March 29, 2020

Communion Practice in a Time of Pandemic



We are living in a moment that is both familiar to human history and unique in technological possibilities. Pandemics have impacted human life for millennia. Even when people did not understand how transmission by viruses or bacteria occurs, they understood the importance of social distancing during a pandemic. People stayed home. Children stayed in their yards and waved at their friends across the street. Neighbors chatted from their porches. Churches closed for months.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, the telephone had just become available to many. I can imagine it was a lifeline of communication for those who had it. During our COVID-19 pandemic, we have means of communication and connection that until recently were unimaginable: Facebook, Instagram, texting, Zoom, Skype… how many ways are there for us to connect as individuals and groups? It’s astounding and it’s a gift, a lifeline.

These internet-based means of connecting have made it possible for churches to do ministry in new and expanded ways while we are not able to gather in person. Worship can be livestreamed. Groups enjoy Zoom meetings. Web sites and emails share information quickly and broadly. One thing technology has not been able to solve for us is the gathering of the church community for sacramental life. For most of the church in the world, weekly gatherings around the table to share communion bread and wine is central to our worship and spiritual lives.

This has created a moment of debate and experimentation in congregations. Faithful church members desire to share communion with the real stuff of bread and wine. It is a pattern and a spiritual practice that forms the lives of many faithful. Many are hungry for this sacramental life while we are unable to gather in person. Some want to find new ways to share communion with a celebrant livestreaming the thanksgiving over the bread and wine while worshipers gather around their own bread and wine at home and consume after the meal is virtually blessed. Some think this is our new digital way of worshiping, especially during pandemic. Others think this is an unfortunate development that distorts the meaning of the sacrament. I am sympathetic to the former, but part of the latter.

As this debate has been taking place across the church, I am going to share a few thoughts on why I think this practice of sharing communion over a livestream is an unfortunate and unnecessary response to the short-term reality of social distancing.

1. In Lutheran teaching Christ is present in the Word just as Christ is present in the bread and wine of communion. The proclamation of Law and Gospel through absolution, Scripture, preaching, liturgy, and song is a means of grace just as much as Holy Communion. In the excellent authoritative document on worship in the ELCA, The Use of the Means of Grace (https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/The_Use_Of_The_Means_Of_Grace.pdf) says this about the Word:

WHAT IS THE WORD OF GOD?

Principle
5 Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate. The proclamation of God's message to us is both Law and Gospel. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Through this Word in these forms, as through the sacraments, God gives faith, forgiveness of sins, and new life.

Application 5A
Proclamation of the Word includes the public reading of Scripture, preaching, teaching, the celebration of the sacraments, confession and absolution, music, arts, prayers, Christian witness, and service . The congregation 's entire educational ministry participates in the proclamation of the Word.

The Word of God is the living encounter with Christ, whether through Scripture, preaching, liturgy, song, or sacrament. All are a gift. But we should not diminish the importance of the Word as gift by altering our communion practice in such a way that distorts its meaning. Word conveys well through technology. Sacrament, with its inherent materiality, does not.

2. Fasting is a long-held spiritual discipline of the church. It is central to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount on true spiritual practice. It is foundational to the Lenten season and practices. It is a fortunate coincidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is peaking in the United States during Lent, when fasting of one sort or another is already in play in many of our lives.

This is a time for us to speak of fasting from communion as part of our spiritual discipline and social and ethical practice to live in solidarity with the world as we seek to end the spread of the novel coronavirus. Fasting is often downplayed or rejected in our modern lives. The thought of giving something up seems too burdensome for us who are used to having everything now and in abundance. During Lent, many choose to focus on doing something good (giving to the poor is also part of the traditional Lenten focus) rather than fast in any disciplined way.

For our own spiritual maturity, we should use this moment to engage in church-wide shared fasting from the eucharist as an expression of shared sacrifice and solidarity with the entire world. It is an opportunity to reconnect to the importance of not only what we want and consume, but what we give up for greater purposes. It is a moment to see the positive in this response rather than the negative in what we cannot practice for the moment.

3. Communion is a great gift we share in the church. It is the gift of Christ’s self-giving love, Christ’s very presence, made available to us in a meal that connects us to his death and resurrection. As great a gift as this is, and as precious as it is to the ongoing life of the faithful, it is still a gift and not a requirement. We should not make participation in the eucharist on a weekly basis (a wonderful practice I am grateful for) so essential to people’s lives that if they cannot receive they cannot live full lives of faith and trust God’s grace given to them by many means. People’s hunger for the sacrament can be praised while the short-lived fasting can be encouraged.

4. Communion is a material thing, a bread and wine meal. It cannot be separated from these things even if any individual cannot consume one or the other of the elements. At the same time it is by definition a communal event – not just communion with Christ but communion with one another through Christ. The most important physical element present in the celebration of the communion meal, a point often missing from eucharistic theologies, is the gathered community. Virtual gatherings have their place in our lives today. But they do not and cannot replace everything. They are very real and wonderful. But they are not physical bodies gathered around a table, accepting one another in radical grace, breathing and singing together, hearts pulsing in the same moment, receiving from one table, one bread, one cup (I’m not promoting common cup here in this time of pandemic, just the importance of the cup of the table around which we gather in real place and time.)

