At this point in our series, the traditional seven sacraments of the historic church and the shorter list observed by most Protestants diverge. The Roman Catholic Church will list the anointing of the sick or even last rites. While my own practice here is not parallel to theirs, the concept of a Christian sacrament that centers on those in need is certainly the sort of idea that finds a New Testament root.
James would be a fine place to conduct that discussion. For James, pure religion is attending to the needy (James 1:27). Living faith is attending to the poor (2:14-17). Wisdom from hell is selfish, whereas wisdom from heaven is selfless (3:13-17). Selfishness will destroy you (4:1-5:6). And finally, the grand finale: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14).
Furthermore, Biblical visitation is about ancient hospitality, not modern social expectations. Visitation is for those with actual needs as opposed to consumer wants: “orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27). Visitation is to meet those actual needs: “giving them the things needed for the body” (2:15-16). To sum up, visitation is about doing more than talking (1:22).
Who Should Do It?
The short answer that I gave my own congregation is this: “I should be doing it, but not because I am your minister.”
In Scripture, it is not at all clear that the minister of the word was also a minister of the table of hospitality. In Acts 6, more of the reverse is true. The apostles recognize their own role in the ministry of the word, and so direct the church to appoint other servants to care for the widows. James specifically lists the elders of the church as taking part in visitation (James 5:14), but that is only after he has included anyone who wants to have pure religion (1:27).
Note how our churches tend to reverse the order of the story of Acts 6. We have a tendency to insist that the man supported as minister of the word also assume the pastoral function of visitation. I personally have no immediate objection to the minister being active in this role, but the shame here on all of us is that we have used him as a scapegoat. Like a consumer of services, we place our money in the collection and then expect another individual to attend to these needs.
Question: How often in Scripture does God encourage you to pay someone else to do what God has asked of you?
Which brings me back to my original statement: I should be doing it, but not because I am your minister. Visitation and care for the needy is not the unique vocation of the pulpit minister. It is the unique vocation of the church and all of its members. As a member, I should be doing my part, a task at which I frequently fail. However, if the pulpit minister carries out this function in your stead, he is robbing you of the pure religion of Christ and its attendant blessings. I have the same objection to this model as I do to a priest taking the communion on behalf of the congregation, or a person being baptized on behalf of an unbelieving relative. The sacraments were made for participation of all.
Is It a Mystery/Sacrament?
Well, that is all fine and good, but should it be included with the sacraments at all? Is it a definitive mystery of the church?
I argue affirmatively, though I acknowledge that it is not as obvious as baptism or communion. Certainly, it’s historic significance to Christianity cannot be denied.1 It was Christian compassion that conquered Roman paganism more than any particular brand of evangelism. Emperor Julian wrote a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 AD complaining of decline of the empire’s religion:
The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it.2
Why wasn’t the pagan religion being more prosperous? Weren’t the people praying enough? Weren’t the gods kind enough or rich enough to bless it? Julian claims the religion is suffering from a different problem:
Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?3
From the Christian side of the aisle, Tertullian concurs:
It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us int he eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'”4
Care for the least is a Christian mystery then and now to the culture of ambition and gain. It is an action carried out without any expectation of gain for self. It is an action that values those who have no value to others. It is an action that reenacts the gospel story by suffering with others in order to bring them life. In a more traditionally sacramental sense, it is an action that summons the presence of God. In a world of affluence, what could be a more uniquely Christian act?
Where is the presence of the Triune God in visitation? Where is it not!
Israel’s Lord warned,
“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn …” (Exodus 22:22-24).
Unlike the ancient pagan gods who concerned themselves primarily with generals and kings, our Father has persistently described himself as the God of the Weak. He hears them because he is never far from them.
Likewise, the Son declared himself present in the care of the least.
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (25:45)
In Matthew 25, the entirety of Judgment hinges on how the “least” were visited and helped. Christ sees himself as personally present in their plight.
Returning once more to James, the presence of the Spirit of God is with the care of the week.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)
Anointing oil is used in Scripture as a reminder and a symbol of the Spirit’s presence. Once oil was used to designate the presence of God on a king or prophet. In the first century church, it represent of the presence of the Spirit in the church among the sick and diseased. In a secular culture, it has never been more important to remind ourselves that the Spirit is the healer and that the church participates in prayer.
On a practical note, I don’t know exactly how to bridge the gap between the obviously sacramental anointing and the more practical act of care and visitation for the needy. What I am sure of is that the church must view it as an essential Christian practice, shared among all members, just as communion and baptism. It needs to be refilled with the sacramental meaning of earlier centuries. The world must again know that we are Christians by our love. Christians must remember that when we attend to the least, we do so in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who all in one join us there.