I had a rather startling realization this week: this coming Sunday, one year ago, was the last time my congregation (and many congregations) gathered in full for worship. Of the past fifty-two Sundays, twenty of them saw at least a portion of the congregation in the sanctuary, but we haven’t had the experience of being altogether, outside or in, since last March. Which makes my heart break.
There have been many conversations about what it means for the church to be “open” or “closed.” Pastors and church leaders have been exceptionally creative and resourceful in finding ways to build community and help people worship at a distance. I don’t regret that we went virtual when we did, and as much as we did. My goal was and is to get out of this without a congregant dying because they came to church. But I’m also longing for the day when we’re all back in the building. Because as much as we can do church virtually, it’s definitely not the ideal.
The church is, by nature, a gathering, an assembly, an ekklesia. The letters of the New Testament are addressed to a plural people. The Eucharist is a family meal. Baptism constitutes a person’s place in the community. French theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes, “In short, the coming together in the name of the Lord Jesus was perceived as the chief mark of Christians, the fundamental sacrament of the risen Christ. Christians are people who get together” (Symbol and Sacrament [Collegeville: Liturgical, 1995], 185).
And we get together to worship. I preached on 1 Peter 2 this past Sunday, and Peter tells the churches – these groups of misfits and outsiders who have found a new home, a new family in the community of believers – that through their salvation they are now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We gather to proclaim, to worship, to praise the God who has done mighty things for us.
This doesn’t mean worship is the only thing we do. Or that the church somehow isn’t the church when we aren’t all together on Sunday mornings. If the church is not a building, but a people, then the church exists wherever God’s people are. But fundamental to the nature and identity of the church is that we are a gathered people. And the act of gathering – the coming together of diverse people to worship the God who makes them one – recalibrates and reorients us for how we live together in the in-between.
What that “together” looks like is a pressing question for us. There are real and clear divides in the CRC right now over human sexuality, social justice, morality, and national identity. In individual churches factions are warring over Covid safety protocols and politics. The road ahead for the CRC looks pretty bumpy. From the outside looking in, I don’t think we look like a particularly unified denomination.
But as I preached through 1 Peter 2 this week, I remembered a lecture I attended in college given by Dr. Antonios Kireopoulous, who was then the – wait for it – Associate General Secretary of the Faith and Order Commission and the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (try putting that on a business card). He argued that just as the perichoresis, or our understanding of the nature of the Trinity, can only ever be an icon of the true, unknowable nature of the Trinity, so too the markers of ecumenism, or signs of unity, are only ever just that – signs, icons, tangible manifestations of some greater, true unity that exists whether we see or feel it or not, because in Christ, we are one. Unity exists, he said, and our task as the church is not to create unity, but to discover, together, what the unity we already have looks like.
This will require a lot from us – imagination, trust, empathy, strength, humility, and bravery (consider this a friendly reminder to read and bookmark and re-read Chuck DeGroat’s brilliant essay from Monday). The journey to discover what unity looks like isn’t an easy one. But I think the place to start is in worship. In the gathering, that first and foremost sign that we have already been gathered up into union with Christ, and therefore in Christ, we are one body.
I’m exceptionally thankful that Synod isn’t meeting this summer. The chances of meeting in person are small, and even if we could somehow gather with a hundred delegates virtually, I think that would be a mistake. One of the reasons Synod works is because it’s a gathering. And because every day begins in worship.
There are many in this denomination who think I shouldn’t be a pastor because I’m a woman, and every year a group of delegates protests the presence of women at Synod. On my best days, I’m less than charitable in my thoughts towards these people. But darn it if there isn’t something about standing next to those delegates as we lift our hands in worship of the God who’s saved us all that doesn’t make me just a little more hospitable, a little more forgiving, a little more willing to listen. It doesn’t mean I agree with them. It doesn’t mean I’m okay with the stance they take or that I’m not bothered by the harm that stance has done to my friends and colleagues. It doesn’t mean I won’t argue the point with them ‘til the cows come home. But worshiping together reminds me that I’m united to those brothers whether I like it or not, so I might as well at least try to see what that unity could look like.
So I’m longing for the day when we can gather again. When we can baptize our babies and promise to raise them as a community, and eat a common meal, and see the smiles behind the masks, and reach a hand over the pew to pass the peace of Christ to that person who drives us crazy, and lift our hands in doxology as one people, one community, one church. When we can be for ourselves the tangible sign that in Christ, we are one.
Image: Celebration © 2004 John August Swanson | Eyekons