Pandemics have a way of calling some of our most fundamental practices into question. At least that is what seems to be happening in the Church.
Now, truth be told, much of what we are questioning has been questioned for some time. How are we “Church” when we cannot meet physically? In what ways is technology helpful/harmful for fostering community and genuine connection? What role does the Church play in contributing to or hindering the practice of Sabbath and healthy rhythms of being in the world.
A question some are wrestling with as our isolation is extended with an unknown end date involves participating in Communion/Eucharist; the sacrament whereby outwards signs and tangible elements (bread and wine/juice) communicate an inward and spiritual grace. This is the “meal” where God’s love is known to participants as first celebrated by Jesus who reframed a common meal so that his followers would have a way to “remember” his love.
The question is: Can we offer/celebrate virtual Communion?
Bottom line, God probably doesn’t care about this. And, we should probably be more focused on the why of Communion vs. the how/what. I suggest this is true whether Communion is physically or virtually celebrated.
Here’s what I mean. Every meal provides an opportunity to encounter Christ. If part of what Jesus did was take common, everyday practices and reframe them as holy, couldn’t a pancakes and oj or grilled cheese and milk, become the elements of Communion? It wasn’t Jesus, but rather our practice over the centuries which have led us to decide we needed a special person to say special words over special elements during our special gatherings. And until relatively recently, this was done in person because there wasn’t another option. (The “Love Feast” may be another way.) There are other options today.
Besides the elements themselves, I’m also interested in something Craig Groeschel discusses in his book, Dangerous Prayers. Groeschel highlights the “do this” part of “do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) What did Jesus do? He was literally broken open and poured out; he sacrificed himself for others. This is something we could be practicing and praying during our time apart. How are we broken open and poured out for others? What/how are we sacrificing for others? Could Communion be less about the elements and even the experience of sharing the sacraments collectively than about being broken open and poured out for the world?
While wrestling with these thoughts, I’ve got Mike Graves’ Table Talk rattling around in my brain. Graves unveils an early church practicing worship framed by bread and cup which looks quite different than my experience. Again, maybe our greatest concern when it comes to celebrating Communion isn’t who’s in the room, but how we offer this grace to others. What if the early church’s experience became our pattern/ritual again? Not a special moment during the gathering, but a way to shape the entire experience? Would we be able to offer this hospitality and connection virtually?
“Welcome, friend. Here’s something to refresh you as you enter (bread). Here’s something to connect us (the cup) as we engage each other and recognize God’s presence.”
Though powerful, tangible expressions of grace (the bread and cup), are they the only ones? Are they strictly necessary? (Someone just shouted “Heresy!”) What about the one who can’t taste or chew and swallow? Are they to be denied the sacrament and the grace it communicates? The one who can’t see or feel? Any whose physical experience is limited in some way? Perhaps they are to simply be treated as the exception? What then about the one who cannot come physically to the gathering but could participate virtually?
Of all the difficulties the pandemic has posed for our physical gathering, this is probably the most troubling for me. Will I hold onto a specific way of practicing the sacrament or will I consider there may be other ways? Perhaps most importantly, will I have a way of articulating the “why” the practice communicates?
In clinging to my orthopraxy (right practice), have I abandoned my orthodoxy (right thinking)? Put another way, if I insist on only serving communion blessed by an ordained elder in the context of communal worship utilizing some appropriate form of bread and juice (and who made these decisions?), aren’t I insisting how we serve is more important than why we serve? Shouldn’t our practice speak to what we believe instead of the other way around?
I have said I believe God created us to need each other. God gifts us with ways of being together with God and others. One of these ways is the sacrament of Communion which is meant to communicate God’s love to us and allow us to respond to that love. Communion that divides, separates, alienates, or in any other way cuts us off from God or others is not Communion.
So can we be brought together virtually? Can we share in a meal without physically eating and drinking the same elements? Can the Spirit which blesses these gifts bless all gifts even those separated by time and space?
I’m led to answer, “yes!” Not in the same way as meeting physically, but we can be brought together.
We are better together, even when the together is accomplished virtually.
Life is better together,