Our newest member professed his faith yesterday and was received through baptism. Jim, though he is in his sixties, had never been baptized, so I asked him what he wanted (we United Methodists offer all modes of baptism to those who are properly candidates for it). He wanted to be sprinkled up front in church. Good enough. Glad to do it.
After the service, several of his friends were joshing him about how being sprinkled by me was pretty close to being fully immersed. It certainly surprised Jim. (My practice is to cup my hands and take as much water as I can carry from the font and let it fall in a cascade over the head of the baptizand, as my hands descend to be laid upon his head.) I explained that "sign value" is important in a public ceremony. The actual amount of water used is not significant, but water ought to be perceived as water-ish. You should hear it, feel it, see it.
The same is true of holy communion. We United Methodists are free to use any grain and any grape, I suppose, but sign value remains something to think about. Bread ought to look like bread, ought to taste like bread. Grape juice/wine ought to look like what it is, even if it's just a wee bit in a little glass cup; meanwhile, the chalice reminds you that this is a wine cup, not just because it looks pretty. We could, of course, compress the bread and wine into a chewable caplet or a gummi, and it would still be what it is (no doubt some non-denominational Christian supply house is already working on this), but though I confess that God could use it to convey the Body and Blood of Christ to us in such a form, I also protest that I
wouldn't use such a product in church.
In the backcountry, when we're on a trek, I put a small container of grape juice in my backpack. When we stop to do church and want to have communion, we use whatever form bread takes that day: crackers, tortillas, pilot biscuits . . . The chalice is usually my Lexan coffee mug. But that's in the wilderness,
not in church. We are all grubby and dressed in our trekking clothes. God meets us where we are, as we are. But we don't come to church in town on a regular Sunday morning unbathed, in dirty shorts, torn t-shirts, and bandanas.
No doubt God and the people would welcome us if we had no better, and love us just as much -- but it would be an affectation on our parts to show up that way just to show how free and easy we can be with God. No, we make at least some effort to present ourselves in better fashion when we go to meet the Lord; after all, there is "sign value" in us, too, for we also are icons of the living God. You don't have to wear a suit, but you honor God when you make an effort for him. It's not for others to say how much effort you should make, but we all have to be on guard against slovenliness in our attitude toward God -- inwardly even more than outwardly.
Which is why my colleagues who preach in jeans or khakis to well-fed, affluent Christians -- and who bang on about how more spiritual or "real" that is than wearing suit and tie or vestments -- leave me cold. There is a reason why the Tabernacle was made out of the costliest stuff the Israelites could gather up. I believe in a sacramental approach to the spiritual life: yes, anything can do, because it is God, not we, who determines our value; but no, not just anything will do, because I must offer my best to God or acknowledge that I value something else more than him. And this is particularly important for those of us in leadership.
Hmm. When I started writing this, I didn't think it'd end up where it did. Something to think about, though.