One of the things that happens when we go through unusual times like we are doing at the moment is that it gets us thinking about things we normally take for granted. We are used to meeting together every week. We are used to sharing communion What happens now that we cannot?
First of all it makes us aware that there are many people who for various reasons are unable to gather together with God’s people on a Sunday. Here in the UK that may be because of work patterns or health issues. In some countries they may be restricted because of persecution. For those of us who are normally able to meet weekly, this should encourage us to be thankful for the privilege and not take it for granted. It should also prompt us to think and work harder at including those not able to gather. Perhaps when this crisis is over, some of the things we have started to see happening will continue so those previously isolated do feel more included in the body.
One reaction to the restrictions on meeting that I have seen is to say that physically meeting together does not really matter at all. Worship is surely about spirit and so we can still have church online and therefore it will be no different to church when we get together physically. This crisis helps remind us that church is about people not the building.
There is a good point there. Even if we lost the use of our Chapel, this would not stop us being a church. Further, we need to be reminded that church is not about going to an event each week but rather about everyday life together as part of a family. Again, we are reminded that there are people within our church family who have been prevented from regular attendance for some-time.
However, the writer to the Hebrews says:
“23 Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
Physical getting together matters. As I said in an early post, we do need physical social contact and the bodily gathering of God’s people matters. If I have heard people saying that it doesn’t matter because we can just do things on line, at the other extreme I have heard people express great sadness and even tears at the prospect of 12 weeks without being able to physically see, greet, sit with, sing and break bread with their church family. I am in much greater sympathy with them.
Just pretending that virtual church is no different to physical church makes two mistakes. First of all it plays down that real sense of sadness that people are feeling at the moment. It tells them that those feelings don’t matter so much or are even wrong. The sense I get from people is that there is a type of grieving here and the answer that virtual church is no different seems to me to be just like telling someone that death is nothing and the person is just in an other room.
Secondly, it falls into a trap that people have constantly done throughout history of making too big a distinction between body and spirit and seeing spirit as the only thing that really matters. Indeed, there has been a constant temptation to say that physical matter is bad and spirit good. This goes right against what the Bible teaches. God made the physical world around us. God made our bodies. Sin led to physical consequences, physical exile, physical suffering, physical death. It also led to redemption through the bodily incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore we have the hope of bodily resurrection in a new creation too. Gathering together is a reminder that God has acted to reverse the Fall by gathering people together out of exile.
Yet, here we are and we cannot meet physically. Does that mean church is over? Does it mean that it is pointless or wrong to provide online services? Is there no way that we can share communion together? No, it is right to say that whatever we do now will not be ideal but we are going to do our best to overcome barriers and encourage a sense of being body together.
I think that means we should try and make our virtual church as close to the real thing as possible. The more we enable people to see and hear each other, the better. Personally I believe that means we should try to find ways of sharing communion and breaking bread and drinking wine together even if that means each of us has to do so in our own homes. It means that whilst we are prevented from getting together or physically visiting people, we should make all the more effort to keep as full contact as possible. Sending texts is good, making a phone call better, finding a way to video call is better still.
Finally, if you are mourning at the loss of physical church gathering today, it is okay to mourn. However, remember that when believers mourn, we do not grieve as those without hope. Summer is coming. A day is coming when we will gather again We look forward with hope to that day. It is going to be a day of celebration and joy.
Even that day is only a small foretaste. Church will still be limited. We will only be with some of God’s people. Our efforts to worship will still be weak. Suffering will still be present. This temporary crisis also reminds us that we live in the “Now and not yet” between the first and second coming of Jesus. It reminds us that all of our church life together happens with a sense of frustration and making the best of things. We are looking and longing for an even better day when Christ will return to gather all of his people (bodily) together.
 Hebrews 10:23-25
 I am aware that this is controversial. Some people argue that you only should take communion when the church gathers together physically in one place. My view is that ideally we gather but for those unable to (all of us at the moment) this can be a way of helping them to experience a sense of gathering. I will be sharing further thoughts on how we can do this soon.
 Whilst we will find a way to celebrate Easter on April 12th, I would like to find a way of marking Return Sunday – I imagine it rolling Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Harvest into one!