Yesterday morning Boris Johnson reaffirmed the Government’s firm insistence that the lockdown must remain in place for the time being. It was good to see that the Prime Minister has recovered, but – as we expected – it means our physical separation from each other continues. We long to be able to assemble again.
A Biblical Longing
The Apostle Paul’s role in spreading the gospel meant that he was always moving on from churches he had planted. And the way he speaks from afar to his brothers and sisters underlines the significance of being physically present with people:
In Philippians 1:3 – as we heard on Sunday – Paul tells us that while he is in his own kind of ‘lockdown’, he remembers and prays for the Philippian church with joy.
Writing to the Thessalonian church, he recalls that “when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” (1 Thess 2:17).
In Acts 20 Luke describes Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders: “They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.”
The significance of physical presence is movingly expressed in all these words, and perhaps one benefit of our collective experience of separation will be our new insight into the sense of loss many people experience when they can no longer regularly attend church for health reasons.
A Deeper Union
Nevertheless, our relationship to Jesus transcends physical nearness. Jesus is enthroned in heaven, and yet we are still united to Him. In John 14, in one breath he can tell the disciples he is leaving them (in his death-resurrection-ascension) and yet at the same time he is coming to them (through his Spirit). We cannot see Jesus, but he is with us. Praise God!
And through this union with Jesus, we are all members of his one body. Although we are prevented from expressing this union in person, it still exists. And even when separated, Paul can say things like this:
“Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit…” (1 Cor 5:3)
“Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit…” (Col 2:5)
So let us give thanks for the union we have with each other through our union with Christ.
One of the important ways our union with Christ and each other is expressed is in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor 10)
A number of people have asked me whether we might celebrate communion in the YouTube service or via Zoom. The Church of England’s answer is that I would be permitted to celebrate it in my home on camera, but not to encourage anyone else to join in with bread and wine in their own homes. However, I don’t really like the idea of you all watching me take communion on my own while you can’t join in – it hardly expresses our collective union and our common need of Jesus! So, for the time being, reluctantly, we must do without.
But why can’t everyone join in with their own bread and wine at home? In actual fact I think there are good reasons for the House of Bishop’s guidance. Among these is the fact that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is at pains to encourage the church to make sure everyone gets to participate in holy communion. When we meet at church we ensure that there is enough bread and wine for everyone. If I were to suggest that we all join in with our own bread and wine at home, it may be that some of us couldn’t do that because we didn’t have bread or wine – for whatever reason. I think that’s a good reason for us to refrain from ‘sharing’ communion for the time being.
If that feels like a loss to you, then that’s a good sign. We ought to miss sharing the Lord’s Supper – it speaks to us of the great self-giving of Jesus to us on the cross, and of our deep need to eat and drink of him for spiritual life. That doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t sustaining us now – he is, and let’s keep trusting him to do that. But it does mean that our collective life is diminished by our inability to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; this is a difficult situation in many ways. So let us long for the day when it can be restored and we can meet together again. Or better still, let us pray for that day:
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” 1 Thess 3:10
With love in Christ,