The other night on Facebook I made a brief expression of gratitude for ties that bind. Allow me to elaborate.
The ties that bind keep us safe and secure. They hold us in place when fleeting (or even not-so-fleeting) feelings would lead us to wander or flee into circumstances that would end in regret. And they give us a laboratory in which we can learn by doing, growing through trial and error, without fear of being tossed out on our ear when we get it wrong. (In fact I wrote my curt post the other night while experiencing remorse over my part in one of those familiar flashes of familial friction that we can allow to sand off our rough edges.)
Before going further, I pause to acknowledge that some ties are harmful. When we find ourselves bound to intractable error or abuse, or have voluntarily entered into agreements to do evil, such ties should be dissolved. The “Separatists” — the Pilgrims among the Mayflower’s passengers escaping religious persecution — come naturally to mind on Thanksgiving Day! But the possibility of destructive ties should not lead us to categorically reject commitment in principle.
I have a word for the rising generation, and for those of us preceding them who out of FOMO might be inclined to join in some of the ways of some of them. (Before you say “OK Boomer,” note that in point of fact I am of Gen X.) The fleeting individual connections of the TikTok and Tinder variety do not amount to belonging. And the incandescent but evanescent righteousness of Twitter mobs, or actual mobs in actual streets, do not a true and lasting community make. Hyperconnectivity of endless variety, instantly available and vanishing promptly, a mile wide and an inch deep, is not what we are made for. Small wonder that, in this age of abundance and marvels, we are told that we are more lonely and lost, isolated and insulated, anxious and depressed and suicidal than ever.
I acknowledge that bad people can be found among believers (in name only?), and that good people can be found among unbelievers (in name only?). But I confess I wonder if the undergirding stance of some of the “nones” with no religious affiliation, the “spiritual but not religious” — and, growing in number as predictably as the inexorable wilting of a flower cut from its roots, the ranks of those who subsequently dispense with the “spiritual” part as well — isn’t one of self-gratification. “For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.”
Etymologically, the rejection of “religion” is the rejection of “re-ligating,” of being bound back together — back to God, and to our fellows. Unsurprisingly, the same root appears in “obligation,” i.e. “ob-ligation,” to which we are so allergic.
Because of the potential for hypocrisy, some deprecate de jure (formal, legal) commitments in professed allegiance to de facto (“in fact”) lived realities — as if the two were mutually exclusive! A fair enough warning, but how often is such an appeal its own form of hypocrisy, a smokescreen for an unwillingness to be responsible to others or held to account in any way? To a believing heart sincerely desirous of a de facto relationship of grace (“Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, / Bind my wandering heart to Thee”), the de jure acceptance of formal commitments comes willingly and naturally (“Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, / Seal it for Thy above.”)
Today, therefore, I #GiveThanks for formal religion with its sacraments. If I understand correctly, the term “sacrament” was borrowed into Christianity by Tertullian somewhere around 200 AD. A Latin term signifying the formal dedication or consecration of a Roman soldier to the gods via the Emperor, also used in connection with oaths in other official matters, it was a culturally relatable way to describe the covenant-establishing nature of biblical rites, such as baptism and the Lord’s supper in the New Testament. (Interestingly for this time of year, “eucharist” comes from the Greek for “thanksgiving.”)
In selectively revealed words, and in actions recognizable to observant 1st-century Jews as not just prophetic, but divine — that is, to those with ears to hear, and eyes to see — Jesus Christ revealed Himself in all four gospel accounts to be Jehovah, the great I AM, the very God of Israel. Yet despite being the One who gave the law, He was willing to exhibit His complete dedication and consecration by submitting to baptism at the hands of John, the messenger authorized and sent to prepare the way. Jesus himself, before and after His resurrection, subsequently sent forth messengers — apostles — to baptize and make disciples in all the world, with authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven.
With their Mayflower Compact and early treaties with Native Americans, the Pilgrims left us a good example of a willingness to enter into mortally arranged ties that bind. But the witness of Christianity is that there are divine ties that bind, eternal covenants we can choose to enter, which are not merely mortal but extend beyond this life — offering, as attributed to Peter in the New Testament, “exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” In the formulation of Athanasius around 320 AD, the essence of Christianity is that “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Is the apostolic authority to provide such ties and promises found on the earth today? A search for true religion and its sacraments, embodied in a community providing covenant belonging — in the Greek, an ekklesia, or assembly, called and gathered out from the world, a church, The Church — is a quest worthy of our seeking and study and, if and when we find it, our fidelity. “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant… and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; and also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world… that mine everlasting covenant might be established.”