Hespeler, 15 July, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Galatians 3:23-29, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 3:13-17
 have here a perfectly ordinary box of pencil crayons. It is something so completely ordinary that you could find in most any household (or at least any household where there are small children hanging around). But what if I were to tell you that I can make these pencil crayons disappear? Yes, you heard me right, I can make them disappear in the wink of an eye.
      Now you’re looking at me skeptically right now and I do not blame you! I mean, who could have to power to do such an amazing thing! But I tell you that all of your skepticism will disappear as fast as, well, as fast as these pencil crayons will in just a few moments.
      So, without further ado, let’s just do it. Are you ready to be amazed? In a moment you will be when these pencil crayons disappear. 1, 2, 3 and gone! Oh, it didn’t work. That’s funny, it worked perfectly when I was practicing… box full… 1, 2, 3… woosh… What could I be missing?
      Let’s try again. Prepare to be amazed. 1, 2, 3 and nope. What am I doing wrong? Does anybody know if there is one more crucial step you need when you are doing magic? I’ve got the banter, the slight of hand, what is missing? The magic word? Well, I guess that I could give that a try. What is a good magic word to use? Ok, let’s try hocus pocus. 1, 2, 3 and “Hocus Pocus!” And the pencil crayons are gone!

      Here is a demonstration of the trick that I did:

      And that is, is it not, the essence of magic. You take a perfectly ordinary, everyday thing – like a bunch of pencil crayons in a box – and you make them do something that those ordinary things are not supposed to do. But that alone does not make it magic because magic has got to be a performance. It doesn’t work if it doesn’t come with a good magician’s patter, exaggerated gestures and, above all, you have got to have some magic words.
      But where does that idea come from? Would you be surprised if I told you that it comes from religion? Probably not. Various ancient and even modern religions have made use of what is sometimes explicitly called magic. The idea of witchcraft, for example comes out of various ancient pagan religions and there are even modern “witches” who claim to continue in those ancient belief systems.
      But what if I were to tell you that that particular kind of show magic where an entertainer uses special gestures and magic words and everyone is supposed to know that it is not real magic but an act, that specifically comes from Christianity and was actually created as a parody of it.
      How do I know that? I only have to look at the so-called magic words that I used this morning. “Hocus Pocus,” what do those words mean. Are they simply nonsense words? No, they are not. The “us” endings of the two words mark them, first of all, as imitation Latin words. And when those words “hocus pocus” first appeared way back in the seventeenth century, everyone knew exactly what Latin words they were imitating.
      In the Roman Catholic Church at that time, and for many centuries after, priests always led the services in Latin, the language of the church. This was especially true when it came to performing sacraments – the most important of which was the mass, or what we would call communion. At the key moment in the mass, the priest would make a grand gesture – would lift up a piece of bread on high and break it while saying, in Latin, “Hoc est enim corpus meum,” which means, “This is my body.”
      Now those English words, “This is my body,” are words that I have used many times myself – that most every Christian leader uses when leading a Communion service. They are, the gospels tell us, the very words that Jesus said when he broke the bread at the last supper, but that Latin formulation had a very different sense to it in the 17th Century. Roman Catholics at that time (and to a certain extent still today) believe that when the priest makes that move and says those words, it is at that that moment that the miracle of transubstantiation occurs.
      Now I’m not going to try and fully explain the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation here. I’ll just say that that church teaches that, in communion, the bread and the wine actually change in substance and become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ (even while they still look and taste like ordinary food and drink). Protestants generally don’t agree with that idea, at least not completely. Presbyterians say that, while Jesus Christ is truly present when we have communion, that presence is spiritual in the community and not literally in the bread and wine.
      Anyways, a few hundred years ago, everyone knew that those words, Hoc est enim corpus meum,” were the words that many believed triggered a miracle. Of course, most laypeople couldn’t speak Latin so they tended to shorten the formula to a simpler, “Hoc est corpus,” or “This is body.”
      Now, just try saying those words a few times fast: “Hoc est corpus, hoc est corpus, hoc est corpus, and maybe you can tell me where those famous magic words, “Hocus Pocus,” came from. That’s right, early magicians, when they first created the magic show, chose to use magic words that were parodies of the key words from the Roman Catholic mass. In fact, the whole act, the waving of the hands, the very idea of magic words, were all a popular parody of what happens in every church where people gather to celebrate communion and other sacraments like baptism.
