The world is in lockdown because of our public health crisis. Our main tool to fight this new, viral threat is social isolation. And so, we’re learning that the individualism we’ve pursued for so long isn’t all that great.
Turns out, we need each other far more than we thought.
God bless our pastors and church leaders. They’re doing their level best to console and comfort us in these days of social deprivation. I recently described how the sacred liturgy was especially meaningful to me as the virus was beginning to spread, but just days later public health officials issued the “ten or less” mandate. It’s near impossible to gather for worship under those restrictions. Although Jesus said two or three will do in a pinch (Matt 18:20), the norm is for the entire body of Christ to come together to hear his word and praise his name every Lord’s Day (Col 3:16).
Like countless millions around the world, last Sunday my wife and I settled in to watch our church’s worship service online. It was comforting to hear the word read, preached, and sung—thanks to a skeleton crew of musicians. It was a close approximation of what we used to hear and see in church on any given Sunday.
Thank God for technology that enables us to stay in virtual touch with the important people in our lives. Many of us are getting used to schooling online, working online, meeting online. I’m a big fan of FaceTime, Zoom, and all the other tools of contemporary technology.
But remember: virtual is not the real thing. Laying our eyes on loved ones and friends isn’t nearly the same as wrapping our arms around them.
Of course, even via the internet, the word of God remains living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb 4:12). Hearing our pastors preach and watching them on our screens may suffice for now, but it’s not like being there. Sure, the songs of faith are comforting to hear; we can sing along from afar. But that’s no lasting substitute for the real thing.
The courts of the Lord
Long ago, banished temporarily from Jerusalem, King David pined for worship in the holy place:
How lovely is your dwelling place,Psalm 84:1–2
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Here the sweet singer of Israel teaches us an important lesson for these days of exile: Christian worship is embodied worship. David longed to return to the temple to bask in God’s presence. That longing was no mere thought or emotion; his very heart and flesh yearned to be in that sacred place.
Humans are not disembodied spirits, cyborgs, or holograms. Concrete physicality is as important to God as it is to us—human flesh was his idea in the first place. And he used a human body to rescue all humanity: the eternal Word was made flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). God reconciled us to himself using the fleshly body of Jesus (Col 1:21). He saves us holistically. By our Savior’s bodily suffering, death, burial, and resurrection, he sets us free and makes us whole in body, soul, and spirit.
Sacramental churches are especially impacted in exile. The Lord’s Supper is a real communal meal, not a virtual reenactment. In this meal of life Jesus shares his saving flesh and blood in bread and cup as a sign and seal of forgiveness. As Christians eat and drink together in real time and space, they are bodily present to one another just as Jesus is bodily present with them. So while distancing restrictions may impose an extended Lenten sacramental fast right now, we anticipate the Paschal feast to come.
Our screens may have to do for the time being. But we eagerly await a joyful reunion with our fellow congregants, laying eyes on them for real, greeting friends with hugs again, and joining our voices with theirs in united prayer and praise to the glory of God the Father, through his eternal Son, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Ps 122:1).
This guest post was written by Harold L. Senkbeil, author of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham Press, 2019).