What do Arlington Cemetery, Westminster Abbey, The Arc de Triomphe, Canberra in Australia, and Aukland in New Zealand have in common with the fields of Flanders in modern Belgium? The most obvious answer is that they all have a place where there is a grave and a memorial dedicated to the memory of a fallen soldier whose name will forever only be “known to God”.
It has been my privilege to visit each one of those places and I am struck by the diversity of architecture and form each of these memorials.
In many cases, for example Westminster Abbey, there is just a simple memorial slab on the floor, delineated by a border of red poppies — yet this soldier’s final resting place is among the tombs of kings and queens! On the Champs Elyseé, there is a memorial slab and an eternal flame and a memorial service every July 14th (Bastille Day). In other places there is a permanent guard of serving soldiers at each corner, whose demeanor is both reverent and sombre.
Probably the epitome of these memorials is at Arlington in Washington D.C. There the “sentinels” guard the tomb 24hrs per day, seven days per week, in all weathers and temperatures every day of the year. The guard is changed every hour, on the hour (every 30 minutes during the Summer months). After a meticulous inspection the guard takes 21 steps steps (21 being the highest military honor, as in a 21 gun salute) at exactly 90 steps per minute to his guard post where he remains until relieved. The ceremony and qualifications to be selected for duty are very exacting. You can read more details at this link: https://rb.gy/7su78
Which brings up a question in my mind, who is doing it the “right” way? Should the blueprint be a simple slab with poppies? Is an eternal flame a requirement? Do you have to have guards patrolling, every hour, on the hour? Is there, in fact, a “right” way?
Of course, I think the answer is that there isn’t any unique, “right” way to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country but whose identities are forever lost. The main point is to create a reminder to bring attention to and revere the sacrifice in the hope that such sacrifices might never need to be repeated. These observances are just a means to an end — that of remembering!
Which brings me to the subject of the Sacraments. Perhaps no other doctrinal issue has caused more disagreements and schisms in the Christian Church than how to observe these reminders of the character and sacrifice of our Savior.
For example, let’s consider baptism.
We know from archeology and ancient manuscripts that a ceremony of baptism predates Judaism and Christianity by many thousands of years. It was always used as a ceremony to indicate a new elevated status or even a new birth with the associated future potential. Some ancients were quite literally baptized in a bath of blood! The big “point” was that the baptizee was now to be considered a new and improved specimen. (Ever sung the hymn, “washed in the blood of the Lamb”?)
John the Baptist in the first century used this very same symbolism for people who wanted a new start in life, freed from the guilt of their past sins through repentance. John used water that was readily available in the murky Jordan river, but, of course, it was the symbolism that really mattered. If you really want to be baptized the way John did it, you should really be in a mud hole filled with authentic water from the Jordan river!
And then we have Christian brothers and sisters arguing and antagonizing each other over the “right” way to “do” baptism. Does baptism have to be full immersion? Is sprinkling with water enough? What about infants? And so on. But baptism is just a means to an end. It is symbolizing a new status, a rebirth. Why don’t we give Jesus the last word on the sacrament?
Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:4-5 NLT
And Peter had proof that this was the ultimate baptism:
“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as he fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of the Lord’s words when he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?” When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” Acts 11:15-18 NLT
Similarly with the sacrament variously known as “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper”.
If you really want to provoke an argument, bring up the term “transubstantiation” in a religious gathering and watch the sparks fly! Does the “bread” and “wine” have to be prepared according to Jewish dietary custom? Should the ceremony only be held on the eve of Passover? What about the hygiene of a communal cup? I am sure all this has Satan rubbing his hands in glee as Jesus-followers tear each other apart over form rather than substance.
I believe Jesus’ point was, “when you get together in fellowship with a meal, remember my sacrifice for you”. It’s an aide-memoire!
So, I believe that as a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), witnessed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, my Big Mac and Diet Coke in McDonalds can be a sacrament if it brings to mind Jesus’ tremendous love and sacrifice on my behalf and informs my behavior accordingly.
Certainly a church setting and carefully and thoughtfully prepared litany can add solemnity and gravitas to the experience, and I am not against that any more than I am against the symbolism of water baptism, but let’s not fall into the trap of believing that’s the only “right” way to experience the sacrament! And certainly don’t let our preferences become a cause for disagreement with our brothers and sisters in Christ! Let’s not confuse form with substance.
Jesus left us some simple and easily practiced ways to help us remember that we are no longer our “old” selves, but are new and powerful because of His sacrifice and the gift of his Holy Spirit. I hope Pizza Hut, or Dominoes, or Burger King or Jack In The Box provides you with a thrilling religious experience!
I trust you know the joy of being a new person in Jesus and having communion with Him.
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black
P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at https://www.salvationarmyconcordca.org/chronicle/?category=Bible%20Study