Communion and Social Distancing (Crossing the Virtual Line?)

pic- bible and communionOur Bishop and Appointive Cabinet have given permission to practice alternative forms of Holy Communion where we “extend the table” through the distribution of pre-packaged elements or inviting participates to provide their own elements during a “live” gathering via Facebook or Zoom.  I am thankful for these guidelines as we all seek to do ministry in new and creative ways.  The guidelines given, however, focus more on logistics than on theology, which has led me to some needed reflection.  Not “can we”, but should we practice online communion during this time of social distancing?  How might this distort our understanding of the sacrament or cause unintended consequences?

To get into these questions, I started with the exercise of giving an “elevator speech” for how we understand holy communion. Here’s what I might say: “We believe that Holy Communion is a sacrament, which means that as we do what Jesus invites us to do, God is present and promises to act. Our communion together becomes an outward and visible channel of God’s grace in our lives, where we are incorporated into the story of salvation, fed with holy food, and connected together in peace and love.  This is not “magic” or “hocus pocus (a phrase possibly derived from the Latin where it is said that the bread becomes the body of Christ).  It is, however, a mystery. Communion is an opportunity for us to participate in the mystery of God who, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, comes into our lives in real, tangible, and incarnate ways.  We need more of this mystery in our lives!”

“When Jesus said ‘do this,’ he meant more than taking the elements; rather, he meant the whole experience – of gathering in real time, sharing in a blessing that includes an account of how God’s comes to save and the words that Jesus said over the bread and cup, followed by an invocation of the Holy Spirit to be present in our receiving and sharing. Next, the one who is duly called and ordained to administer the sacrament in keeping with the Apostolic Tradition, breaks the bread to be shared. In often open hands, each participate receives a portion of the larger loaf, shared from a common table that extends, from a spiritual perspective, beyond time and space into heaven itself.  In Holy Communion we become a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  As we “do this” the healing, strengthening, and transforming love of Christ is given so that we might be the body of Christ in the world.  And finally, Christ is the host of this event; therefore, we do not judge who can come.  All who long for this love, who want to come and receive, and who desire to live in peace with others, are invited.”

Yes, that may be a little long for an elevator ride.  But if this summary has theological merit, then the question remains – not can we, but should we engage in online communion?  For my initial thoughts, I would give a cautious and qualified “yes.” I would say every effort needs to be made to keep it in “real time.” The notion of the incarnate presence of God is inherent in the nature of our understanding of the sacraments. It is about real, tangible, incarnate grace given in real time and space.  Facebook Live, for example, could work, but it would need to be clear that any views after the event should not to be used as communion.   Zoom might be a better medium, with its face to face feature in real time. Both of these options provide for the corporate nature of the sacrament – to some extent.

These virtual mediums also allow for the elements to be consecrated by one who is duly ordained to administer the sacraments. This is important as a way to honor the Apostolic Tradition – the passing on the faith of the Apostle and maintaining the traditions of the larger church, bringing the blessings of the church, beyond time and space, into our time and space and into our lives. As an Elder in the Church, I can’t just make stuff up.  While I am also called to be creative and adapt, I must do so in this larger context and in respect to the liturgy that has been given to me.  That’s what an elder is to do.  It is our job to struggle with such questions and work towards this balance.

With that said, Maundy Thursday is approaching.  To honor the mandate for social distancing, I will likely lead my congregation in some form of virtual communion. Our current plan is to do a Facebook Live Devotion early in the day, which will include an invitation to one of several Zoom gatherings for holy communion, asking people to provide their own bread and juice, while mentioning that both elements are not required.  We believe Zoom will provide us with a “real time” and “in-person” experience, needed to maintain the integrity of the sacrament.   At the same time, I will trust that God’s grace is big enough to overcome many shortcomings – which is a part of our understanding of sacraments.  Ultimately it is something that God does for us, and often in spite of us.  I invite your thoughts and wisdom.

Breaking Bubbles

img_0515A couple of weeks ago, our church received a call from a person doing grad school research on how people of different opinions interact or fail to interact with one another. Her research focused on the information bubbles that we can all too easily get trapped in.  We watch news that caters to our opinions.  And if we use the internet or social media for information, then over time, computer algorithms figure out what we want to hear and then feed us with that information. If we are not careful, we can easily get trapped in our own, personalized, information bubble and begin to see that as reality.

Now, why did this researcher call us?  She called because, at a conference in New York City, she got into a conversation with someone who grew up in our church and who had suggested to her that, at least in his experience, FUMC in Conway, Arkansas was a place where he could break through these bubbles and connect with others in a spirit of respect and love.  It was a place where his perspective grew through interactions with others.  He shared this story and she was intrigued.  She was in search of places where connections were being made in the midst of a world that pushes us all into our own individual information bubbles.  Now, she was considering at least some churches as places where this might happen.

As we encounter him during worship this Advent season, John the Baptist calls us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In the Greek, the word is metanoia – meta meaning “beyond” and noia meaning “to know.”  Repentance is to know or perceive from a perspective above our current perspective.  It means to allow our minds to be changed or transformed by a higher perspective. It is the key to being able to see and experience the kingdom of heaven that is right before us, if only we are willing to look up.

Building on the story above, we might say that repentance happens when we engage others in a spirit of respect and love and through these encounters begin to see life from a higher perspective – bigger than ourselves and our own opinions.  As a possible exercise, think of an issue where you have a strong opinion but you know faithful Christians who have a different opinion.  Then spend time understanding this other perspective, perhaps even making a case of it in your own mind.  If this doesn’t alter your opinion, the hope is that it will alter your appreciation for the other. As we seek to understand, rather than just defend our positions and demonize others, that’s when we begin to see Jesus in our midst and God’s kingdom at work. That’s when we get a glimpse of true love – love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way, always seeking what is good for the other and how we might honor them.  We can’t do that if are stuck in our own bubble.

These thoughts will be part of my sermon this Sunday, which is a Communion Sunday. It struck me how this holy act invites us to literally change our perspective.  We get up, come to the Altar, with hands held open, ready to receive Christ into our being.  As we bow down and receive we are also lifted into a higher vision. Even as we pray, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon us.  We become One with Christ, One with each other, and One in ministry to all the world. And then, with the strength given, we go out into the world to live this mystery of faith.

During this season, we are invited to move into this higher vision, even with our posture and posturing. We are invited to move from arms crossed to open hands.  We are invited to move from looking down at our screens to looking up into the eyes of others.  As we do this, may we truly enter the kingdom of heaven which is right before us, in our very midst.