Social distancing and government-imposed shelter at home orders have contributed to the loss of many things we have long taken for granted: coffee dates with friends, greeting one another with hugs, 3-on-3 pick up basketball, and more. This week we were having some work done in our kitchen, and when the contractor introduced me to one of his employees, I instinctively extended my hand for a handshake. Even that’s a loss, albeit small. Not every loss we feel is devastating, but the mounting accumulation of social and cultural losses incurred by the coronavirus feels overwhelming.
Congregational life at Community Bible has certainly changed over the past six weeks. We have had to pivot to a new way of gathering to receive the Word and prayer. Those who used to hide their voices in the 350+ person congregational “choir” (that we call congregational singing) are now in the spotlight as living room duets, trios, and quartets. Worship at home is quite different than what we are accustomed to. We are in new territory as a faith community.
One lost element of worship gathered over the past 6 weeks is the monthly observance of Communion. Communion is an important part of our worship gathered experience because of what it expresses: it visibly expresses our inner treasuring of the infinite value and beauty of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave his life for us. Communion, which mimics the final meal our Lord ate with his disciples, is an act of worship (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23).
Our inability to gather in person for corporate worship has created a dilemma: should we observe communion as a part of our online “Church at Home” worship experience? The act of observing Communion would be simple enough. All you need is a little grape juice (or wine if you please), bread, and cue in the service letting you know the right time to eat and drink.
The execution of Communion would be simple enough. But there are, at least in my estimation, some theological considerations.
- It’s not sin, in extraordinary situations like this, to refrain or “fast” from the practice of the Lord’s Table, just as it is not a sin to refrain from gathering together physically (Hebrews 10:25) during a public health crisis in submission to government authorities.
- The Lord’s Table is a New Covenant meal for the gathered church. In 1 Corinthians 11, which provides explicit instructions about the Lord’s Supper, five times Paul says, “…when you come together…”. Communion ordinarily involves a physically gathered church, a group of people from different households, in an act of physical sharing of one broken loaf and a cup of win. You could argue that a physical gathering is essential for observing the Lord’s Table rather than optional.
- The Lord’s Supper is not intended to be a feasting of the individual before God only. It is a meal shared with the body of Christ. There is an important vertical and horizontal element involved in the Lord’s Supper. The horizontal element of taking Communion is why Paul writes, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
- The Lord’s Table expresses the value of Christ in three ways, and at least one of these ways requires an “audience”. Communion is an opportunity for us to remember Christ. The meal reminds us of who He is and what He has done for us.
Communion is also opportunity for us to be nourished spiritually by Christ. There is a holy mystery in how God is present in the Table. This is what Paul has in mind when he says we “participate” in the body and blood of Christ through this meal (1 Corinthians 10:16). When we say, in faith, “By this meal I am nourished by you, by this cup I share in the grace you have bought for me”, and as we do this over and over with longing and conviction, Christ nourishes us spiritually.
But it is the last expression of the value of Christ that matters supremely for this discussion. At the Lord’s Table we proclaim Christ. We proclaim his death (1 Corinthians 11:26), and we are meant to proclaim it to and over one another. This is difficult in a virtual setting, just as congregational singing (which we are commanded to do in Scripture) is difficult in a virtual gathering. You may know other people are present, but you cannot hear them or see them. Hearing and seeing one another makes the incarnational reality of God coming close to us more concrete. And when we take the elements together, we also experience Christ embodied in the physical gathering of His people.
You have probably noticed that we have not observed Communion since the government-imposed regulations on the size of corporate gatherings. Our present situation raises all kinds of questions for how we “do” church during a public health crisis. But the fact that we have not observed Communion recently is mostly because we are still sorting through whether we should observe Communion in the present ministry environment. We are still working through the issue as an Elder Council, weighing what Scripture says about the Lord’s Table with practical consideration and present needs. In fact, if you want to read an excellent article on why we perhaps should offer communion during this time, this is a good one.
Please pray for us as we wrestle with these important questions:
- Does the setting for Communion matter?
- Is virtual connectedness the same as physical connectedness?
- Would observing Communion in an online format negatively reinforce our already highly individualized worldview?
- Do the actual elements matter (would a bagel and coke work just as well)?
- Does who administers Communion matter?
- When should we make exceptions to our normal practice? For example, we often offer Communion to shut-ins. Why is our current situation different? Is it different?
As we labor over these questions, let me ask you a question. What good work might God do if we wait to feast until we are together again? The longer we are apart, the more our distance should create greater longing for the physical realities of worship gathered and a feast around the Table. Our inability to gather in person to worship our Savior is a tragic loss. We should grieve that loss. Yes, be thankful for technology. But also lament that “Church at Home” is not the same as worship gathered on campus at Community Bible Church. “Church at Home” is not better than gathering together face-to-face (Hebrews 10:25).
We live in an age of instant gratification. The easy thing to do in times like these would be to say, “This isn’t ideal, but it’s the best we can do.” And maybe the answer to the Communion conundrum is to take the less than ideal route. That may be where we land. But too often we make the mistake of thinking that if we can make something happen, we ought to make it happen.
It is hard to be okay with loss. We want to offer as much comfort to people during this time of hardship as we can. But it is also okay to grieve loss and not rush to find a substitute for the real thing. It is possible God might use the waiting – even waiting to take Communion – to increase our desire for the real thing.
Grace to You,