This doesn’t mean we have to be authenticity freaks, regulating the amount of water or the exact content of the bread – though there are Christians who do that. But still, bread and wine (of some sort) is necessary for communion. Water is necessary for baptism (even if it’s just the water in one’s blood – martyrs killed before baptism were said to have been “baptized in their blood”).
Relationship is important, too. This is a church thing. The sacraments are about our covenant with God and each other. Outsiders become insiders through them, but outsiders who aren’t interested in coming IN are advised to refrain from going through the motions without faith.
Relationships require two things here: Faith (someone’s faith) in God, and physical proximity, in order to establish or strengthen the covenant. We need to be addressing ourselves to each other through God, and we need to be in the same space.
The closest natural analogy to the sacraments is marriage; indeed, marriage is often called “a natural sacrament.” No particular legal form – or even any priestly blessing – was required for a valid marriage in western Christianity until 1215. And common law marriage was regarded as legal throughout the Anglo-American world until very recently (turn of the last century in Indiana, IIRC).
But essential to the enactment of a proper marriage covenant are two things: Matter (in this case, our bodies), and Relationship (the proper partner, free consent, the intent to form a true marriage, and the joining of bodies). You could be married by long distance telephone call or internet, but you wouldn’t have much of a marriage until you’d gotten together in the same room. Likewise, you could go down to the courthouse under today’s legal regime and “get married” to the fourth stranger stepping off a bus, and then never see each other again. But again, you wouldn’t have much of a marriage.
Marriage is about sex – the channeling of love through material means. And it’s about promises. It can sustain a lot of separation, but it needs to be engaged in mutually. And doing it haphazardly causes enormous heartache.
Christianity is not merely spiritual. It’s material, too. In fact, it is about the most stubbornly material of all major religions. That’s because it is ultimately about the redemption of matter, the raising of our material bodies to a new and imperishable form. And, of course, Christianity is about relationships. It’s about love. It’s a covenant whose major acts are done through person-to-person contact. Assuming that everything really important can be done online is cheap grace.
It’s not that I’m against modernity. Technology is a wonderful thing. But I want to give away real treasure, not fairy gold, to my fellow Christians.
Years ago, I was at a luncheon with other pastors when the waitress came and found me, saying that my District office was trying to locate me. I went to the house phone and was told that one of my parishioners and his two teen-aged sons had been hit by a coal truck and had been rushed to the hospital. I went back, white-faced, to tell the group I had to go. I rushed to the hospital, reaching it even before the the driver's wife. I saw Mark (the dad/principal victim) being wheeled rapidly toward the operating room, his head wrapped in gauze. I approached. I didn’t even have to say anything (indeed, I didn’t know what to say). The attendants just stopped for me, right there in the hallway. I laid a hand lightly on Mark and prayed briefly. Then I stepped back and they rushed him on into emergency surgery.
Now, if I couldn’t have touched him, it would have been all right. Certainly, we all prayed through the next several hours in the waiting room, and I presume those prayers were sincere (they were also effective; Mark pulled through). What, then, was the value of my laying hands on Mark and praying in the hallway – what was so obviously right and good about that that hospital attendants would stop – when seconds counted – to let me do it?
Because matter matters. Relationship matters. Sometimes you can’t do as you’d like, but always, doing it the best you can is a good and right thing.
Doing the sacraments well – even if you have to go to extreme lengths to do them well – matters. “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ nourish your soul and body unto everlasting life.”