(this was a pastoral letter written to Holy Trinity during the weeks of sheltering in place and live-streaming our worship during the global pandemic of Covid-19)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Covid-19 has forced us to live life differently and reflect upon aspects of life in new and deeper ways. While carrying a lot of challenges, our collective situation has also provided us the opportunity to reflect upon some big questions on how we live and function as a church. We are invited to ask in new ways questions like; “What does it mean to worship as a community of faith?”, “How do we stay connected to one another when we cannot gather in our church building?”, “How do we celebrate the sacraments when we cannot gather to worship together physically?”
I have tried to keep this letter short, but when reflecting on worship and Holy Communion, it is certainly not a quick sound bite or tweet. So, bear with me. Here are a few thoughts on worship and Holy Communion I have been thinking through. This, of course, is not any kind of dogmatic final answer to any of these questions; but rather more of a guide on how we can think through these important aspects of living our faith together.
Worship has always been a time to gather as a community. Before technology and being “online,” community meant being with one another in person, being physically present as in “where two or three are gathered.” With the emergence of social media and the internet, there is an ever-evolving discussion of what community is and what it looks like. And that is ok and necessary. Gathering “in community” can take place online; however, there also needs to be a balance of being online and face-to-face interaction and relationships. Of course, we can also have very deep and personal experiences with God privately out in nature. I feel super close to God when I’m out surfing and communing with God in the ocean. But I believe both personal devotional time and gathering with other people need to be a vital part of our discipleship.
It’s not “either, or,” but rather a “both, and”.
We can have personal devotional time with God one on one, and we are called to gather in a community to build each other up, learn from one another and hold each other accountable. Indeed, live streaming our worship services have extended our reach to members, the home-bound, and family and friends. This is something we have wanted to do for a long time and the virus motivated us to get it up and running. I am so thankful for this. There is something exciting and novel about doing live-stream worship from the comfort of our homes and Zoom gatherings with colleagues; but we must not lose sight of the importance of gathering in person, face to face. Again, it’s not an “either, or” but a “both, and” balance. I know for me personally, I confess, that all this has shaken me out of complacency and taking for granted gathering in community. When we are allowed to gather together again in our Worship Center, we will continue to record and live-stream our worship services; nevertheless, we will also stress the importance of being physically present with one another for worship and faith formation.
This leads to our reflection on the sacrament of Holy Communion. Since it was instituted by Christ, the Church has wrestled with and sought to articulate how Christ is present in this Eucharistic (thanksgiving) meal. I do not plan to review 2000 years of Church history, or get into the minutia of denominational differences; however, I will share that Lutherans believe in the “real presence” of Jesus in the elements of wine and bread during Holy Communion. As God became incarnate (enfleshed) in the person of Jesus, so Jesus becomes incarnate in the bread and wine in our worship together in the celebration of the sacrament of the altar. This is not only a remembrance of what Christ has done for us (a mere toast to a friend and good deed), but also taking Christ at his word when he says, “This is my body given for you.” Celebrating Holy Communion has always been a sacrament of presence and being present with one another. This is why we have not been doing online communion over the last few weeks.
For the good order of the church the pastor is called to preside over “word and sacrament” for the parish they are called to serve. Online church and live-streaming worship are relatively new things in the history of the Church. While hearing great sermons and TED talks can be very uplifting and build up the community of faith on our many and various handheld devices, we confess that we have not had a lot of time to think through the theological implications of doing virtual sacraments, which remain rooted in being physically present with one another. Our NC Bishop and the ELCA have discouraged the celebration of Holy Communion through digital means for the sake of the good order of church practices. But they have also been gracious in leaving room for our own context and needs during these unprecedented times.
Online Communion (I like the phrase “Zoomunion”) will not be our common practice in celebrating the Eucharist; however, when we do celebrate Holy Communion during our Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday live-streams, we will do our best to capture the understanding of God’s word and promise connected to earthly elements as a means of grace for the people of God.
I am super bummed that we cannot do Holy Week, Easter, and Holy Communion like we normally do this year. But maybe not being able to do “normal” will provide us an opportunity to go deeper in how we understand worship, the nature and nurture of community, and God’s real presence in our lives.
Please feel free to share with me your questions, thoughts and reflections as we continue to have this conversation together.
Praying we can gather together face to face soon,
Pastor Will Rose