Not being a virtual Christian

So, I wonder how you are finding your Christian life these days; which of course is not so very separate from the question of how you are finding your life these days? How do you find worshipping together on Zoom (by phone or computer?). If you go to meetings on-line, like Elders or Citizens UK assemblies or art groups or whatever it is… what do you think when people say ‘This could be the future?’.

I’ve noticed that there are some people who actually relish the prospect of living more of their lives on-line or ‘phone. And I can see that there are some advantages – and it certainly will increasingly be the way we live and do business of all kinds… It’s more efficient in some ways. It’s more climate friendly – mostly. It is truly a godsend in a time like this to have ways that we can be in touch and connected and still functioning – on-line. It’s chief merit at the moment is that it keeps us safe from a virus, but some people would rather like life to continue, in many ways, more like this. After the on-line General Assembly of our denomination last week, some people said they preferred it to other sort… And I’ve heard someone say that he prefers on-line services, because you don’t have to make small talk afterwards while eating indifferent refreshments..

But, the longer this goes on, the more I think I can see that –while on-line working and even on-line worshipping is a good standby – it’s not the best and fullest kind of human interaction. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that our faith pulls us in quite another direction. And I see that it’s not just me, or anyone, being reluctant to change. There is something about being fully present to one another that just doesn’t happen on-line.

I’ve been fascinated to find that reading the Bible in a time of social distancing and a public health crisis has made me notice different things from usual. So, for example, reading the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel – I think that in more normal times I would read this story and think about deafness and tied tongues and the kind of social exclusion that deafness and a speech impediment would have meant in the ancient world, with no hearing tests at Boots and no speech therapy to be had even for ready money…

But today I read it and I first of all notice just how many of today’s regulations and guidelines the story breaks. Jesus healed (and often prayed for people) by laying hands on them – by touching them. (There has been a whole conversation in the URC about whether or not people can be ordained without the laying on of hands … ). They begged Jesus to lay hands on him… Touch is wonderful and healing in this story. He took him aside in private – and we can see the moment in the tiny drawing on the order of service by a Latin American artist Cerezo Barredo.  Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears, he spat and touched his tongue… Neither has a face mask – Jesus is a healer with no PPE..  Jesus sighs, he breathes…. Try saying Ephphatha without spitting or breathing droplets on someone… But the man’s ears are opened, his tongue released and he speaks…And the whole story is like a kind of echo of the creation story in which God breathes into the dust and creates a human being.

I just can’t read the Gospels now without noticing how very physical and bodily the stories are. There are so many healing stories in the Gospels – stories of wounded bodies touched and prayed over. Jesus outrages people by touching the bodies of those who were said to be unclean. Even when he is risen from the dead – Jesus is very physical, and present as a body. He eats and breathes and touches… Jesus even left us a meal to eat together – bread shared from hand to hand – a common cup… body and blood… The Gospel is very physical. And Christian worship is very physical; shared eating, singing, the kiss of peace, the right hand of fellowship. It’s no wonder that Christian worship – in the sense of physically present to one another –  seems to be one of the most difficult things to get open again. And it’s because our faith is somehow profoundly about physical presence. It’s about God being present when bread and wine are shared. It’s about communion with one another – which is deepest and most possible (for most people) when we are with each other.

In the ancient world, there were some very famous philosophers who thought that our bodies were not places where we meet with God and with one another, but really just rather unfortunate containers for the important things which is our much superior minds. Plato described the body as a kind of cage from which any self-respecting intellectual would want an escape. Jesus was completely different from that. For him – for our faith and tradition – we are embodied. We are breathed-in flesh. Clay jars with the breath of God. And Jesus of course, we have come to believe, was God made flesh. He was not an idea or even just a thinker – but a human being, in whose physical body God was made known.

So, all this social distancing, all this attempting to move through the world as though we are untouchables ourselves, is, in a way, so unnatural for us. We are embodied beings. This is why we care about pain and suffering and why we want to end it – it’s why we care about what happens to people’s bodies and real lives. This is why we believe, as Christian Aid once put it, in ‘life before death’. We are not a faith for disembodied immortal souls. We know that we meet with God in a body – in the body of Christ in the church, in the body of Christ in the bread and wine, in the bodies of other people in whom we glimpse the face of Christ.

A little while ago I was at something called a ‘webinar’ on how the church is coping with Covid-19 – and it was an Orthodox priest who said, ‘After five Zoom meetings in one day, you long for flesh and bones..’ I understand why most of us we want to get back to church, why many of us long to hug those we love, why many of us pray for healing for bodies and minds and souls…  This is who we are. We are not made for virtual life – for our deepest relationships and for the places where we find the deepest meaning. We are made for presence… real presence.

And at the heart of our faith is the message that God came, in Jesus, in flesh. He comes to touch and heal, to bless and to transform. I am sure that Jesus can be known on-line, and thank God we can still find this way to connect. And I rejoice that some of us can add the sight of our beloved faces on Zoom to the sound of our voices. But – and here perhaps the Orthodox and the Catholics and the Anglicans are right, there can only really be communion when we are physically present to one another.

In the World Council of Churches work that I do – we often look forward to and work for and pray for the time when, in the church, we shall find full communion with one another. And we’ve recognised that we need something more like communion with nature (rather than dominion over it). But communion is not just shared ideas or recognition of one another at a distance. Communion has to be about physical presence. You can be virtually a Christian, but you can’t be a virtual Christian… or even. I think, find fullness of human life that way.

So, it’s very significant that it proves very difficult to practice religious faith in socially distanced ways. God’s love propels us towards one another and towards the God who is present in creation. For a time, I know, we have to be restrained, for the sake of others. But this cannot really be a new normal. We are flesh and bones, and the breath of God (who never wears a face mask) is what animates us. Thanks be to God. Amen.