The expression above originally referred to the possibility that God might be at work in and for unbelievers in ways we cannot imagine, the kind of question we dealt with in the Narthex. But it might equally be addressed to those who do believe in Jesus but don’t choose to go to Church, to partake of the sacraments. Can’t they too be recipients of grace? We all know living breathing examples, perhaps in our own families.
But as we begin to consider such a question, we can readily see the risks that present themselves on each side. On the one hand, we might see the sacraments as a tight system for the dispensing of grace understood as a quantum, a resource, to those on the inside. Or on the other hand, it might be only a signpost for something true without particular reference to the Church, to be found in the world at large. We might draw up too tight an account of the Church and God’s gracious action, or we might loosen the two completely. Neither conveys the Gospel, a part of which is the divine use of the Church as the place where humanity may meet, enjoy, and share in Christ’s risen life. We are back to the basic question about the Church- how can we make a strong claim about it, without confusing the Body for the Head, Jesus Himself?
The place to start, yet again, is with Jesus’ real presence in the sacrament. He reaches out ‘in, with, and under’ (as the Lutherans say) the bread, the water, the words, to minister to us. He is at once free (so He could act extraordinarily) but faithful to His promises. In fact the omnipotent God making and keeping promises, especially in the person of Jesus, is the supreme freedom. Looking back to His presence is how we can think about the Church as neither extraneous nor ultimate. And that bears directly on the questions which the flaws and limits of the Church raise for us.
A little etymology can help. ‘Sacramentum’ in Latin translated ‘mysterion’ in Greek, and the latter term was used by Paul for the surprising salvation history which culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus (so Ephesians 3:3). The Latin word itself implies an oath and a covenant. All these are to be found in our idea of a sacrament: the retelling of the Bible’s story of salvation, and as a result promise-making and keeping between us and God, all bound together by the personal presence of Jesus, who is free and faithful throughout.
Read and relate Ephesians 3 to what you have read.