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Canceling Worship as an Act of Worship: Reflections on Social Distancing

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God describes himself as, and calls us to be, a protector of the weak and vulnerable. In biblical terminology this was widows, orphans, and sojourners. But right now this is not only the elderly but also those who have weakened immune systems for any reason.

 

We are in a difficult and confusing moment in world history. How are we to think about calls for social distancing that mean an extraordinary pause not only in the weekly gathering for Sunday worship, but also in many other facets of being with each other? Is it Christian to do this? Is there a distinctly Christian way to do this?

The implication of social distancing that is most troubling to us is refraining from gathering in person on Sunday to worship. This is so because this aspect of social distancing highlights most pointedly the tension that also pertains to many other aspects of it – we are refraining from good things. Not just things we enjoy, but things that are righteous, things we are commanded to do. Gathering together, breaking bread together (both in the sacrament and in frequent social dining), showing hospitality, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, even showing familial love through physical proximity and touch (“Greet each other with a holy kiss”) – these are all things we should be doing to express our love and communion in Christ. And, as expressions of our union with Christ, this communion we have with each other is at the same time worship of the One in whom we are united. Also, these things are not merely “duties,” things we do because we’re told to.  They are our delight. They are in fact foretastes of the new creation.  They are some of the chief ways we get to enjoy here and now the joys of eternal fellowship with God and each other we look forward to in the life to come.

So how should we understand our current deprivation?  Here is my thesis. This too is love. This too is an expression of Union with Christ. This too is worship.

1. This too is love. There is no doubt that physical closeness is one important way to express our love for others – but not in circumstances when physical closeness endangers others. The medical community and mathematical models are telling us that aggressive “social distancing” is key to preventing a spike in infections which would overwhelm the health system and result in many more deaths. Voluntary limiting of our social contact is not to be motivated by fear or self-protection but by love. It is a loving adherence to the 6th commandment, making “endeavors… to preserve the life of others” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.68).

Even more than that, it is a loving expression of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”  Beyond the aspect of obedience to authorities, this commandment directs us to give a deference and respect to the elderly – our fathers and mothers. This is especially the case now when it is our fathers and mothers who are most at risk from this virus. It is a terrible dishonor to them to recklessly socialize on the basis of a confidence in the recovery statistics for our own age group.

Further, God describes himself as, and calls us to be, a protector of the weak and vulnerable. In biblical terminology this was widows, orphans, and sojourners. But right now this is not only the elderly but also those who have weakened immune systems for any reason. Mentioning this should remind us that we have been “social distancing” for this reason for some time already. As you know, one of our families has had to miss our physical gatherings for nearly a year in order to love and care for their daughter in her fight with leukemia. And we have had to temporarily distance ourselves from them. Isolation is painful. We know this has been difficult for them, and now are all called to isolate. Though we are all experiencing suffering.

2. This too is union with Christ. Have you heard that it was written “that the Christ must first suffer and then enter into glory” (Luke 24:26)?  This is the pattern shown in promise form throughout the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus’ own life. Jesus could see “the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), and a huge part of that joy was being together with us, his bride. But for the sake of that joy, he was willing to suffer – and that suffering could be described in many ways, but one thing it was at least was social distancing, the most horrific social distancing the universe has ever or will ever see. Being physically with us was for Jesus a taste of the fellowship that was to come. But he willingly gave that up on the cross – out of love for us, to save us from eternal death, to protect us who were vulnerable to condemnation. While his people were at worship on that Sabbath day, Jesus was socially isolated, in the tomb, in the full infinite isolation of death – infinitely distant not only from us, but from the Father himself.

One of the mysteries of our union with Christ is that we share not only in the hope of new creation glory, but we also share in the pattern of suffering first before entering that glory (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10; Col. 2:24; 1 Pet. 1:6). This suffering is never the same as the atoning suffering of the savior, but it is like his suffering; our pattern is his pattern. This will come in many forms. We have the opportunity right now to experience one form – voluntarily depriving ourselves of the joy of fellowship and corporate worship, not out of neglect, but in love, for the joy set before us, to love our neighbors and preserve their lives and invite them to know eternal life.

3. This too is worship. To do this is to bear the image of Christ. We are united to him. We love like him, even if that love requires us to suffer the loss, for a time, of the things that pertain to our future joy.  And so, through something that will not be a part of the new creation, social distancing and temporary cancellation of corporate worship, we display the glory of Christ. Cancelling worship – for a time – is an act of worship.

Come Lord Jesus, and gather us to yourself.

Dr. Jim Weidenaar is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as an Assistant Pastor at First Reformed PCA in Pittsburgh, Penn. This article is used with permission.

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