Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 are an amazing comfort…
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Here Jesus claims to be ever present in a non-physical way. Just dwell on that for a moment… for 2000 years God the Son has remained incarnate and yet, for that entire time, he has also been physically absent (in this human nature) from his people, his bride. Jesus promised to be with us always, and yet has been self-isolating (physically) for 2000 years.
For Jesus’ words to be a comfort, he must be talking about a way of being with us that transcends physical proximity.
This is an important point to note during this time of Covid19 isolation, and especially as we think together about whether we can call what we do online ‘church’ or not. It seems that some Christians feel that their inability to gather geographically/physically means they can not be with one another in a sufficient way to call it ‘church’. They’ll say things like, “it’s not really church because we’re not gathered physically“.
However, I would want to suggest three things;
- The church is a people, not a physical event
An emphasis on the gathering sense of the Greek word ἐκκλησία can sometimes over-shadow the more significant idea that it is God’s redeemed people (who gather). Gathering is an important response to being part of God’s people, but we don’t stop being God’s people when we scatter on Monday.
- We are primarily gathered around Jesus, not one another
A church ‘event’ is when we gather spiritually around Christ in his word. A group of Christians going to see a movie in a theatre is not a church gathering because it’s missing its essential element; Jesus. In the same way, attending a church gathering in person does not make you a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Christian gatherings are an attempt to express a spiritual reality; Since it’s not just me in Christ, but we are in Christ, so we together turn our hearts and minds to him in his Word and with thanks.
- It’s possible to be ‘with’ someone without being beside them
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that gathering is functionally equivalent to being with people. It’s possible to be with someone – in their company – and not be in their physical presence. Telephones, Zoom, Skype, etc. all allow us to share a common mind and attention on Christ in his word with other people and yet without being in their physical vicinity. (There’s a trinitarian basis for this also, since the eternal relationship of the persons of the triune God was not spatially with one-another; relationship and togetherness is not dependant on spatial and physical proximity).
But the main reason we can call our live online meetings “church” is because Jesus is – as he promised – with us. His Spirit lives in us and unites us to himself, his Spirit unites us to one another as his family, and his Spirit has called certain pastors to be over-us in Christ. In and through that Spirit we desire to gather in one place (even if it is an address that starts with http) and together with others who are in Christ (even if that togetherness is helped through technology) we are co-drawn into God’s word and into praise of the one who called us together with his Son – who will physically gather us to himself when he returns.
Until our Lord returns, all our gatherings – embodied and online – lack the physical presence of the one who truly makes our gatherings ‘church’.
The restrictions on gatherings have not brought concern to the Lord of Lords. When he sees your church tuning in and trying to make the best of a difficult situation… Jesus is not thinking “Tut-tut… that’s not gathering!!! How dare they call it church!?” Jesus is Lord. And whether you’re trying to gather in a building or in a zoom chat or in a live stream, he loves his people gathering around him. So don’t fret, keep going.