What Online Communion Taught me About Worship in the Time of COVID-19
Two weeks ago, we ventured into the world of online celebration of the Lord’s Table. We did not do so with “undo haste or undo delay”. 😉 A friend in ministry had mentioned Calvin’s theology of the Table which greatly helped me – and our congregation – think through celebrating a meal we have always believe had to be celebrated “in person” and “in community”. Calvin reminds us that the real presence of Christ is a product of the Holy Spirit. The elements don’t become Christ in metaphysical change… the elements are Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which transcends gaps of time and space. The most powerful statement Calvin makes is “let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive—viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.”
(John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, Chapter 17.10)
This thought continues to be provocative to me. Tomorrow night a task force of our church will consider the what, when, and how of re-opening our church building, programs… and in-person worship. It’s complicated because the national setting for this debate is not the same as the context of this discernment in Idaho. Idaho had a light touch from COVID-19. We are naturally physically distant, we closed down early, we didn’t have much spread at all. And that means people have a logical case for re-opening even while that seems strange to consider in other larger urban areas where community spread (of people and viral outbreaks) is much more radical. So, the debate is challenging. To open or not? I’m prone to say no… but I understand, and I am nagged at by the whole “Idaho argument”.
And then I hear again: the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.
And I wonder again what it is that we think we have really lost by not having in-person worship (for the sake of the well-being and health of our community and the most vulnerable among them)? And this question confronts me: is my theology of the Spirit so impoverished, and my trust in the depth and breadth of God’s being so limited that I can’t imagine worship doesn’t need a building, or in-person-ness at all?
What if what is lost in worshipping physically-distant over worshipping in-person is so small that any instinct that puts people at risk to overcome it is foolish disregard for human life? I have wondered over and again the last three or four weeks if we don’t worship the act of worship more than God we claim to worship.
I wonder if the challenge to open a building, to meet in-person, isn’t far more about the church as a social club, about my own stubborn sense of rugged individualist, and my own ego than it is about being disciples of the way of the Jesus Christ. Discipleship – our risen Christ-given mission – needs neither worship, nor building, nor in-person gatherings… and I have said before that I think the Church has been more the Church in the last 6 weeks than in the years before them.
Online Communion ended up being as rich an experience as it was in-person. More so in some ways for breaking down the routine-ness of it all and making us think more intentionally about the what and why and how of it all. And for being a sign and seal and remembering of the reality that thinking we can measure the ability of the Holy Spirit by our feeble observations is…. foolishness.
I am trying these days not to do lots of comparing. I don’t want to feel like I’m failing because my capacity for ministry is different than the church down the road, across the country, or on the other side of the globe. I have always been grateful that we all express and enrich each other’s faith because of – not in spite of – our differences. I do not wish to judge any other communities’ discernment – their context has intricacies I couldn’t even guess at, let alone know with certainty. I’m not sharing this to tell anyone they are wrong… particularly because I’m not sure what is right. I seek here to give witness to my own “wrestling with discipleship” by way of maybe learning through the articulation what I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I hope maybe the way I feel challenged in my faith and leadership… may challenge you as well – even if it takes us to different conclusions.
I hear myself challenged, again and again, to trust that the Holy Spirit is more at work than I give her credit for, that God is bigger than what I can see and measure AND what all of us collectively can see and measure, and that the Church is usually more the Church when it looks nothing like our routine imaginings. These are things I professed to know, but the knowing didn’t go too deep. And I feel grateful for the events of the last two months pushing me towards a deeper and richer theology of the Holy Spirit (not something Presbyterians are known for…)
I believe that COVID-19… that celebrating a Sacrament as I have never imagined doing so before has taught me greater faith and trust in God, and far less obsession with our human machinations towards God. And I think I’m being challenged in the Spirit, and by the Spirit, to get really iconoclastic about my traditions and my motives and my reasons for those traditions and motives… and to be very careful that what I claim is about God, is really about God – and not me and my comfort. Or, for that matter, you… and your comfort.