Coronavirus has closed the doors of our churches.
Many bad effects arise from this. Of these, the second-worst is that we can’t gather to hear the Word being preached.
The worst is that we can’t gather.
The loss of preaching can be mitigated. We still have the Bible. The message can still be got out. Anyone who wants to can still access written resources (published sermons, books about salvation). Recorded sermons are also available. Many preachers are also making live audio/video addresses.
Although each of these workarounds has its drawbacks, there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They are all ways of making sure that people don’t starve spiritually, and of hopefully helping people to feed spiritually, while they can’t get the real thing. We’re free to embrace these methods and exploit their potential, pandemic or not.
But they’re not the real thing. However closely we manage to approximate the experience of preaching and hearing the Word, there is no real equivalent. We can be thankful for the technology and the fact that the Word itself can still be ministered, while recognising the defects and limitations of these methods relative to the actual preaching of the Word.
Because for preaching, we need to assemble together. No assembly, no preaching, and live streaming is not assembling.
We should already know this from normal times. If you have to sit out the back with kids, you tell yourself it’s ok because there’s a relay and you can still hear. But it’s lonely out there, excluded from the others, and all you’ve got is a disembodied voice.
In the times before the virus, if you couldn’t make it to a service for some reason, and instead looked up a recorded sermon or listened in remotely, you might well have appreciated what you heard, but it was just you. You weren’t part of the service. The body was feeding, but it was missing a member – you.
For now, thanks to coronavirus, there is no body sitting down to feed on the Word preached, or for that matter, on the Word made sense-able in the sacraments. We are all dislocated, amputated, dismembered from each other.
Of course none of this affects the mystical union between believers and Christ, or between one believer and another. No amount of famine, pestilence or sword can break that.
But the best picture we’ve got of this mystical union, outside of heaven, is the physical assembling together of the saints on earth.
The whole visible body on earth, which reflects the church in heaven, is exemplified in the particular mini-bodies which meet as local congregations. Some are smaller than others, some are stronger, some are healthier. But when they meet for worship, each congregation models in its own limited way what the gathering of the saints is like in heaven. When we gather for Lord’s Day worship on earth, we are joining the outer courts of the sabbath worship in heaven.
Our physical assembling here on earth, where we’re bodily present in each other’s company, is important because it showcases and gives a foretaste of how eventually in heaven we will be physically in each other’s company for all eternity. Our resurrection bodies will be glorified, but they will be our selfsame bodies.
What we do in and with our bodies matters. When one member is missing from the assembly, there is a loss both to that member and to the remainder of the body. For now, when no members at all can assemble, the loss is incalculable.
In every normal worship service, the whole flock is supposed to feed together on the Word and in the sacrament. The individualism which only cares as long as I personally get something from the preaching, and which makes no attempt to grow along with and closer to the other members of the congregation under the Word, should not be encouraged.
The risk of that individualism is that now, when none of us can assemble with anyone else, we take no thought for the body – taken to pieces and isolated behind so many closed doors – as long as, by hook or technological crook, I can hear a message that suits me. This just anaesthetises us for now and weakens us for the future.
Because the future is nothing to comfort ourselves with. If we get through this crisis and simply revert to the old normality, that isn’t much to look forward to.
The most perplexing thing about our circumstances is that it’s the Lord’s providence that has silenced our pulpits and distanced us from each other. But it’s his own worship he’s stopped. The Lord is stopping us from worshipping the Lord. Why? During this situation and once things calm down afterwards, we need to do some hard thinking and soul searching. If we won’t hear the Lord’s voice crying in the city now, what will it take in the future to make us?
Of course, when the Lord sends any difficulty into our experience, we should react with faith not with fear. The Lord is working all things for our good.
But while we react with faith, we should conjoin it with repentance. Whatever the difficulty is, it’s less than we deserve, given our sins and shortcomings.
Personal difficulties should elicit personal faith and personal repentance. But we are all more than isolated individuals. We belong to families, communities, churches, and we share in their celebrations and crises. When the difficulties are family-wide, community-wide, church-wide, our faith and repentance need to be coextensive with the reach of the difficulty. No single individual, congregation, or denomination is affected by coronavirus – it affects us all.
Even as it pushes us apart, it forces us to reckon with the fact that we’re all in it together.