At the risk of stating the obvious, a lot of people have been feeling cooped up.
I suspect the introverts are doing a little better than their more extraverted cousins, but that doesn’t make it a party. I know people who are living alone, itching to get out and be with someone, longing for just a hug or two. And for Christians accustomed to gathering together to enjoy a morning of worship and fellowship, Sundays have been a bit of a trial.
Don’t get me wrong: I am personally thankful for all the technology that allows us to meet virtually in ways that were unheard of until just recently. An old word — “Zoom” — has taken on new meaning, becoming as ubiquitous in daily conversation as “Google.” A couple of months ago, if you had told someone, “I’ve been Zooming all day,” they would have taken your meaning very differently.
So kudos to all the people who work so hard to keep us virtually connected during the pandemic. I’m grateful.
At the same time, we have to admit: while virtual church is a blessing, it isn’t the same. There’s not a doughnut in sight. And when we finally get back together, there’s going be a lot of hugging.
In a recent Sunday sermon, we were reminded that the word “church,” biblically speaking, refers to a people, not a place. We are the church, even if we can’t go to church. It’s a good reminder for these days of pandemic.
Somewhat ironically, the New Testament word that we translate as “church” is ekklesia, from a root which literally means to be “called out.” It’s used to refer to an assembly of people — though not necessarily a religious one. In Acts 19, for example, the word refers both to the riotous mob that wants to string up Paul’s associates in Ephesus (vss. 32, 41), and the legal court (“lawful assembly”) to which the rioters are told to take their grievances.
The word, therefore, doesn’t mean “church” in any special or exclusive sense. It was a normal, everyday word, used to refer to groups who assembled for a variety of reasons. The New Testament writers who used the word probably didn’t mean it to be read in any special sense beyond just “assembly.”
So are we the church when we don’t assemble? Is assembling online a permissible substitute in times of emergency? Can we be called out when we can’t get out?
As the New Testament makes abundantly clear, the Christian life is not simply about the beliefs and moral behavior of isolated individuals. The Christian life is life in community, life together — because the truth of the gospel is demonstrated in transformed relationships. The assembly should assemble. That’s the name of the game.
But what if we can’t?
The church is the assembly of those who are called out. As the apostle Peter once wrote to scattered and persecuted believers — people who in their own way were struggling with hope — we are called out of darkness and into “his amazing light” (1 Pet 2:9, CEB). That’s important to remember as we slog through what feel like endlessly dark days. Peter urges believers to cling to hope and live in a way that witnesses to the truth of the gospel, looking forward to the day in which that hope will finally be vindicated.
But in case you’ve never noticed, the church is made up of some pretty ordinary and fallible folk. As that modern prophet B. B. King once observed, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” As the “called out ones,” there doesn’t seem to be much that makes us particularly special. How can we be the kind of witnesses that Peter describes?
Grab onto this: hope doesn’t focus on the ones who have been called, but on the One who calls.
I hope we are able once again to assemble together soon. But in the meantime, even when we’re cooped up, even when we don’t get out, we’re still called out. Wherever we happen to be, we can fix our eyes on the One who calls — and endure.