We were to shut down in order to save the NHS and not kill our grannies, plus it was only going to be for a few weeks. Several months later, things have changed. It appears as though Covid-19 is to be with us for some time and is unlikely to be eliminated or even suppressed. Government policy appears to be predicated on a vaccine coming soon – but given that we have been looking for a coronavirus vaccine for almost 20 years, it is possible that we may not get an effective and safe vaccine soon. So how should the church respond?
Preparing for the long run
Here in Australia an Anglican pastor, Dominic Steele, has been arguing that we need to prepare for the medium to long term because it is likely the virus was going to remain with us for some time. That will mean many things, but there are several things where the church needs to be prepared to challenge the secular culture. In general, our governing authorities are more concerned about economics and health statistics than they are about the spiritual well-being of the people. But the church’s concern is with the whole well-being – not only of the Lord’s people – but also of the wider populace. That is why there are things that the government may regard as optional, which we regard as essential.One of these is communion. Although in terms of the silence about this subject I wonder if those of us who are evangelicals share that concern. Why is communion (the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper according to your tradition) regarded so lightly?
My view of communion challenged
Many years ago, I took a Pentecostal friend to the Baptist church in Edinburgh I was then a member of. I noticed that as we took communion at the end, he did not partake. On the walk back to our digs I asked him why? ‘Because I was not prepared – I like to take a day to pray and read before communion’. My Pentecostal brother challenged me as to my understanding of communion; a challenge which continued when I went to the Free Church of Scotland with its communion ‘seasons’, ‘fencing’ of the table and a more solemn and serious attitude. I grew to love those communion times – we had a common cup with alcohol, sat together and took bread from a shared loaf. Not every church will agree on all the details, but I think the traditional Reformed understanding of communion is biblical. Communion is not a literal re-sacrificing of Christ. But neither is it simply a sign.
Richard Sibbes expresses it beautifully: ‘How do we come to be acquainted with Christ? To be present where He is present; and He is present where two or three are met together in His name. He is present now in our meetings, He is present when we hear the word. He is present in the sacrament more especially; we have His very body and blood. As verily as we take the outward signs, so verily Christ is present to our hearts; at the same time from heaven He reaches us Himself with all the benefits of His passion. When the minister reaches the bread, he reaches His body. As our outward man is refreshed with the elements, so our souls are refreshed with the spiritual presence of Christ. Now He is excellently present in heaven, He is present to our sense in the sacrament, and by His Spirit in the word.’ (Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:14 vol 3 p.325).
‘We must not be so profane as to think slightly and irreverently of God’s ordinances. They are of great and high consequence; for when Satan comes to the soul, and shakes the confidence of it, and says, you are not a Christian and God does not love you; why! Says the soul, God has loved me and pardoned my sins; He has given me promises, and particularly sealed them in the sacrament.’ (Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:22 vol 3 p.462)
It’s not an optional extra
The communion is a sign and a seal. It is not an optional extra. It is not something that can be celebrated online. Cyber communion is no more possible than a cyber meal. The physical is an essential part of the spiritual blessing of the Lord’s Table. I know my weary soul has been refreshed, renewed and restored many times at communions. Perhaps Covid will mean that the common cup will be used less, and the little square dices of ‘bread’ will be the norm? But however we celebrate, the reinstitution of the Lord’s Supper as an essential part of our collective public worship should be a priority. We are called to feed the sheep – why neglect the means that Christ has given us?