One of the things I’m trying to figure out is how as a church we should adjust to the government’s advice not to gather for worship. The off-the-shelf solution we’ve all reached for is the internet. Our technology is now clever enough to connect us to each other “live”. But as the church rushes to jump online, I’ve noticed a number of Christians (correctly) emphasising the importance of the body. We’re embodied creatures. The Son of God took a body, and rose from the dead bodily. He’s redeemed our bodies. The sacraments are for our bodies. And Jesus will raise us from the dead with our bodies. Tertullian said: “the flesh is the hinge of salvation”. So, the church cannot just jump onto the internet, and live a disembodied existence. But, there is another truth that I think it’s important for us to add to the equation. It’s this:
Christians, by definition, already do long-distance relationships!
In fact, if you don’t do long-distance relationships, you’re not a Christian. Our present Christian experience is profoundly dis-embodied.
Jesus is absent
Why do I say that? Well, here’s another way to get at it: where is Jesus right now? If we know our Bibles, we’ve got to say “at the right hand of God” (Matt 24:64; Acts 2:33; 7:55; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22). Today, and for the whole length of time any of us have been Christians, Jesus has been in heaven, not on earth. Between the time of his ascension to heaven and his return to earth in glory, Jesus Christ has been absent. He’s not here! Our bodies and Christ’s body are separated by incalculable distance. In other words, every Christian is in the ultimate long-distance relationship. We trust someone that we’ve never seen in the flesh.
“But, Simon”, you ask, “doesn’t Jesus teach us that he is “with us always” (Matt 28:20)? Didn’t Paul say the gospel was “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27)? Doesn’t Jesus say he will come with the Father and make his home inside us (John 14:23)? Don’t I have Christ in my heart (Gal 2:20)?” To which the answer is a glorious: “yes!”.
a Holy Spirit connection
But the million-dollar question is: how? How?! How does our living, loving Saviour connect to us? Does he plug in his fibre-optic, internet connection and skype us? Does he arrange a zoom meeting with us?
Well, there are two parts to the Bible’s answer:
i. Jesus connects to us secretly and inwardly through the gift of his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is no sideshow to Christianity. He is what was promised to Abraham, “the promised Spirit” (Gal 3:14). This is the deep mystery of all true Christian experience. We know Christ by his Spirit. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:6). Jesus said: “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is the living connection between us, as believers on earth and Jesus in heaven. As Christians in the past used to say, “it’s better felt than telt”.
ii. But where does Jesus give us the gift of the Holy Spirit? Where do we hear his voice to us, and “what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7)? Well, the Bible teaches that the Spirit does his ordinary connecting work openly and outwardly through the means of grace, particularly the Word (Heb 3:7), sacraments (1 Cor 10:16), and prayer (Luke 11:13).
If you think about it, the Bible itself is about the distance between you and Jesus. Every time you open your Bible, you’re grappling with Jesus’ absence. We only have the written word, because the Word which the apostles touched and handled is not here (1 John 1:1-3). The Bible is a piece of technology given to us by Jesus, through which the Spirit connects us to Christ. When Jesus comes back, we won’t need our Bibles or sacraments anymore (1 Cor 13:10-12). They are just temporary “tech” we need to keep connected to him while he’s absent.
So, as we try and muddle through these restrictions on meeting together, we need to keep crystal clear that we’re all, already, in a long-distance relationship with Jesus. Physical separation does not destroy church; if it did, we’d just have decapitated the body of Christ! No, secretly and inwardly, Jesus is nourishing his body today as always (Eph 5:29). Christians don’t need to worry that the spiritual “internet connection” between them and Jesus is down during this period. The Spirit always has his own secret ways of working open to him. Paul sitting chained up in prison could rejoice that “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim 2:9).
Our particular headache is that our “tech” has unmistakeable physical and corporate dimensions; baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the most obvious example, and not something we can simply “do at home” (see 1 Cor 11:22, 34). It’s pretty obvious that preaching via a screen is nowhere near as good as preaching in the flesh.
Face to face
God is giving his church a good shake-up at the moment. In our rush to take the church online and to overcome the challenge of separation, let’s not forget that Jesus has already set us up for a long-distance relationship. Church has always had a dis-embodied dimension. The way to tackle that distance isn’t through some guy in the IT department, but by the Spirit of Christ and his tools of grace. We might learn some cool tech in the next few weeks. But none of it rivals the real “tech” that Christ has given us – the word, sacraments, and prayer. We can be thankful that we can get some of the word and prayer via Google hangouts, but it’s definitely not an upgrade. It’ll be great when we can ditch Google hangouts and see each other face to face at church again.
But the day to really long for is when faith becomes sight and we see Jesus face to face (1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2).