I’m going to level with you: I’m kind of a science nerd.
Shocking, I know. I grew up on “Reading Rainbow” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “Ranger Rick” and pilfered copies of “Popular Science” (sorry Dad). I spent hours wandering in the woods behind my house looking at birds and animals and hunting crayfish in the creek. I dug a huge hole in my yard looking for arrowheads and dinosaur bones. I borrowed my grandfather’s chemistry books to flip through the pages and look at the pictures. I grew geodes and crystals. I read about volcanoes and brains and levers and whales.
The universe is an amazing place full of bizarre and crazy things.
And yet quantum mechanics is now discovering that the universe is made up of mostly nothing. We discovered that elements are made up of atoms, and how the bonds between atoms are actually empty space; electrons spin around a nucleus of protons and neutrons and in between is … nothing. Smaller still, those building blocks are made up of other building blocks called quarks, and between quarks is again, basically nothing. And down and down it goes; lots of small things interacting with other small things to make something bigger.
I have this theory that might sound sort of crazy. My theory is that we’ll keep discovering that everything small is made up of even smaller things, and that those small things are made up of even smaller things, and so on ad infinitum. I keep wondering where it’ll end. In fact, I keep wondering if what we call “matter” is really a substance at all, or if it’s actually nothing but a lot of boundaries that interact with each other.
You know a star because at some point, the star ends and space begins. A star is not a star unless there are other things that are not stars. You know hydrogen because at some point, hydrogen ends and something else begins; there is something apart from the hydrogen. A train is moving only because you are standing on something that’s not a train, and something you say isn’t moving - you can tell by its relationship to you, the observer. That’s a basic premise of the theory of general relativity.
I can’t prove any of this, by the way.
It’s just an idea.
But I do know that the universe is made up of relationships.
I was sitting on a seminary campus once, reading outside on a rather pleasant day, when two guys sat down near me on another bench and continued what sounded like a rather intense discussion about communion bread. Up for debate was whether or not, once he had prayed over the bread (he used the word “consecrated” it), he would later be allowed to give it away to the poor to eat or whether it was now too sacred to use for anything but the ceremony of communion. His companion mentioned something about it going stale and how maybe God would see it important (or at least useful, helpful, even holy) to give the bread away to someone that needs to eat so the bread wasn’t wasted. But no, said the first, that’s not communion, I couldn’t give that bread away because now it’s the body of Jesus.
And I suddenly had the urge to leave so that I didn’t get snarky at people I’d never met.
I mean, clearly, Jesus would never give himself away.
The sacraments are a way of pointing to the way that that the universe is made up of relationships. The bread and the wine and the water don’t mean anything by themselves. There’s nothing magical about them. In fact, without you present, for all practical purposes it’s almost as if they don’t really exist. But … when we interact with them within the context of the body of Christ, something special happens. We call it a sacrament not because the wine and bread are exceptional, but because as we pray, as we interact with one another and with the Spirit among us (“where two or more are gathered”), amazing, mysterious, inexplicable things happen.
Connections are made. Relationships are restored. Bonds are formed.
Right out of nothing.
So too with water. By itself it’s just water. But when we interact with the water in the context of our community of faith, when we interact with water and the Spirit, it’s called “baptism.” It’s not just a dunk in the pool or a sprinkle on the head, it becomes more.
Maybe that’s what God is like, too. Theologians tell us that the Trinity is three discreet persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and they exist in something they call “perichoresis,” the eternal dance of relationship. But Father, Son, and Spirit are also One God. Maybe God created the universe because before He created, there was nothing BUT God, and by creating us, a universe that was NOT Him, it gave Him something new with which to relate.
Another partner with which to share the dance.
God is in the habit of relating. It’s at the foundation of His character. And this is why we gather together with those that are ‘not us’ for worship. The sacraments are one of those places where the boundaries between God’s space and our space get fuzzy. As one, we interact with God. And we are always transformed by the experience.