Communion gatherings are radical theological events: They proclaim the most profound truth of Christian Gospel: incarnational love. Christ is the incarnation of God’s Word in the flesh in history, and in the communion meal. The gathered assembly becomes this incarnation of Christ through this sacred event. Incarnational theology is a Christian belief in direct opposition to mere propositional truth or love as a generalized concept. It is the risky, costly, daring proclamation that God’s love is known in real human bodies and real created stuff.

5. We should not create unfortunate future implications for our sacramental life by responding to the short-term necessary social distancing by practicing virtual communion. We are already living in a digital world where our in-person gatherings are becoming less common. We are already losing an essential aspect of our humanity, living in real community, even as we welcome the gift of virtual life that we have now. One of the great gifts and realities of the church is that we gather together for Word and Sacrament. And when others cannot join us, we remember them and minister to them as an act of compassion and grace.

6. One of the principal characteristics of Holy Communion is its inclusivity of all the baptized. The admontion of Paul in First Corinthians not to partake of the supper in a way unworthy, that fails to discern the body, is specifically about those who are likely of poor means and must work long hours and cannot make it to the agape meal before everyone else has eaten up all the food. Paul admonishes the wealthy and privileged to wait for the others, or else it is not the Lord's Supper they are eating.

We find ourselves in a moment where the practice of virtual communion offers the sacrament in a way that excludes many, including the poor without internet access, the elderly who are not experienced with technology, and the sick who cannot participate virtually and cannot receive by pastoral visit or eucharistic minister because of social distancing. A moment of fasting together in solidarity with all those who cannot participate with the rest of the church in a possible virtual gathering seems true to the intent of Paul and the church's theology of the church as the body of Christ that includes all.


These are the main points that come to mind for me as we engage in this difficult moment for the church and the pastors that care deeply about their people. I am not particularly interested in policing other church’s practices. I am however interested in the norms and precedents we create by responding to urgent needs with short-term solutions that might well diminish our sacramental worship life together in the future.

It is my hope that we can all lift up this moment as a time of fasting, name the hunger we have to gather together again with each other and with Christ in the material, sacramental gifts of bread and wine around the table of grace, and come through this together until we celebrate with exuberance and profound gratitude like we may not have known before. In the meantime, it is my hope that the Word we proclaim through Scripture, preaching, liturgy, song, conversation, and prayer is received fully as the gift of grace that it is.

March 20, 2020

Song: Nothing Can Separate Us

I wrote a new song for these days of social distancing and pandemic, based on Romans 8:35-39. Here are the lyrics, a PDF of the sheet music, and an mp3 of the MIDI.

Feel free to use with attribution.

Sheet music PDF
or try here: Sheet music PDF

MP3 of MIDI
or try here: MP3 of MIDI

Lyrics:

Refrain:
Nothing can separate us
from the love of God in Christ.
Nothing can separate us
from the love, from the love.

What about hardship?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about illness?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about peril?
     Nothing can separate us from the love.

What about death?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about life?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about rulers?
     Nothing can separate us from the love.

What about this day?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about tomorrow?
     Nothing can separate us.
What about powers?
     Nothing can separate us from the love.

We have Jesus.
     Nothing can separate us.
We have the Spirit.
     Nothing can separate us.
We have love.
     Nothing can separate us from the love.

March 13, 2020

A Pandemic Church. Or, Love in the Time of COVID-19


by Jim Janknegt

It’s not often that we live in a time like this. A viral pandemic is a scary reality that we must go through together. We aren’t used to shutting down our lives. As a church we aren’t used to living without our regular Sunday worship and the community formed around it and other gatherings and activities. We can barely imagine cancelling our Holy Week and Easter celebrations, but now we must contemplate this, too. Social distancing feels like the antipathy of Christian community.

We are not unique, however, in going through such times. The past is filled with periods when plagues swept through cities and people suffered greatly. The usual response to a plague was to flee. The wealthy and powerful in particular were able to leave an area until it was safe to return. The poor were left to endure the ravages of disease without the social and political support they needed. During a number of ancient epidemics, the one group that intentionally stayed behind to care for the sick and the dying was the church.

During a fourth century plague in Caesarea, a large Roman city already ravaged by war and famine, many fled. The Christians stayed behind. It was one of many examples of how the church understood its mission to live the love of Jesus by caring for neighbors in need, any neighbors, suffering neighbors.

Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea during that time. He was also a great early church historian. He wrote of the church during the plague:
All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.

Many attribute the large growth of the church in the middle-East during these early centuries to the church’s radical acts of compassion such as caring for their neighbors during plagues, not running away and thinking only of themselves, and feeding the hungry without hesitation.

