Who would have expected that an almost universal embrace of ‘online church’ would be one of the outcomes of a global pandemic. I use those quote marks because I believe that the activities that we are engaging on online are not actually church, because we cannot be the church without physically gathering. At best, we are having a very long scattering between gathering, and for me, that is difficult. It is difficult because disembodied relationships are less human than embodied ones. It is difficult because it is harder to be honest about how we are really doing. This is not normal. And that is ok.
I recently gave a short devotional talk to a church in California. I did that without leaving my armchair. Hundreds of people I have never met will have heard something I said. It wasn’t as good for them or me as if I had been their own pastor, speaking in their own gathering, but I’m glad we got to open the Bible and consider what it says. You can watch that here.
It wasn’t as good as being there.
And this is why I think it is really important to say, about both the time we find ourselves in generally, and the practice of church more specifically: This is not normal. And that is ok.
In Genesis 3:8-12 we get a glimpse of what being with God was like – and even in the tragedy of the Fall, a glimpse of what is yet to come:
“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked;so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”“
Even in this brokenness, we see a glimpse of how the world is meant to be.
Even in their sin, God is searching for humans, seeking to connect with Adam and Eve.
Even in their nakedness, God is looking to cover and protect those he has made.
Even in their fear, God is speaking to them.
Even in their hiding, God is looking for them.
This is why the world is they way it is.
The Kingdom has not yet come, and yet God is still at work.
We need to be honest. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I want to show a stiff upper lip. I want to be British and Churchillian and claim that all is well. I want to be like my sister, a physiotherapist in the NHS, who has amazingly volunteered to go onto a Corona Virus Ward.
But the truth is more complex.
Now, as good Bible-reading people, we know that in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come fully, but also that is not yet fully come.
One person who beautifully demonstrates that is the Apostle Paul. When he wrote the letter to the Philippians, he was fascing a possibly death sentence. The church was tensed up, ready for the assault of a menacing world, the challenges of a changing culture, and the insidious voice of false doctrine, saying, ‘did God really say?’.
We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter.
But we do know he was in prison.
Sometimes, the lockdown we find ourselves in can feel a bit like prison. Some UK newspapers claimed that our government has us under house arrest!
Paul’s attitude is fascinating, then. Read what he says in Philippians 1:3-12;
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousnesst hat comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God“
It is important to note that Paul is not physically with the people he is communicating with. He is using the technology of his day – letter writing – to share his joy, but you can feel the tension between the good that he remembers, and the better time to come. You see, just as Genesis 3 is a tragic even with the seed of a better future, something similar is going on here.
The Kingdom of God is now and not yet.
In a world with harder borders than a few weeks ago, and racism and distrust running rife, it is perhaps that case that perhaps the most astounding of the things that Jesus has done in his life, death and resurrection, is create a new humanity. And so I can say, from here in the UK, that I thank God for you, brothers and sisters. And, stuck at home, I can, like Paul, look forward to the day when I can see you, embrace you, pray for you and be prayed for.
The best is yet to come, though.
Remember that image of God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. Imagine that routine. Imagine that rhythm. Imagine that amazing presence. Imagine that beautiful community.
Now imagine that includes everyone that God loves.
Imagine that instead of seeing through this glass or plastic screen, darkly, we are embracing and worshipping Jesus together.
You see, that is exactly what the Kingdom of God will be like.
Turn with me again to the very end of the Bible. Revelation 22. Verses 1-5.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal,flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”“
That is where we are going. A great big gathering, with no night, and no pain. The loneliness we experience will disappear. The disconnection, from sin and sickness, will be less than a memory. The nations will be healed.
You see, when someone asks how you are doing, you can be honest. We are not yet where – and where we are going as Christians is good – we will be.
You can say, as I would say, actually, I wish I were with you. I wish we were hugging, and high fiving, and wrestling, and worshipping, and praying for one another.
But for now, we don’t. But, as Paul writes elsewhere, we do not wait as those who have no hope.
Because of that, I am confident that this time is not normal, but that it is going to be ok. In a conference paper/MA Essay back in 2014, I wrote that “Christians should be thoughtful and careful pioneers, rather than aliens or natives, in relation to emerging technologies“. Indeed, “The vital theme of the church as a body cannot be divorced from bodies that make up the church. This is due to the intimate vulnerability inherent in a healthy church environment, between the various members, and in the light of the embodied practices of worship such as baptism and the eucharist, both of which are sacraments demanding bodily presence and contact in the physical sense.” We can be the church gathered at this time. But we cannot, beyond where we dwell with fellow believers, be the church scattered. Without our bodies together, we cannot be the gathered church.
This is not normal. And that is ok.
I hope this lengthy post makes some sense. I hope that you can see my heart is not to condemn those who are earnestly aiming for connection and community, but instead pointing beyond our present fumbles to the perfect communion God’s people will enjoy in the future.
For more on thinking this stuff through in terms of the importance of place and human limits, see this paper from 2018.