Jesus, Founder of the Sacramental Structure in the Life of the Curch

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 13 July 1988, the Holy Father reflected on how “Christ's promise not only to be with the apostles, that is, with the Church, until the end of the world, but to be himself in the Church, as the source and principle of divine life,” was fulfilled in the sacraments He instituted.  

"I am with you always, to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20). Those words of the risen Christ when sending the apostles out into the whole world, attest that the Son of God, who, on coming into the world, began the kingdom of God in the history of humanity, transmitted it to the apostles in close connection with the continuation of his messianic mission. "As my father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you" (Lk 22:29). To achieve this kingdom and the fulfillment of his own mission, he instituted in the church a visible ministerial structure. This was to last "to the end of the world," according to the principle of apostolic succession suggested by these very words of the risen Christ. It is a ministry linked to the mystery. Consequently the apostles regarded themselves and wished to be regarded as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God," as St. Paul says (1 Cor 4:1). The Church's ministerial structure supposes and includes a sacramental structure and it is one of service ( ministerium ).

This relationship between ministerium and mysterium recalls a fundamental theological truth. It is Christ's promise not only to be with the apostles, that is, with the Church, until the end of the world, but to be himself in the Church, as the source and principle of divine life. That divine life belongs to him who confirmed, by means of the paschal mystery, his victorious power over sin and death. Through the Church's apostolic service Christ wishes to transmit this divine life, so that they may "remain in him and he in them." He expressed this in the parable of the vine and the branches which was part of his farewell discourse narrated in John's Gospel (cf. 15:5 ff.): "I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5).

Therefore, by Christ's institution, the Church possesses not only its ministerial structure, visible and external, but simultaneously (and above all) an interior capacity belonging to an invisible, but real sphere, where there is the source of every bestowal of divine life, of the sharing in God's trinitarian life. That life is in Christ and is communicated from Christ to humanity through the action of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of God's salvific plan. Instituted by Christ, the sacraments are visible signs of this capacity to transmit the new life, the new gift of self which God himself has made to man, namely, grace. They signify grace and at the same time communicate it. Later we shall devote a special series of reflections to the Church's sacraments. What we are interested in at the moment is to point out first of all the essential union of the sacraments with Christ's mission. In founding the Church, Christ endowed it with a sacramental structure. The sacraments, as signs, belong to the Church's visible order. Simultaneously, they signify and communicate the divine life, which pertains to the invisible mystery from which the supernatural vitality of the People of God in the Church derives. This is the invisible dimension of the life of the Church, which in participating in Christ's mystery, draws this life from him, as an undepleted and inexhaustible source, and identifies herself to an ever greater extent with him as the sole "vine" (cf. Jn 15:1).

At this point we must at least mention the specific insertion of the sacraments in the ministerial structure of the Church.

We know that during Jesus' public activity, he performed signs (cf. e.g., Jn 2:23; 6:2 ff.). Each one of them manifested God's salvific power (omnipotence), with the freeing of human beings from physical evil. At the same time, however, these signs, that is, miracles, precisely as "signs," indicated the overcoming of moral evil, the transformation and renewal of man in the Holy Spirit. The sacramental signs, with which Christ has endowed his Church, must serve the same purpose. That is clearly evident from the Gospel.

As regards Baptism, this sign of spiritual purification was already used by John the Baptist. Jesus had received from him "the baptism of repentance" at the Jordan (cf. Mk 1:9; and parallel places). However, John himself clearly distinguished his baptism from that which would be administered by Christ: "He who is coming after me...will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mt 3:11). Moreover, in the fourth Gospel we find an interesting reference to the baptism administered by Jesus, and more precisely by his disciples "in the land of Judea," separately from John (cf. Jn 3:22, 26; 4:2).

In his turn Jesus speaks of the baptism which he himself must receive, thereby indicating his future passion and death on the cross: "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:50). He asked the two brothers, John and James, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (Mk 10:38).

If we wish to refer, strictly speaking, to the sacrament which will be transmitted to the Church, we find it specially indicated in Jesus' words to Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5).

In sending the apostles to preach the Gospel in the whole world, Jesus commanded them to administer precisely this baptism: the baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). He made clear that "He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mk 16:16). "To be saved," "to enter the kingdom of God," means to have the divine life, which Christ gives as "the vine to the branches" (Jn 15:1). He gives it by means of his baptism wherewith he himself was baptized in the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. St. Paul magnificently presents the Christian baptism as "burial in the death of Christ," to remain united with him in the resurrection and to live a new life (cf. Rom 6:3, 11).

Baptism is the sacramental beginning of this new life of man. The fundamental importance of baptism for sharing in the divine life is emphasized by the words with which Christ sent forth the apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mt 28:19).

The apostles themselves—closely united with Christ's Pasch—are endowed with authority to forgive sins. Naturally, Christ also possessed that authority: "The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" (Mt 9:6). He transmitted that same power to the apostles after the resurrection, when he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 20:22-23). To forgive sins means, in effect, to restore to man the sharing in the life which is in Christ. The sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation) is therefore essentially connected with the mystery "of the vine and the branches."

However, it is the Eucharist which is the full expression of this communion of life with Christ. Jesus instituted this sacrament on the eve of his redemptive death on the cross, during the Last Supper (the paschal meal) in the upper room of Jerusalem (cf. Mk 14:22-24; Mt 26:26-30; Lk 22:19-20 and 1 Cor 11:23-26). The sacrament is the lasting sign of the presence of his body given up to death and of his blood poured out "for the remission of sins." Likewise, every time it is celebrated, it makes present the salvific sacrifice of the world's Redeemer. All this takes place beneath the sacramental sign of bread and wine, and therefore of the paschal banquet, connected by Jesus himself with the mystery of the cross. We are reminded of this by the words of institution repeated in the sacramental formula: "This is my body which will be given up for you; this is the cup of my blood...shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven."

The food and drink, which in the temporal order serve to sustain human life, in their sacramental significance indicate and effect participation in the divine life, which is in Christ, "the vine." At the cost of his redemptive sacrifice, he communicates this life to the "branches," his disciples and followers. This is made evident by the words of the announcement of the Eucharist spoken in the synagogue of Capernaum: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51). "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:54).

The Eucharist as a sign of the fraternal meal is closely connected with the promulgation of the commandment of mutual love (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12). According to Pauline teaching this love intimately unites all members of the ecclesial community: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body" (1 Cor 10:17). This union, the fruit of fraternal love, in some way reflectes the trinitarian unity formed by the Son with the Father as is evident from Jesus' prayer: "That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you" (Jn 17:21). It is the Eucharist that makes us partakers in the unity of God's life according to the words of Jesus himself: "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me" (Jn 6:57).

Precisely for this reason the Eucharist is the sacrament which in a very special way "builds up the Church" as a community participating in the life of God through Christ, the one vine.