Christians have been assembling together for 2000 years. The word ‘church’ in Greek (ekklesia) means ‘gathering’. The church took the word and sanctified it. The church is a Communion of the Holy.
In this strange time, it isn’t that Christians are neglecting the assembling of themselves together. We have been forbidden from doing so. Stay at home orders have been put into effect.
Last week, as everything was turning from normal to crazy, it was interesting to watch the various churches and how quickly (or if) they cancelled services. While I don’t have a scientific survey to prove things, it seemed to me that in general, Lutherans were the last to cancel things.
And some fools actually met anyway – either in small groups (one pastor I know did 16 different services), or even family by family. It was arduous, but we believe necessary. Why necessary? Because of the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. This is not merely chatting over coffee and nodding or looking sad at the right moments. It is the Divine Conversation given to the church, where we speak with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
“O Lord open my lips” “And my mouth will show forth Thy praise.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is meet and Right so to do.”
“The Lord be with you” “And with Thy Spirit.”
And so on.
These words of comfort and grace are the church’s conversation, and they are a great consolation to the distressed. They don’t work over an internet connection. Not that the power of the word is not present. But you don’t have actual conversation. You have either passive observance, or speaking without hearing. The pastor knows people in the homes are saying the words. He can not see or hear it. Even if he could, the lag, glitch, and very foundational structure of the media makes it artificial. Oh, if it must suffice in time of extreme emergency, we will bear the cross our Lord gives us. But it is no substitute for the real thing.
And there is another – and more basic – thing that is missing from our life together. The church comes together for the Lord’s Supper. It is the festal meal when we gather. Prayer offices support it and lead to it, in the same way the peeling of potatoes or calling of invitees supports the Thanksgiving Dinner. But the real deal is the meal itself. And that requires the church assembled as the ekklesia. Without the assembling, there is no being fed with the food that does not spoil. Oh sure, pastors take the sacrament to shut-ins. But the shut-ins know that this isn’t how it should be. They can tell the difference. They are starving for the food of heaven, and so they eat the crumbs that fall from the table, and are filled by God’s grace. But they dearly miss the assembling together. Because that is a part of the sacrament as well. And, even if pastors were to drive to individual homes (which may be the next step as emergency pastoral visits to the dying are not outlawed – and we are all dying) it would not be the same. It would be a shadow.
That is why Lutheran pastors have been so loathe to cancel the Divine Service, and why we have been dragging our feet, kicking and screaming the whole way. And why we will continue to take extraordinary measures to bring the sacrament to the people of God, who have now been scattered abroad, and can no longer join together as we should.
A pastor friend of mine expressed his frustration at this situation with the following words, which he graciously allowed me to share:
What is in the cup?
Lutherans believe that the cup holds the precious blood of Christ. The same blood that was poured out on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Lutherans also believe wherever there is forgiveness there is also life and salvation. So for Lutherans that cup is the cup of life. It is the cup that grants eternal life to all who drink from it believing it contains the blood of Jesus shed for the forgiveness of sins.
If we knew how may devils and how much death surrounded us night and day we would run to the sacrament and demand it as if it is the medicine which destroys both death and the devil. We have lived privileged and blessed lives where that has never been put to the test. Now God has drawn back his hand and let pestilence plague us.
Now we can see death coming for us. So do we run to the cup or do we refuse it be used? Do we put our faith in the cup of Christ or the cup of sanitizer? Lutherans believe the cup of Christ is the cup of life and will suffer all to have it; because it is the remedy for death of every kind.