      And here is my problem – here is why I bring up the whole thing: a few centuries later, I feel like people understand magic shows. They know that they are all make-believe. They know that it is all a trick and that nothing really changes – just like these pencil crayons have all been cut and glued together so that they drop when I stop squeezing the box. They also recognize that the whole patter and gesturing and even the magic words are really just gimmicks that are supposed to distract you while the musician puts one over on you. But that’s okay, of course, because it is not real. It’s just entertainment.
      So we get how magic shows work, but do we understand the thing that they are parodying? Do we understand how sacraments work? I mean, do we even think that they work at all?
      We recognize two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. They are Baptism and Holy Communion. And there is no question that those two sacraments point to the two most important truths about what it means to be a Christian. Baptism speaks to us about how we all, each one of us believers, belong to Christ, that he has cleansed us and forgiven us and done it by grace and not by our works. Communion speaks to us of the truth that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that he is alive and among us and we can know the power of his resurrection.
      But I think that it is worth asking why we need sacraments to do that. I mean, aren’t we supposed to know that we belong to Jesus because we have chosen to trust him? Aren’t we supposed to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead because of the witnesses and their testimony? We know these things by faith; what do we need sacraments for?
      I mean, what are sacraments but ordinary everyday things – a bit of water splashed on the head, a little morsel of food and a sip to drink – ordinary things that are dressed up with fancy costumes, a few fancy gestures and, yes, words that sound suspiciously like magic words. They kind of remind me of a magic show and does that mean that they really are just so much hocus pocus? Is it just a trick?
      Well, it is true that we belong to Christ by faith alone. All that is really required of you to be a true follower of Jesus is that you trust him. But you do need to understand that faith is not just a matter of intellectual assent. That is what we usually assume, of course, that having faith simply means screwing yourself up to believe that certain things are true. If you can give that intellectual agreement then you have faith. But it doesn’t quite work like that.
      This is partly because of how we operate as human beings. As much as we might like to think otherwise, human beings do not operate merely on an intellectual level. Just because you think something is true doesn’t mean that you have faith in it. You need to do something.
      For example, you might think that another person is absolutely the perfect person for you. She or he (I mean, whichever one is appropriate for you) is beautiful, smart, interested in all the same things that you are interested in. They are perfect. But would you marry him or her without spending time together, without talking, without actually doing things together first? Of course not. But why not? Your intellect says that they are perfect for you and you for them.
      The reason why you wouldn’t do that is because human beings don’t work that way. We don’t operate merely on an intellectual level and we certainly don’t make commitments only based on what we think is true. We need to do something that engages us, that makes our commitment concrete to us.
      Well, sacraments operate something like that as we live in and grow in our faith in Christ. They don’t make us believe. They don’t really have anything to do with convincing our intellect of anything, but that does not make them useless or hocus pocus or trickery.
      This is what the catechism says about the role of sacraments is in our faith: “The grace effective in the sacraments comes not from any power in them but from the work of the Holy Spirit. Rightly received, in faith and repentance, the sacraments convey that which they symbolize.”
      So what does that mean? It means that the power of the sacrament is not found in the concrete and visible thing that is a necessary part of it. There is nothing special about the water that is used, nothing special about the bread or the wine. Nor is the power found in the gestures or in the words that might seem to operate like magic words to an uninformed spectator. The power is in none of these things. The power of them is to be found in the Holy Spirit working in the gathered people, not in the things.
      Nevertheless, the things – the water, the bread, the wine – are needed because they give an anchor to our experience, they allow us to ground God’s power in things that we can touch and taste and feel because we need that. It allows our faith to progress beyond a mere intellectual agreement to something that can become a part of our identity and our very being – just like the time you spend with someone who is perfect for you allows mere intellectual knowledge to become this thing that we call love.                                                                                                         
      Now generally, when I preach about sacraments and their meaning it is during a service when we are observing a sacrament – either baptism or communion – but that is not the case today. I took up the topic today because it is in our reading from the church’s catechism. So normally I would leave you at this point to contemplate on how you can use the particular sacrament that we celebrate to deepen your faith.
      But I am not going to direct you towards one of the two church sacraments today. They are the model for another kind of sacrament that God offers you in the world. If you approach it with faith, yes, you can find Christ in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of communion. But God also puts before you many other objects where you can discover Christ’s presence: something shared with someone in need, that can be a sacrament. A well-tended plant that grows and produces, that can be a sacrament. There are sacraments waiting for you in the forests, on the beaches, most everywhere you go if you have the eyes to see them. It’s not magic; it is the work of God’s Spirit upon you. So go from this place today and find the sacramental presence of God in a needy world.