Thursday 9 April 2020

Zooming in on the Lord’s Supper? Some reflections… Part 4

Is the Lord’s Supper online a shared meal?

Let’s imagine a best-case scenario where a church can gather its entire membership online in a Zoom call. Access to technology is not an issue, and this is not simply a broadcast, i.e. a one-way communication from leaders to people, but a live interaction such that elders can see who is present and ensure that no-one under church discipline is participating. Bread and wine are also present in every home, and so no-one is prevented from eating and drinking.

Although this fulfils some of the necessary criteria for a biblical practice of the Lord’s Supper I remain unpersuaded that this is a shared meal. It is a synchronised meal to be sure. But we have not sat down together and broken bread together. That, remember, is the essence of the Lord’s Supper. To remember the Lord’s death when we meet to share a meal. It matters that we are not sat shoulder to shoulder, accommodating each other, making room for one another, and serving one another.
 So I do not think attempting the Lord’s Supper in this way can be said to be a supper. Nor do I think we can say the church has truly gathered, although that needs a bit more unpacking.

Is the church online a gathered church?

What we mean by “the church online” is of course no one thing. When the church first started using modern broadcast media, there were a number of critiques raised. One was that the television is simply a medium for entertainment and therefore casts anything we do in that vein. That criticism does need weighing carefully I think, even if it minimises the potential of TV to be used for other ends. My own family have gathered round the TV to watch a pre-recorded sermon on Sunday mornings and the temptation to attend to it with less than our full attention and as something for our passive consumption has been strong. To describe that as “church going online” is also to communicate that church is a one-way transmission for my edification. If we persist in calling that church, I suspect we have a hard time recalling people back to meeting together, and we will have set their expectations in some very unhelpful ways.

Another critique, made by Robert Jenson,[1] was that this kind of communication makes the communicator the hub and recipients the spokes. That is to say, the audience have no relationships one to another, only with the hub. In Jenson’s terms, this use of mass media creates a “mass” not a “community.” Quite so. That does not mean such media should not be used, however, Jenson simply observes that they rely on other means to have already constituted the audience as a congregation. “Close pastoral and fraternal care” can accomplish this, such that “the broadcast does not itself carry the burden of integrating its hearers into the congregation.” The question, for our time, is how do we prevent the community ties from degrading when live-streams or broadcasts will do nothing to replenish them?

Enter Zoom (other communications platforms are available). This does allow for what Jenson calls “crosstalk”, i.e. for the members of a church to relate to one another as well as the centre. But can we say that we are “present” on Zoom, that we have met, or gathered? In relation to the Lord’s Supper, can we say the church is sufficiently gathered to qualify for Paul’s instructions about what we should do when we meet?

This is enormously complicated and more subtle than we might think. There are surely degrees of presence, and different concepts in view. I can be physically present but my attention can be completely elsewhere. My kids rightly expect me to be “present” in both senses at the meal table.

When we think about the Apostle Paul’s interactions with his churches, his letters signify both his absence and his presence. His absence is more obvious, and he frequently longs to be with his churches or co-workers (1 Cor 16:7, 1 Thess 2:17, 3:6, 2 Tim 1:4) that he might seem them face to face and so know how they are faring and to impart to them blessings that cannot be communicated by letter (Rom 1:11, 1 Thess 3:10). Likewise, 2 John 1:12 expresses the limits of the written word (and cf. 3 John 14). His letters nonetheless are a kind of presence with his churches. In 2 Cor 10:1-2 Paul is considered “timid” face to face” and “bold” in his writing; 2 Cor 13:2 repeats in absence a warning he gave in person. Most striking though are two further passages:

Col 2:5. Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

Here Paul wants to assure the church of his concern and so speaks of being with them in spirit. I would think this is parallel to the expression in 1 Thess 2:17 that  Paul was torn away from the church in person but not in “heart” – in other words, Paul carries around his concern for the churches with him. In light of that separation, hearing from Epaphras about the Colossians enables Paul to “see” that they are disciplined and standing firm (Col 2:5).

1 Cor 5:3-5. For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present,hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Here I think there are two additional notes. One is that Paul’s absence is polemical. From a distance, he can see what needs doing, even though those present are not administering the necessary discipline. Second, Paul is present with them in the sense that he has communicated his judgment and is with them in spirit when they enact the discipline. Here I suspect there is an authoritative presence. Certainly that is true of Jesus. In Matt 18 Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name in judicial settings and that probably explains the reference to “gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus” and the presence of “the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In light of these texts, we can say that presence is not simply a matter of being there in person. Paul is with his churches in some sense, and his letters can mediate his presence and exercise his authority or care in some crucial ways.

Similar judgments could be made in relation to Jesus himself. In a much more profound way he is able to be present by his Spirit with his people. By his apostles’ words he is able to command his people (1 Cor 7:10), and by the Spirit, he and the Father come and make their home in the believer (John 14:23). And yet we do not see him (1 Pet 1:8) and we long for his appearing (1 Pet 1:7), knowing that we will be transformed when we see him (1 John 3:2).

More generally still, we would want to affirm that believers are united with Christ and so are united with one another. There is one body united by one Spirit (Eph 4:4), and we have permanent access into the grace in which we know stand (Rom 5:2). But these are not adequate grounds to say that the church is permanently gathered, otherwise the commands to meet (Heb 10:25) or the instructions concerning when we do meet (1 Cor 10-11) make no sense.

All of these texts then make us aware of a kind of presence that isn’t full or face to face presence. We need to acknowledge both the potential and the limitations of the ways in which we can be present with others during a lockdown, but I do not think that any of these ways of being present are what Paul means when he speaks of a church gathering to break bread together. One confirmation of that might be the way that the Messianic banquet with Jesus is postponed until there is a face to face presence (Matt 26:29).

In the final post we'll address two final objections to the view I'm defending.

[1] Robert W. Jenson, “The Church and Mass Electronic Media: The Hermeneutic Problem,” Religious Education 82.2 (1987): 279–84.