I was a spectator to about two fifths of a Twitter discussion the other day. Most of the participants were people I'd come into contact with via BigBible. The subject was whether sacraments could properly take place online - i.e. is one fully participating in a sacrament if one is not physically there. I felt like chipping in because it was interesting and some of those involved are people whose blogs and writings I like to read, but I held back. Possibly there was a sense of "better keep quiet and be thought a fool than Tweet and remove all doubt" in this, but I also realised I wasn't entirely sure what I thought. My gut feeling was that sacraments - and especially the Eucharist - are things which, by their nature have to happen in the flesh, but I was challenged by alternative views. The discussion on Twitter fizzled out, but I decided to look a little further into what might and might not be done "remotely" (and by that, I mean, "not physically in the same place").
The Church has always prayed "remotely". Just look at St. Paul's letters for evidence - he never stops telling people that he is praying for them and asks for their prayers back. This seems to be taken as read as Christian practice from the very start of the Church.
A lot of scripture actually comes to us simply because it is a record of material used for teaching. The new testament letters were written with this assumed - they were not to be read and thrown away but intended to be circulated and passed on. Remote interaction and sharing of teaching through letters, including second hand reading is assumed to be beneficial and quite normal.
Healing would, on the face of it, seem also to be something done in the flesh, but there are scriptural exceptions. For instance, in Luke's gospel we read of Jesus healing remotely. A centurion's slave was at death's door. Not only did the centurion tell Jesus not to bother even coming to his house to physically heal the slave, he didn't even ask Jesus in person. Rather he sent his friends to deliver the message. The centurion recognised Jesus as having authority over sickness, just as the centurion himself exercised authority over his troops. Jesus healed the slave in response to the centurion's faith without even seeing the slave. So we see Jesus operating 'remotely' in his healing ministry and in revealing this sign of his true identity as the Christ.
Anointing with the Holy Spirit
Now this was more of a surprise to me. I'd previously overlooked both these incidents, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New, and was quite surprised to see that anointing with the Spirit - something very sacramental in nature - appears to be not limited by the recipients "being there" when the witnessed anointing happens.
In Numbers, we read that Moses appointed seventy elders and, following God's directions, asked them all to join him around the meeting tent where God came down in a cloud and put his Spirit upon them. The interesting thing was that two of the chosen elders, Eldad and Medad, hadn't got the memo (for some unexplained reason) and were still in the camp when all the really exciting things were happening up by the tent. However, when the other sixty eight started prophesying, so did Eldad and Medad down in the camp. All seventy were anointed and prophesied as a result whether they were physically there or not.
In St. John's gospel, the account of Thomas makes for interesting reading too. Jesus makes a resurrection appearance to the disciples in a locked room and tells them that he is sending them, just as the Father sent him. He breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. We then find out that Thomas wasn't there on that occasion and he doubts their account of events. Jesus appears a second time and this time Thomas is there to witness the risen Christ. The first appearance to the disciples was when they were anointed as apostles: as those whom Jesus is sending out with the Gospel. There is no question that Thomas is one of these apostles and, as such, was also a recipient of the Holy Spirit, anointed to an apostolic ministry. Thomas is named as one of the apostles earlier in the Gospels and is counted among them in the Acts of the Apostles and is clearly as anointed to this task as the others. Outside scripture, there is a strong tradition that Thomas had an apostolic ministry to northern India where he founded the church. This account of his ministry features in many of the Church Fathers' writings about Thomas as the apostle to India.
It's clear in all these cases that being physically in the same place was an important part of what was witnessed and what happened for most of those involved: most of the apostles were breathed on by Jesus; sixty eight of the seventy elders received the Holy Spirit around the meeting tent; most of Jesus's reported healings were, if not "hands on" then certainly happening where he was. And there is evidence elsewhere in scripture that being there in person is important. St. Paul makes mention in several letters that he can't wait to come to join his readers and makes it clear that he values being there in the flesh with them, or by sending others such as Timothy to be with them. Indeed, in Galatians he wishes he could be with them in person so he could "change his tone" - recognising that there is a difference in the clarity of communication between exchanging letters and actually hanging out together. That happens all the time online, in my experience: it is very difficult to read "tone" in people's voices and misunderstandings and hurts are often the result of Tweet discussions, just as was the case back in the days of bulletin boards and chat rooms. However, it is equally clear that not being physically in the same place was not a barrier to God getting done what he wants to do in terms of equipping, blessing, anointing and healing. Doing things remotely, even including anointing by the Holy Spirit (which is associated with the sacrament of baptism, but is also relevant to ordination) we can find precedents for, but I'm still not entirely sure where that leaves us in terms of the sacrament of the Eucharist. That probably needs a post all of its own.
My gut feeling remains that the Eucharist is something we are called to do "incarnationally - that is to say, "in the flesh", but the one thing I have had brought home to me in thinking about this is that it is foolish indeed to assume limits to God's grace. In faith, God does not let physical separation stand in the way when He wants to bless, use, equip or answer the prayers of His people.
What can you do for someone today remotely?
Is there something you need to say or do face to face with someone?
What aspects of 'being Church' can we do remotely?