How can we be fed by the body when the body as we know it has disappeared? The challenge for the church

For churches grappling with the loss of physical gatherings and an uncertain future, the story of Jesus’ ascension provides a model for discernment. (Listen.)

Here at Sanctuary, yet again we have ‘gathered’ to worship via Zoom. It is wonderful that we are able to do this: To see each other’s faces and chat before and after the service; to lead each other through the liturgy; to hear the Word of God proclaimed; to pray together; and to be reminded that, through the power of the Holy Spirit which transcends time and space, we continue to be the church.

Yet it is also very strange: for so much of who we usually are and what we usually do as a church is physical. Usually, we greet one another with hugs and handshakes and thumps on the back; usually, we sing together, listening to each other and responding to each other’s voices; usually, we hear the Word proclaimed not just in words, but by gesture and conversation; usually, we pray with objects handled by many; usually, we drink from one cup and eat from a potluck buffet. This is who we are; and these practices not only shape Sanctuary, but have been part of the practice of the wider church for millennia.

Worshipping online, where we cannot do these physical things, is a radical shift. Of course, we are grateful that we can gather at all: yet many of us look with longing to the way things were; and most of us are impatient for normality to be restored as quickly as possible.

Yet as events continue to unfold, to me it looks like we have moved into a new era: an era which is shaped by the infectiousness of COVID-19. Right now, we can’t legally gather as a group, but even when we are able to, many of our usual practices will need to be reviewed. Shaking hands, hugging, touching objects for prayer, singing together, having toys available, drinking from a common cup, eating buffet-style: all these things look to be highly inadvisable in a COVID-19 world. The situation is made trickier by the many children in our midst who are not able to maintain physical distance; as well as the number of people with compromised or suppressed immune systems.

So I am not sure that we will be returning to our normal for a very long time, if at all. This begs the question: Do we continue as is, maintaining a holding pattern until we can restore the old ways? Or do we take this opportunity to revisit the very idea of what it is to be the church, and a worshipping community?

For if it turns out that, when we can eventually gather, we cannot hug, or sing, or eat together, then what is it that we are called to do in corporate worship? Why do we gather physically? What’s important? What can be left behind? And what can be done in other places and other ways?

No doubt Jesus’ first disciples had similar struggles and questions. They had spent years physically following him: walking dusty roads; mingling with the crowds; visiting people’s homes; laying hands on the sick; eating bread broken by his hands; drinking from a cup which had first touched his lips. After his death and resurrection, he had returned in the flesh. He had met them in a garden, in a room, on the road, at the beach; he had broken bread and barbecued fish, and eaten with them; and he had offered his wounded body to their physical touch. And yet in tonight’s story we hear that, at their final meeting, he is lifted up: and he disappears into the cloud of the presence of God.

Of course the disciples stand staring into the cloud! For how can they gather with him, learn from him, eat with him, and continue his work, now that he is physically gone? How can they dwell in him? How can they be fed by the body when the body has disappeared?

The old ways would no longer serve; the new ways had not yet come into being. And so they walked back to their digs in Jerusalem, where they gathered with other disciples, prayed, reflected on the Scriptures, and waited for the Holy Spirit to fall upon them and usher them into a new era.

I suggest that this is a good model for us. We are grappling with the sudden loss of the physical body; and we are facing the distinct possibility that, even when we can gather as a physical body again, many things will need to change. The old ways will no longer serve; the new ways have not yet come into being. We don’t know what church will look like in the coming months and years: but today’s story suggests how we might sit with the questions.

  • Gather: Like the first disciples, let us gather with others by safe means. Let us meet regularly in small groups, whether physically or online; let us continue to meet online as a whole church.
  • Pray: Let us ask the Holy Spirit to fall upon us, to shape our reading and wondering, and to lead us into this new era.
  • Reflect: Let us read the Scriptures, retell the stories, and remember the history of our faith. Jesus ascended into heaven to be everywhere present: let us reflect on how this faith might take shape in our changed context.
  • Wait: Let us gather, pray and reflect seriously and now, but let us not act with foolish haste: for the Holy Spirit will come in her own sweet time to lead us into her glorious future.

Long ago, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Forget the former things,’ said God, ‘Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; don’t you see it? I am making a way in the desert, and streams in the wasteland … that my people may proclaim my praise.’ (Isaiah 43:18-21).

Right now, we are wandering in the wilderness. We have had to make a lot of sudden changes, and much has necessarily been left behind. But God is making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland: so look around. Where is new life already emerging? What new thing is God already doing? What are we being prepared for? And how shall we proclaim God’s praise?

Gather, pray, reflect, and wait: For God is preparing a new way. When the time comes, let’s be ready for it, and let’s have the imagination and the courage to follow that path. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Acts 1:6-14 given to Sanctuary on 24 May 2020 (Easter 7A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Hermes Rivera on Unsplash.

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