By Kelsey Knobloch
As we continue to remain physically separated for the health and safety of all, I hear the same phrase repeated over and over and over again. “Unprecedented times.” That’s what they’re calling it. Unprecedented. It’s never happened before. It’s never been this way. No one’s sure how to act or what to do, because it’s never been done before. Never before…in this new time…for the first time…and on it goes.
One thing we’re obviously lacking is being together in person. I took a few semesters of Koine Greek in college to fulfill my language requirement. Perhaps not as useful in everyday life as Spanish would have been, but it sounded much more interesting to my freshman self. Koine Greek is kind of like Middle English in that it’s not what’s spoken in the modern day, but it’s also not ancient. This means I can’t use it to speak with people from Greece, but I also can’t translate any lost, forgotten tomes. It does, however, just so happen to be the form of Greek in which the New Testament was written. The Koine Greek word for church is ekklesia, or ἐκκλησία if you’d like it in the funny little letters, and translates roughly to ‘gathering.’ While we may be gathering digitally nowadays, it definitely lacks a significant something when the internet lags and you start to really feel the distance.
Now hear me: I’m certainly not suggesting that we’re not gathering via Zoom, or that it’s somehow not really church. When Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20) He makes no stipulation that the gathering can’t be online. (And He knew what ‘online’ was too; He’s God.) But even if you enjoy church on your computer, in your pajamas, while sitting on the couch with bed head after having slept in, there’s something missing when you’re not sitting next to someone. There’s something lacking when you’re not gathered together with others, when you can’t hear the person next to you reciting the Creed right along with you, or can’t tune out that one tone-deaf singer three pews back. Being physically with others has a place, and it’s missed when we’re all in social isolation.
But there’s another part we’re missing too: Communion. The Holy Supper provides a very real benefit for us as a means of grace, a manner in which we can receive forgiveness from our sins. It’s also, in a broader sense, communion with God and communion with the entirety of Christians, the invisible church: those that have passed on and those that have yet to come. Whether in Holy Communion or handshakes, we’re missing the real connection of something physical that connects us with God.
Yes, I know the church continues to meet online, and yes, I know we can still have church in our own homes. Despite Zoom hiccups or video snafus, God is worshipped and His Word is proclaimed. But we’re missing something. A lot of something. But we’re not alone in that and, despite what everyone may be trying to tell you, this isn’t the first time it’s happened either.
There’s a history of Christians being separated from communion with God and with each other. The Bible is filled with story after story of people separated, set apart, and ‘fasting’ from gathering together. Far from a collection of fairy tales, the Bible has real stories of real people, and by looking at them we can get real encouragement for our life apart.
The first glimpse of this distance is found at the very beginning of Genesis, in chapter 3. “Therefore the Lord God sent [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.” (v.23) God justly separated Adam and Eve from the garden after their sin, the first sin. They’re separated from direct communion with God and cast into a fallen world of their own creation. But God doesn’t leave them without hope! He promises salvation through Jesus, and while they have to wait awhile for it to come around, God’s grace abounds. Much like Adam and Eve, we may feel cut off from our favorite things about gathering to be with God. Also much like Adam and Eve, we may feel like the end to the quarantine is taking awhile to come around. But we also know that God’s promise of salvation is already here! Jesus has come, He has saved us from our sins, and He will come again. Like Adam and Eve, we can hold out hope for the joyful reunion with God.
Another example comes in 1 Samuel, where David must flee from the reign of an angry king Saul (v.10). Despite doing no wrong, David was forced to stay separate not only from his family and friends, but also from time in the temple of God. He wandered into the wilderness, stayed in caves, and lived in places where others didn’t worship God. But what did David do while he was separated from communion with God and others? He prayed. He composed a large part of the book of Psalms. He wrote hymns and held his faith close. Much like David, we’ve done nothing to bring our isolation upon ourselves. Much like David, we’re forced to stay separate from our church and those we love. But also like David, we can continue to pray, to keep our faith, to hold out hope that someday soon the “reign” of the virus will end and we can rejoin those we love.
We can look at the New Testament as well for support. Paul spent most of his ministry traveling and spreading the Good News, and in exchange he received no small amount of trouble, including being thrown in prison! In Acts 16:25, we read that “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” We might not be physically bound, but we can feel imprisoned in our own homes. The social distancing orders can feel like chains after weeks and weeks (what day of quarantine are we on again?). We have some benefits, however, that Paul and Silas didn’t. Many of us have bibles and hymnals in our homes. We have access to church services aplenty online. We can re-watch each Sunday’s worship, or listen to Christian music from any number of sources, or pray the favorite prayers we’ve committed to memory. We too, like Paul, can pray and sing hymns. We too, like Silas, can continue to worship God in our own homes (even if they feel like prison).
It’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to like it. But being separated from Communion with God and each other is temporary, and we should do our best to keep that in mind. And while we wait to be reunited, we can find hope and strength in scripture. These are just some of the examples of separation in scripture; there are so very many more. God has provided us with a book full of people from which we can draw inspiration. We can hold out hope for an end to our separation like Adam and Eve. We can continue to pray and keep the faith like David. We can worship God and sing his praises like Paul and Silas. And we can trust that God will never abandon us, even in “unprecedented times.”
Portions of this article were inspired by the essay “Examples of Liturgical Fasts in the Bible” by Rev. A. Brian Flamme, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Roswell, New Mexico