Monday, June 21, 2010

Rain Man Goes to Church

In the movie Rainman, Raymond Babbitt is a mentally challenged man who travels with his brother, Charlie, to Las Vegas. While there, he experiences his first kiss. When the woman asks him how it felt, he replies “wet; it felt wet.”

That’s when the woman realizes that something is not right.

What Raymond Babbitt said was perfectly right. But of course, it missed the point entirely. All he understood was the physical elements of the kiss. He didn’t know what a kiss was for.

That is way many Christians interpret the sacraments. They know they are supposed to be done for some reason, but for the life of them it really seems pointless to plunge a person beneath the water or drink wine and eat bread in church. A good Bible study seems so much more important.

Radical Protestantism has tended to become ever more suspicious of sacramental life. Many American Protestants go to church for years now without ever receiving baptism or communion. They may live their entire lives without ever experiencing the laying of hands.

This would have astounded earlier believers, from the first century AD until a hundred years or so ago.

Despite the Lord’s clear instruction, and despite the obvious practice of the apostles and earliest believers, most Evangelicals do not view sacramental life as having much value. Communion, if received at all, is often a “tack-on’ at the end of a worship service. Worshippers open the plastic flip-top-communion-fast-food thing, remove the bread stuff inside and pop it into their mouths. They then swallow the thimble full of reconstituted grape stuff. As the people eat and drink the wretched stuff, the preacher hardly knows what to say. He may read a scripture. Someone may sing a song about ultimate love and sacrifice. Then the worshippers go home, slightly embarrassed about the meaningless mumbo-jumbo they have just experienced.

Many believers have not even experienced as much of a “communion service,” as that – if such a practice can actually be labeled “communion.”

My point is not to mock any church that still does retain some element of sacramental life, but to point out that our faith has become so disembodied that wine, bread, oil and other material elements of worship have come to appear, -- well, weird to us.

So, it is worth asking: “why do we need to use oil, incense, water, wine and other material elements in worship if God’s work in us is strictly a spiritual thing?

The biblical answer will be jarring for modern ears.

God’s work is not just spiritual.

We live, after all, in a material world.
We are material creatures.

God intends to redeem the material world. He intends to bring matter bring back under His authority.
God indeed is invisible and intangible. We, however, are not. God made us to be material creatures. Materiality is our appointed realm. Furthermore, that will always be the case. For “we believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Because this is the way God made us, spiritual things come wrapped in material packages. That is why we need oil on our heads or need to plunge beneath the waters of baptism. That is why we need to taste the bread and the wine.

We need spiritual life to be incarnated within material objects; embedded within human actions. That is not substandard spirituality for weak believers; it is spirituality as God actually wishes it to be expressed on earth.

Well, now that I think of it, love is like that too.

Love is certainly not just a physical thing. Love is really cheapened when we define it as merely physical. Nonetheless, from time to time, most of us need to love something with some skin on it!

Human beings need to be touched; they need love that is physically – not merely spiritually expressed.
Verbal affirmations of love have their place. Ultimately though, most of us want to experience love that is made physical and tangible in some way. Perhaps spiritual beings – such as angels -- are satisfied with disembodied, spiritual love.

We are not.

That is why our Lord bled for us on a cross; to make love physical and tangible.

Jesus Himself, the incarnate God, is thus the Sacrament of all Sacraments.

Biblical worship is worship that recognizes both our spirituality and our materiality.

Biblical worship is sacramental, in both the Old and the New Testament.

God told Moses in Exodus 25:40, "See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”

In the last book of the Bible, when John the Revelator experiences worship in heaven, that worship is still unfolding according to that same pattern.

A Christian worships with Word and Sacrament. As he does, he looks through the material components into another world. Until his eyes are open to see that world, he sees only the water and oil; only the bread and the wine.

When we ask him what it was like and he replies, “Well, it was wet,” we know he didn’t get it.


mlh said...

I get a thrill at, not just your illustrations, but how you implement them! (particularly this and the last blog) I've studied you for years to figure out how you DO THAT ... but YOU are the unique ingredient that can't be replicated. Fabulous reads.

上心上心 said...
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