only a promise, but also a power through which God works in the creation to realize the new creation. By the Spirit, they empower us for ministry in God’s kingdom as they also point us to the future into which God is drawing the whole creation.
The sacramental journey from creation to new creation is a path of empowered discipleship for the sake of the world.