Communion Online?

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Photo by Jonas Ferlin on Pexels.com

For Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins writes, “with churchgoers still holed up in their homes to avoid infection for weeks and even months to come, Christian leaders are starting to ask: Is Communion appropriate for cyberspace?”

Jenkins’ report includes quotations from Christian leaders from a diversity of denominations, and I’ll summarize several of his findings. For Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation presents a substantial hurdle. The ELCA discouraged online communion, and is viewing this as a teaching moment about the Lord’s Meal. The PCUSA said no to online communion, and then reversed course, saying yes, since we’re in an “emergency” situation. The United Methodist Church is citing conclusions reached by a 2014 task force who studied this question and recommended communion be observed among a physical, gathered assembly, while now making allowances for regional conferences and their Bishops to observe communion online. Bishop Ken Carter of Florida called this “an extreme situation,” and granted the clergy in his region latitude in meeting pastoral needs.

This weekend my local fellowship, First Methodist Church Waco, is observing communion Sunday. We’ve encouraged our people to prepare, to think forward to Sunday and to gather bread and juice, so that in our homes we might observe the Lord’s Meal together while physically dispersed. As crises tend to do, theological convictions are laid bare. And yet, there is a great deal of framing left. There is a grammar that is yet to be established. We have to explain what we are doing, and why it isn’t ideal, even though it might be the right idea.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we do so as the gathered communion of Jesus Christ, remembering the first observance of this ritual on the night that Jesus was betrayed. In that room, there was sorrow and grief and confusion, there was closeness and love and fellowship, there was adoration and reverence and, sadly, betrayal and misunderstanding. There was, we might observe, a crisis. The immediate crisis was that of Jesus’ impending betrayal and death. But the greater crisis, the one preceding the immediate crisis, was that of broken fellowship between God and humanity. God, using a surprising and unconventional means, took on the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and bridged the gap in the breaking of his body and in the pouring out of his blood, all in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

I argue strongly in favor of the Lord’s Supper as an observance that is to be conducted with persons gathered physically as a local fellowship. This belief is grounded in convictions concerning the nature of the church, embodiment, and the importance of public witness. But I also recognize that each time a local fellowship celebrates the meal that Jesus gave us, we also recall that we are gathered as part of a wider fellowship–the company of the called that gives praise and glory to our king across the boundaries of time and space–the church universal.

In “normal times,” whatever those are, I think churches should celebrate the Supper as a gathered local fellowship. That is the ideal. But seeing that the gap between the real and the ideal has widened, we’ll do the best we can with what we have. It should not be lost on us that the fact that many churches are seeking ways to observe communion online is an expression of the reality that we are together seeking God. Perhaps this crisis is revealing to us that the world isn’t quite as disenchanted as we thought, and that God can still be encountered in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a common cup.

Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

[ . . . ]

Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Lament is an Answer

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?

Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?

[ . . . ]

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.

– N. T. Wright, in Time Magazine, “Christianity Offers No Answer About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To

The headline is misleading, as headlines often are, and I doubt (and hope!) that N. T. Wright did not pen it himself. Wright argues that Christians do not have an explanation for the coronavirus, but they do have an answer. That answer is lament.

To offer lament is to cry out in anguish and pain. It is a means of expressing grief, of naming injustice, and declaring one’s suffering. The Bible has countless examples of lament, particularly in the Psalms.

N. T. Wright argues that Enlightenment rationalism is the reason that we long for explanations. I suspect the human proclivity for designating attribution to God or another source is much older than that. For Christian people, our response is to refrain from explanations, and to leverage ancient wisdom. That wisdom is lament, to humble oneself and to confess that there are some things that are beyond comprehension but in need of divine intervention. To lament is to cry out for mercy, and to hope for deliverance.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.

Legitimate Concern

I’ve done curriculum development for the Urban Alternative, and I’ve respected Pastor Tony Evans for years. We need to be wise, deliberate, caring, and attentive to God during this time of crisis. We’ll pull through. We’ll be OK. We have a Father.

What is a Church?

Nearby in Chapel Hill, Ben Williams looked out over the empty pews of Christ United Methodist Church on Sunday and prepared to lead worship, this time into a camera. In living rooms across town, congregants followed along with a liturgy he had sent out.

Maybe, he hoped, by filming the service experience in the sanctuary, complete with music, worship leaders might help normalize things in the midst of things that are not normal. The worship pastor had even written a “Hymn for Handwashing,” to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:

“Amazing soap! How sweet the smell, that keeps our hands germ free! Please wash your hands, and dry them, too, that we might healthy be.”

“It will feel somewhat strange, right?” Mr. Williams said. “What we’ve said is, you are still with us.”

– Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times, “A Sunday Without Church: In Crisis, a Nation Asks, ‘What is Community?’

Sunday did not pass us by without church. The church chose not to gather corporately in their designated buildings for services of worship and witness. The buildings are important. The liturgy is important. Face to face gathering is important. But the church is a spiritual body, called together in Christ and united in the Holy Spirit.

