We had church online today.

To some, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Maybe you’ve been “attending church” online for quite some time. Lots of churches stream services, and some of them even have online-only services.

We, of course, are having church online because of the coronavirus outbreak. Out of an abundance of caution, and particularly for the safety of our more vulnerable members, we are gathering to worship virtually rather than in person.

The Church has always used the latest technology to get the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out. One of the more prominent examples is how the invention of the printing press enabled the writings of the Reformation period to spread far and wide. In our age, the Church has wisely made use of the Internet, including web sites, podcasts, live streaming, emails, and even online tithing.

But having services online is a different thing. Whether you call it Mass, Divine Service, Morning Prayer, or even just “church”, the weekly worship of the people of God on Sunday (or Saturday, with a nod to my Seventh-Day Adventist friends) is an inherently physical activity. Beyond just gathering together, we sit, stand, kneel, exchange smiles and glances, raise hands, fold hands, shake hands, and lay hands on each other in prayer.

Of course, the physical nature of Christian spirituality is most accentuated in the sacraments. In Baptism, we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Baptism is connected in Scripture to the flood story and the traversing of the sea by the people of Israel. We also recognize implicit connections to the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1, and the washing of Naaman to cure his leprosy. We are connected to Christ and to each other most intimately in the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion or Eucharist), as Jesus offers his very self to us. Again, we see the connections in Jesus’ ministry everywhere, from his table fellowship with sinners, to the feedings of the five and four thousand, to his post-resurrection meals with his disciples (here, here, and here).

From this, it seems obvious that it would be wrong to think that worship is a purely spiritual activity and that we are merely carrying it out through physical limitations. No—worship is an inherently physical and spiritual activity carried out by physical and spiritual beings.

We see this in the Bible from beginning to end. Increasingly, biblical scholars are recognizing that the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 represents the first “temple” where humans worshiped and communed with God (for a great overview of this theme in the Genesis story and throughout scripture, see Gregory Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission). Tending the garden temple was a priestly activity carried out by Adam and Eve. They had intimate communion with God as he walked among them. They were charged by God to expand the boundaries of the garden temple to the ends of the earth.

Sin resulted in separation from God and enmity between humans, as well as between humans and the creation they were supposed to steward. Relevant to our current circumstance, though viruses undoubtedly existed for billions of years before humankind, separation from the intimate presence of God results in our susceptibility to decay and death. And thus today this virus results in our physical separation–separation from the physical contact God designed us for and for which we desperately need.

It is fantastic that we had the ability, as many other churches did this morning, to meet virtually. Jesus joins us together as his people no matter what the circumstance. But we look forward to the day when we can meet together again in person as God intended, as he heals the brokenness of our relationships because of sin by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we do, we should be especially mindful today of the future promise that what happened to Jesus in his resurrection will happen to us and to the whole creation, as God renews heaven and earth. On that day, we will no longer fear sin, death, or viruses. Relationships will be fully healed.

In the meantime, we continue to love our neighbors as yourselves by washing hands, social distancing, staying home when sick, and reaching out to others in need in whatever way possible.

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

One comment on “Virtual Church

  • Jeff

    Thanks for your reflection, John! It points to the tension that I’ve been thinking about. Because worship is embodied, how long can/should we go without communing with God in the “normal” way? I thought our service was wonderful, but we didn’t take the Eucharist. How long should we go without doing that? If it comes down to it, is it more important to love our neighbor through social distancing than to commune with God through the Eucharist? Can we somehow distribute blessed elements and then take communion together virtually? I’m interested in those questions.

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