Christ is Risen! With this joyful affirmation the Church around the world welcomes the season of Easter. Easter is not a day or a weekend or even a Holy week: it is a season that extends until the fiftieth day after Easter – the day of Pentecost. Easter extends for 7 weeks and a day. The work of Easter is exploring just what that joyful affirmation ‘Christ is risen!’ means. The mystery of resurrection is not quickly resolved or understood in a day or a week or even fifty days.
Resurrection means some kind of present reality of the risen Christ, but what is the mode of Christ’s presence? Towards the end of those fifty days there is a celebration of the Ascension – of Christ’s departure to be with the Father. Pentecost itself is a celebration of the ‘coming’ of the Holy Spirit (already understood in the Hebrew Scriptures as one mode of God’s presence with humankind). In view of these doctrines, what does resurrection tell us about presence – the presence of life in the experience of death, and the continuing presence of Jesus with his followers, including us?
This searching question comes to us in a time where we are largely absent from one another and from many of those we love. The need for ‘social distancing’, quarantine, lockdown – whatever you call it – has confined many of us to our homes, limited our travel and outlawed many of our social interactions. We live with the discomforts of isolation and loneliness, the disruption of home-working and limited travel, and the danger of sickness and death.
One of the themes of the Bible is the reality of living outside one’s normal place, one’s usual world. There were two great periods in Bible history where this experience was the lot of the people of God, and those times were times of creativity, hope and dynamism – mingled with suffering, loss and grief. They were the times of slavery in Egypt (that led to the Exodus) and the Exile to Babylon after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th Century BCE. Exodus and Exile were times of lament and suffering, but also of profound change, empowering hope and spiritual dynamism.
Presence and Exile are great themes of the Bible, but they are also part of common human experience. Who has not known the joy of being in the presence of someone you love -and the anguish of the absence of that same beloved? Exile is the common experience of migrants, refugees, fly-in workers and even pilgrims (one simple definition of a pilgrim that I treasure is someone who is away from the place where they belong). These are spiritual themes. Exploring and reflecting on them both theologically and prayerfully are part of Christian life.
In this season of emergency measures, issues of presence and exile also are a dimension of our shared experience. The teenage grandchild of one of our church members titled her essay on the experience of social-distancing and quarantine This Foreign Place. For her, the current time is nothing less than an experience of Exile, of being banished from home. For so many who cannot meet, who rely on a voice on the telephone or a face on the screen for contact with those they love, the matter of what it means to be present to someone is not just a philosophical question, but an existential issue. It helps us to remember that these are not just challenges for this little moment of history, but enduring questions and experiences that every human being at different times will go through and must reflect on.
The first followers of Jesus were astounded to find that the man they loved and had lost to death came back. They had never experienced anything like this. The one they had watched die and had buried, was still present. How could this be?
Now, the mode of that presence was quite different to what they had known before. The risen Jesus was not always immediately recognised, and sometimes it was only after they had dialogued, or something dramatic like a huge haul of fish had occurred, that they recognised that the one in their presence was Jesus. He was ‘physically’ present to them in offering his wounds to their touch, or sharing a meal, or blowing his breath on them – and yet he could disappear in an instant, or mysteriously enter a room when the door was locked. What kind of physical existence was this?
Yet present he clearly was, in ways that transformed their understanding of what it was to die, and deepened their experience of what it meant to live. As they experienced prison and privation, as they were mocked and whipped, as they travelled on their preaching journeys, Jesus was always present with them and they felt that they had become part of him, part of his ‘body’.
This was never just a metaphor, a way of speaking. As Trevor Hart, Rector of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St Andrew’s, Scotland writes in his reflection of embodied life in a time of social distancing,
“One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects.” https://jasongoroncy.com/2020/04/13/eucharist-and-the-stuff-that-matters/
Having shared so intimately in the bodily, ‘physical’ life of Jesus – in wandering, in fasting and feasting, in controversy and miracle and healing – it is not surprising that their experience of Jesus’ bodily presence after the resurrection became foundational to their faith and their practice in his name. As Trevor Hart explains to his congregation in Scotland, the centrality of the body to Christian experience and worship is so important that as a congregation they cannot share in the Eucharist until they are able to be bodily present with one another. Hart considers alternate forms of ‘presence’ – especially some of the technological tools that now make digital forms of connection possible. His conclusion is that to abandon an embodied celebration of Eucharist and to engage with a ‘virtual’ communion would be to “encourag[e] the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most.”
I commend Hart’s pastoral letter to you (click the link above) as it raises vital questions around worship, and around what it means to be present to each other and to God. There will be a range of views about this. Some members of our church would appreciate some kind of virtual Communion. Other pastors I know and respect have conducted such services in recent weeks. Baptist views about lay presidency make it acceptable for those present in households to ‘preside’ over Communion and our lack of ritual requirements for sacramental validity give us great freedom in how to conduct services.
But if we were to live-stream a minister saying words of consecration and having people in their homes performing the actions of communion, have we slipped into a de-facto understanding of Communion as a clerical performance more ‘high church’ than Baptist? Have we minimalised the place of the gathered community as the proper setting of this central ordinance of the Lord?
These questions are but one manifestation of the great issue of what it means to be present. The great affirmation of Easter is that Christ continues to be present with us! The Scriptures assure us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.39). At a time when we cannot be present with each other, the presence of Jesus Christ with each one of us is something to celebrate and to be thankful for.
The question of how we are present to each other, and how we will celebrate that in worship, service and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, are matters for the community to address and decide. We were to have had a Church Conversation (that is a Church meeting) on Sunday 19th April. That is another form of presence that is currently denied us. The Ministry Reference Group is currently reviewing just how we might be able to ‘meet’ in coming weeks. One of the issues we might engage together is the question of worship, and especially Communion. I commend the issue to your reflection and your prayer.