My grandmother is strong-minded. She has opinions about a lot of things and will certainly tell you them. (I realize, now, she sounds like someone else I know. I’m certain that you, gracious reader, had already seen the resemblance.) Among her opinions are those about TV preachers. She calls one of them “that twirp in Houston.” She’s a deeply faithful woman who spent more than a decade of her life in central Africa—a place that still wets her eyes and tightens her voice after 40 years. So I do not discount her conclusion, but I am a bit less resolute. I laughed at her description. I’ve seen his show.
I visited my grandmother last fall. While I was there she pulled out this small, hermetically sealed packet. Inside was a translucent, papery substance about the size of a dime. It almost looked like two layers of skin split apart, but it was crumbly. There was another packet inside the first with a purplish powder. My grandmother said she’d been watching T.D. Jakes. He’d offered television viewers these communion packets, so she decided to call and get one, to see what it was all about. This is what came. It was sterile in this clear, crunchy, sealed plastic.
I don’t doubt though that God’s grace might be so humble.
Sunday at church, during the offering, the video screens featured footage from last week’s baptism service. Over 40 people were baptized. It humbled me again. It reminded me not to judge my megachurch too resolutely. God’s grace is humble enough to slip in the back of the auditorium amid the lights and sound and on-stage charisma. It is I who is often too proud.
I was moved as I watched these baptisms. My spirit was humbled, lifted up in praise.
And I liked Jesus more for it too. I liked Jesus because he established baptism as a practice for the church. And the Eucharist the same way. Both of these are embodied symbols, full of physical involvement.
I liked Jesus because throughout the centuries these two sacraments would remain unchanged. He knew that for us to embrace baptism and communion would require action, involvement, undiluted by anything intermediate. He knew they could not be changed without being altered at the same time. They remain unchanged despite our cultural trends and our tech-friendly world. They resist alteration, and thus maintain their integrity, involving us with Christ, his death and resurrection.
But if somehow baptism and communion could become virtual transactions, I think their meaning would be lost. I think that’s why Jesus embodied them in a way that couldn’t be extracted and virtualized.
Even with Jakes’ sad communion packets, television viewers would eat and be involved. It could not be done online with a few clicks, even if it could be done at a distance. It could not be participated in any mediated way. It was not virtual, but actual, even if the packets were sealed and delivered with the help of high technologies.
I guess this sort of involvement is what I’ve been trying to argue for with my writings here about electronic tithing. There’s something lost when we replace the physical involvement with electronic transactions—something meaningful.
No, dropping cash in the church coffers (i.e., tithing) doesn’t have the same status as baptism or communion. But I wonder if electronic giving doesn’t also lose the meaning of giving. It’s changed. Has it been altered too?
Fortunately, our choice of methods is not a matter of right or wrong. Even if it was, God’s grace is big enough for our well-meaning sins. Still, I think it’s important to consider the unintended consequences our choices create. If we are careless, we may one day find ourselves without recourse, at turning points where drastic measures must be taken to recover something vital. God’s grace will meet us there as well.
One morning, week before last, I awoke at 4 a.m. This matter of passing the plate was on my mind. I was replaying the event over and over—receiving the plate from the person on my left and then turning to give it to the person of my right. I was imagining the act embodied.
Lying there in bed, I saw it anew—as an embodied symbol, this action of receiving and giving. It wasn’t just about “passing” the plate. Instead, it symbolized the united activity of the body of Christ, one giving to another who in turn gives to another. We receive from one, then turn and give to one. We experience grace as it flows, not to us but through us. But something else happens too, as we take part in this serving. The plate is filled. A little is added each time. As each of us gives a small amount, our efforts are multiplied, the whole grows. Even the people had enough faith to pass the loaves and fishes on to the next person.
Still, there’s more. As these plates are passed, they move from those most honored, who have seats near the stage, to those of least honor, who arrived late, who were cautious curious, or who feared they wouldn’t be welcomed. The lowest places are lifted up. Those farthest away are given much. It’s the inversion created by grace. It’s grace so humble that it might come by mail in a sealed packet from a TV preacher.