For nine weeks we didn’t gather in the flesh, and – though I’m probably not supposed to say it – the separation didn’t cause me distress. Some have called this an occasion for mourning, and I do believe they’re spot on. It’s just that, as with many appropriate sorrows, this one doesn’t descend automatically on me. I often have to reason my way to grief, and upon arrival put on my sackcloth without the spur of strong feeling. So, my discovery is that I feel ok with going for at least nine weeks without in-the-flesh interaction. Would things come unraveled at 18 weeks? I’m guessing not.
My surmise is that technology partly explains the absence of any sharp feeling of loss. Computers installed with Zoom software allow the church to continue to see each other’s faces and gather around the Word. We zoom-sing, all at the same time. We hear zoom testimonies. The night I write this, we’ll zoom-take in a missionary’s presentation of his field of ministry. Zoom prayers. And aside from video conferencing we exchanged e-mails, text messages, read internet articles. Gave funds online.
Not to mention all the conveniences we’ve enjoyed meeting remotely, starting with not having to exit our houses. And being in control of exactly how people look at us: how often and from what angle. (Seriously, isn’t that great – has anyone ever written “Ode to the Black Screen”?) Sometimes, in the middle of my sermon over Zoom I’d see my mom just get up and leave the room, presumably offended by what I had just said. Protesting is so much easier online.
Which leads me to my big announcement: we’ll be permanently canceling all future in-person gatherings. 23 Chapel Street will be donated to some organization that supports people’s physical needs: while we’ve discovered that the spiritual life doesn’t require physical accoutrements, the body remains dependent on…well, stuff. We’re even considering the possibility of doing away with video and focusing on e-mail and audio podcasts as information dispensers.
Har Har Har – a little weak pastoral humor, that was. Put down those stones and spears! But seriously, the negligible effect from 23 Chapel Street being temporarily shuttered raises the question: why should Christians bother to gather together? Many of us probably have considered that question at some point in the past, but let’s review by skating over a few reasons:
Throughout the history of salvation, God has ever summoned His people to gather together. This, even as He has also given His people the Word, and directed that the Word be central. Couldn’t then they just read on their own and take in the information themselves, without gathering together? No.
The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means public assembly. So built into our name is the idea of leaving the house and coming together with others.
The apex of the history of salvation is God Himself coming to us, Himself in the flesh, with a particular gait and nose hairs needing tended to. The doctrine of the Incarnation doesn’t allow us to be satisfied with, for instance, trading beautiful ideas from afar, but prioritizes physical presence and all of its requirements and effects.
The Apostle claims that some spiritual goods can only be transferred and received in the flesh (Rom 1: 10-13). Take note that he expresses his hopes to come among the Roman congregation, and once in physical proximity he’ll impart some spiritual gift to them…as he’s setting out to write Romans! So he wanted to give a congregation something valuable in addition to the Epistle to the Romans? Yes – but that gift required Paul to be present with them. More to say here but we rush on…
I started off saying that not gathering together didn’t affect me much. But not so fast, Landry! Note the truth that comes to light in the Garden of Eden, as God tells Adam and Eve that in the day they eat of this fruit they will surely die. But, of course they eat and… well, they don’t die. Or do they? Yes! – they did die spiritually, but that kind of death was, in a way, hard to notice, and the effects hard to trace. Lesson: What goes on in the spiritual world is notoriously difficult to perceive and evaluate. And here’s the application to our point: What is lost by not gathering in the flesh might not be felt or otherwise noticed, but that doesn’t mean that the loss isn’t real and serious.
Obeying God requires gathering in the flesh. The obvious case in point is participating in the ordinances: Zoom communion seems a little outlandish. John Calvin said that the a) preaching of the Word and b) observance of the ordinances define the true church. When either of these elements are lacking, “surely the death of the church follows.”
Another command: Surely “greet one another with a holy kiss” shouldn’t be abstracted to simply like or love each other. Christians are not just to feel endearment but to express that affection (or at least commitment to try to be affectionate) physically in whatever form is currently culturally acceptable. These physical tokens of affections are ordinary and small, and also commanded.
The practical aim of the letter to Hebrews was to convince Christians to not abandon gathering together, even though external resistance had made gathering for public worship difficult. The letter’s dense theological lessons are a kind of setting the table for the invitation in this passage:
Hebrews 10: 19 So then, my brothers and sisters, we have boldness to go into the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus. He has inaugurated a brand new, living path through the curtain (that is, his earthly body). We have a high priest who is over God’s house. So let us therefore come to worship, with a true heart, in complete assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold on tightly to our confession of hope, without being diverted; the one who announced the message to us is trustworthy! Let us, as well, stir up one another’s minds to energetic effort in love and good works. We mustn’t do what some people have got into the habit of doing, neglecting to meet together. Instead, we must encourage one another, and all the more as you can see the great day coming closer.
This passage highlights that there is the possibility of a particular encouragement when coming together. Some of this encouragement is understood and able to be articulated: E.g.,the bracing refreshment from standing among the cascade of congregational singing. Feeling the press of a handshake or receiving a hug. The visceral realization that we’re not alone. The instruction and inspiration from being in the presence of good examples. We could go on. But more than what we can articulate, probably some of the encouragement is – however you want to put it – mystical or mysterious or too deep for words.
We know that, though God is omnipresent, He is present in different degrees at different places. Several times the New Testament suggests that God is present to a unique degree when the assembly gathers. For example, when the gathering of the Church is done properly, Paul envisions this happening: But if some unbelieving outsiders walk in on a service where people are speaking out God’s truth, the plain words will bring them up against the truth and probe their hearts. Before you know it, they’re going to be on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you.(1 Corinthians 14)
The old Puritan minister David Clarkson put it like this: The Lord engages himself to let forth as it were, a stream of his comfortable, quickening presence to every particular person that fears him, but when many of these particulars join together to worship God, then these several streams are united and meet in one. So that the presence of God, which, enjoyed in private, is but a stream, in public becomes a river, a river that makes glad the city of God.
I have to conclude. As I’m writing this more and more reasons for the church to gather in the flesh come to mind. I’ll leave you with this image. Enter the fellowship hall, or Founder’s Hall, and walk with me over to the little closet that houses our technology. Open the door and see taped onto the wall that little photo I’ve brought out a few times: A church harried by the Soviet Union is having to gather in a forest blanketed by snow. The people are bundled in fur coats, concentrating on their pastor as he speaks the word of God. The eucharistic elements are to the side. The unique blessing of gathering is worth the sacrifice.