Many of these courageous and compassionate Christians died because of their choice to stay with the suffering around them rather than run from it. Did they do it because they thought they were trying to convert individuals to Christian faith or to grow the church into the largest religion of the empire? No, they did it because they knew they existed in the world to embody the love of Christ with words and actions, concrete expressions of God’s love in real times and places. They did it because compassion flowed through their veins as the very blood of Christ and love strengthened their bones as the very body of Christ.

Church, we are in such a time. It is our calling now to be the love of Christ for our neighbors. We don’t need to spend much energy wondering if those we care for will join our churches or learn to love Jesus like we do if we do this or that good deed. We need to spend our energy doing all we can to bring health and healing, compassion and love into reality.
Fortunately, we know much more about how disease spreads than they did in the ancient world. They knew contact was hazardous, but they didn’t understand the means of transmission. We have the great gift of medical science to help us. We need not place ourselves in unnecessary risk. Part of what we must do now is join with the whole society and globe in reducing unnecessary risk. But that does not mean abandoning our vulnerable and anxious neighbors to fend for themselves. We can’t do that. It’s in our blood and bones to be love and compassion.

You may recall the story from Matthew’s Gospel:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)

When Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, he responds not with one but two, because you can’t sum up what is most important about the God of the Bible without saying both at the same time: Love God. Love your neighbor. For followers of Jesus, we cannot separate our love of God from our love of neighbor. We hear in the First Letter of John that these two are deeply connected:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  (1 John 4:7-8, 21)

by Josette Atme
This love is real and concrete, expressed in words and deeds, actions that heal and bring justice. It is not romantic. It is not necessarily feel-good. I confess I have not read Gabriel García Márquez’s book “Love in the Time of Cholera.” I’ve been reading about it, though. The author has said that those who read it need to be careful “not to fall into my trap.” He sets up the reader to think of love in romantic ways when all the while he is undoing such simple notions. Love itself can be a kind of cholera or disease when we only think it is a feel-good thing.

I’m contemplating the ways we are called to be church today like the ancient world – to stay instead of flee, to show love and compassion instead of act only out of self-concern, to have courageous faith instead of fear that runs rampant, to love even if it doesn’t feel good. We can’t avoid having fear and anxiety, and caring for ourselves is wise and good. We must listen now deeply to what our faith in a God of loving care means and let it guide us even as we acknowledge we are anxious and afraid.

It’s time to redirect our energies and resources to respond in our communities in new and beautifully loving ways. I’m imaging some. Maybe you are starting to think of others. Here are some of mine:

1. Be willing to be part of the large effort to slow down the transmission of the virus. We must sacrifice much that is precious to us in the short term to join in the work of preventing our health care system from being overrun, and thereby increasing suffering and death as those who need medical care don’t receive it.

2. Take actions that minimize risk for those most vulnerable to this disease: elderly and immunocompromised persons.

3. Develop new ways of caring for one another during this crisis, such as:
              a. Checking in regularly with those who are vulnerable in your church.
              b. Offering assistance to those who need to isolate themselves from exposure: grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, helping them learn how to use delivery services.
              c. Be aware of those who might have a difficult time managing their own emotional health with increased anxiety and social isolation. Keep in touch through phone, text, email, and social media even more than normal.
              d. Listen to health care for professionals for safe ways to visit the sick and care for them. Some will get sick and not have family or friends nearby to help them with meals or other personal needs.

4. Encourage church members who are able to do all of these acts of compassion for their neighbors. Love of neighbor does not distinguish between church and unchurched. Now more than ever we must believe and live this.

5. Explore and experiment with all the ways we can use social media to connect. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection and it might be more important now to do these things. Live streaming worship services, posting devotionals, setting shared prayer times, conference calls for conversation groups… there are so many ways to connect and uplift. We can redirect our energies now to see what works for people.

6. Look for ways this crisis will impact the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured, immigrants, refugees. Help them as we can, but also, name the injustices and call our political leaders to enact policies that protect people and provide adequate health care, food, and shelter all the time, not just during a pandemic.

by Olga Bakhtina
During this global shared experience of pandemic, we are observing what happens when a virus spreads because of one person making contact with another. We can also experience another kind of pandemic and spread another kind of virus: the love of neighbor. Yes, this is how the early church grew quickly. No, I’m not suggesting we use this moment to grow the church. I am suggesting that we spread the virus of love of neighbor by rising above our own selfish concerns and showing what God’s love looks like when it really matters. These embodied examples of Christ’s love will certainly spread from person to person, infecting hearts and imaginations with compassion, and love will abound.

This is surely what God is up to in Jesus and in us by the Spirit’s power: not to grow the church, but to grow compassion and love in this world. This is what we hear in the word of Scripture and preaching when we gather for worship, which we may need to fast from for a short while. This is what we are nourished by in the bread and wine of communion, which we may also need to fast from for a time. But having been so thoroughly loved and fed for so long, this is a fast we can endure. We can continue to love in this time of COVID-19 and spread the pandemic of love because compassion flows through our veins as the very blood of Christ and love strengthens our bones as the very body of Christ.