Starting last March, churches were asked to do the seemingly impossible: gather without gathering. This has taken place across the synod, nation and globe in a variety of formats – live-streamed, recorded, or the sharing of written materials – involving a diversity of content. Some congregations have used Service of the Word, while some have had virtual communion. But all have had to be exceedingly inventive as we gather for worship.
People, however, pine to worship face to face in their buildings. This moment is now upon us.
We may imagine that our experience of worship in the Amber Stage will be more real than our online worship. But worship upon return in person will still be drastically different from what it was pre-Covid.
Some will find the experience of communion in one kind (bread alone) to be disorienting. Is this really communion? In responding to that question, it is important to revisit what Lutherans believe about communion.
First, Communion is a gift and the content of that gift is the presence of Jesus who unites the divine self with us in a tangible, fulsome, and empowering way. However, Lutherans do not understand communion to be necessary for salvation. God in Christ also meets us in the sermon, in baptism, and in the mutual care we offer one another. Communion is, however, empowering, and might be likened to a hug from God, for which many of us ache.
Further, communion is a coming together of a community. When I draw near to God, and you draw near to God, we draw near to one another. Many of us have sorely missed this aspect of communion and look forward to that intimacy of face to face worship.
Communion, in sum, is God’s “Yes!” to us. It has been described as a visible word. The gospel word of unconditional love in the sermon is now seen and smelt, tasted and felt in the meal.
But we might ask, is this “Yes!” compromised when we only taste one element? When our gathering is distanced? When the hug feels more like a handshake? Will this really be communion?
In answering this question, it is important to look at our past experiences of communion with an honest gaze and ask: Has communion always felt like a gift? Have we always found joy in our sibling at the table? Have we always walked away from the communion rail feeling that we have heard God’s “Yes!” and the power of the Holy Spirit surging through us? Of course, the answer to these questions is “no.” Not always.
Communion is about relationship and relationships are messy, fractured, and uneven. This is the nature of life.
Our experiences of Communion upon returning in-person to the church building will be broken, as have been our experiences of virtual worship, as has been our experiences of pre-Covid 19 communion. In the end, what makes communion fulsome is not our experience of communion alone, but God’s promise that this meal is “for you.” God promises the divine presence in Jesus and with him the presence of our siblings in Christ – those alive and those beyond life in eternal life. This promise is the power of the “Yes!” And Martin Luther was insistent that God’s gospel work regularly is done in fractured and broken experiences. This is the surprise of the gospel.
What might this mean for a return to Amber Stage worship?
We need to be prepared to be surprised. The Gospel story for todaysurprises and may even distress us. The end of the story does not fit our sense, our experience, of fairness and the way ‘things should be’: people who worked the shortest time earned as much as those who worked the longest. We object. That’s not fair. It’s not the way it should be.
Indeed, things are different, awkward, imperfect – even as we gather again in our house of prayer today. It’s not the way it should be, we feel. But difference is not bad. God has written difference into the architecture of creation. God will sometimes throw us a curve ball, not what we expected. Question is, will we catch it?
Of course, we will lament what we miss but we will also need to dream, imagining how we can make the most of new realities. Such dreaming is only possible when we allow ourselves to fail, knowing that as we explore this strange new world with our hearts open to God and one another, such failure will not be fateful, but rather, faithful to God’s “Yes!”
The Gospel readings for the last two Sundays from Matthew describe the economy of God’s grace.When it comes to forgiving others using immeasurable criteria, or when it comes to the generosity of God – God’s ways go beyond the world’s measure of who deserves what and earning good favour and blessing. God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness don’t play by the world’s rules of tit-for-tat. Admittedly, the learning curve of living and dreaming according to God’s “Yes!” is steep and always feels like it’s spiking!
But remember it’s not about our experience alone. It is about something bigger that is happening in the world, something larger-than-each-of-us that is based on God’s promises for you, for me and for all people.
May the promise of this grace, made real in the bread for you this day, encourage you and empower you.
To this point, adapted from “Reflection” in Worship Resources for the Resumption of In-Person Worship (Eastern Synod ELCIC, www.easternsynod.org, 2020)
Matthew 18:25-31 (Pentecost 15A, RCL) and Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 16A, RCL)