The nation could ask, “What is a Church?” For answers, the church will need to give witness to the nature of community, thinking carefully about the spiritual community God has constituted it to be, testifying to Christ, telling the gospel story, keeping eyes open for the needs of the neighbor, demonstrating love, caring for those who are ill and home bound, sharing resources, praying, offering spiritual leadership within households, showing mercy, seeking justice, and deepening faith in God. Washing hands should be done–that’s wisdom. We can even sing songs about it. But grace has even greater cleansing power, and is the necessary fuel the church will need in order to be faithful to her God-given mission in the world.

Times of crisis serve as times of testing, revealing character, raising critical questions, and creating occasions for radical displays of creativity, innovation, and the depths of the human spirit. Seize the opportunity. Rise to the challenge. And don’t miss the moment. We’re faced with a problem. If you, like me, are part of the church, let’s work at solutions, dispel darkness, and lift high the light of Christ.

Wesley’s Doctrine of Entire Sanctification

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Image by Just killing time from Pixabay

Kevin Watson is a scholar I appreciate and respect. This sermon is worth reading, even if you do not agree with Wesley’s argument for “Christian perfection.”

Here’s an excerpt:

We live in a world that is broken and hurting. People come to church looking for hope and healing. Increasingly, they are unwilling to give us much time to convince them that we actually have answers. If it appears that all we have to offer are some self-help strategies to tweak our lives and make them slightly better through the sheer force of our will, they will not stick around because they are smart enough to know that they don’t have to come to church to get that.

Here is what I am staking my life on: I believe that Jesus is real. I believe that he really lived, died on the cross, was raised from the dead on the third day, and has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. I believe that the Holy Spirit is with us now. I am staking my life on the truth of the gospel as it has been received by the church over centuries.

Entire sanctification is not about legalism and it is not about working harder and straining more. It is about receiving the gift of God’s perfect love into every single part of your life and allowing the love of God to change you, to heal you, to bring forgiveness, hope, and even healing in every place where it is needed. Entire sanctification is about the radical optimism that the grace of God is sufficient for every need. Entire sanctification makes us bold to look the world full in the face with eyes wide open to suffering and needs we know we cannot meet in our strength and have the faith to say “Jesus!” in complete trust and confidence that he is the answer.

I’m sharing this for three reasons.

I like Watson. That’s the first.

Second, I’m bookmarking this sermon for myself.

And third, a body to whom this message was delivered is that of the saints of Pollard United Methodist Church, who gather in my hometown of Tyler, Texas. Pollard is within eyesight of Andy Woods Elementary, where I attended first and second grade (Mrs. Giles and Mrs. Smith), and across the street from Pollard Park, where I took part in more than one practice for more than one sport. I have vague memories there from under a large oak tree, and playing on the playground with friends and classmates.

The Jesus Shoes

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The absurdity is largely the point.

Family sent me this CBS News report. MSCHF took a pair of Nike Air Max ’97, obtained water from the Jordan, had a priest in Brooklyn bless the water, injected the holy-fied water in the soles, added a few additional flashes to the shoe, and then sold them for $1,425. The buyer then listed the pair on an auction site for $4,000.

The shoes reference Matthew 14:25, the starting point of one account of Jesus’ walking on water. The heels feature the name of the company on the left, and “INRI” (Latin for Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum) on the right. There is a single drop of blood on the tongue, a golden crucifix affixed to the laces, and the insoles are red, featuring again  the company name and “INRI” arched above a cross across the top of a circle which is completed below by a partial crown of thorns. Look at this ridiculous website.

Why did they do this? To poke fun at other collaborations? To make us think more carefully about cross-promotion (a play on words?), like the moment we discovered Rob Lowe, star of 9-1-1: Lone Star, was a big fan of the NFL?

Yes and yes. But let’s hear from MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg, as quoted in the CBS News article:

“We set out to take that to the next level,” Greenberg said. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would a shoe collab with Jesus look like?’ Obviously, it should let you walk on water. ‘Well, how can we do that?’ You pump holy water into the pocket of a pair of Air Max 97’s and with that, you get Jesus Shoes — the holiest collab ever.”

But is it the holiest collab ever? Or the most profane?

She Fed Our Bread

He who sustains the world lay in a manger, a wordless Child, yet the Word of God. Him whom the heavens do not contain the bosom of one woman bore. She ruled our King; she carried Him in whom we exist; she fed our Bread. O manifest weakness and marvelous humility in which all divinity lay hid! By His power He ruled the mother to whom His infancy was subject, and He nourished with truth her whose breasts suckled Him. May He who did not despise our lowly beginnings perfect His work in us, and may He who wished on account of us to become the Son of Man make us the sons of God.

– From St. Augustine’s Sermon 184, given on Christmas Day, quoted in a newsletter from The Center for Pastor Theologians