by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
I think discerning Christians have learned three important lessons over the last couple of years. First, the church’s necessary responses to the pandemic have revealed how critical it is to deepen the capacity to communicate effectively and creatively through digital technology. Thanks be to God for the ability to worship, study, and meet online during COVID.
Second, we have had to learn what should have always been obvious: digital forms of belonging are inferior to embodied forms of belonging. We are enfleshed creatures endowed by God for “in-person” community. We need to be together in the flesh if we are to experience human flourishing. The virus has done immense damage to Church vitality and faithful commitment the world over as people have understandably remained disconnected from gathered community for months. But now, all who can safely gather need recommitment to gathering again.
Third, I argue we have also learned that faithful immersion in embodied, local Christian community is the most healthful way to engage our fractured society. At a time when many of our cultural institutions from the government to the media to education to entertainment are sources of social division rather than cohesion, it is clear for believers that our culture desperately needs visible signs of the gospel lived together among people who are not all the same. Never in my lifetime has Jesus’ exhortation for his followers to be “salt and light” seemed more urgent (Matthew 5:13-16).
The strong call to regather as the parish family of St. John the Divine is the theme for this issue of The Vine, the first edition in several years! I am very pleased with the resumption of this communication tool of the church. I hope you will find the information about our robust ministries inside helpful and encouraging. Despite the challenges of the past years, I am convinced our community is poised for an exciting new life in the immediate future.
Again, fundamental to Christian understanding is that we were created with a deep yearning for social belonging. There seems no doubt about a mutually sustaining relationship between belonging and believing. Indeed, the history of the early church was precisely that the spread of the gospel occurred most prominently among those who were already in settings of social belonging: in families and extended households, among neighbors living close by, and with those in working relationships or shared civic engagements. Reflecting on Scripture, I believe one could say that the New Testament canon is less about articulating the precise theological doctrines of the faith (that would come later) and more about the story of people who come to place Jesus at the center of their lives together.
I suggest two realms of life where you might consider a recommitment to personal regathering as the church. First, the primal social and spiritual unit is the family. It is significant that God’s initial covenant with Israel is rooted in a family: Abraham, Sarah, and their promised offspring. Repeatedly in the Bible, this covenant relationship is described in familial terms. Christians need families. Ideally, children first learn about the faith from their parents, as the family is the locus of discipleship and accountability, the social unit wherein we are introduced to God, learn to pray and read the Bible, and share the Lord’s love in intimate, safe, and supportive ways. Of course, not all of us have nuclear families which is why the church also understands the vital importance of study groups and small groups to function in much the same way. I am placing a high priority on the engagement of more families in our corporate life and growing numbers of people participating in small groups.
Also, Christians need to be mindful that our faith is not limited to our private lives, our closest personal relationships, or our online connection with the church. Our life as Christians is anchored in corporate worship. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem became the primary symbol of national identity and the focal point of Jewish worship life in ancient Israel, so does our weekly gathering on Sundays as the body of Christ – the true and everlasting Temple – represents the focal point for our community life and identity. Worship of the Lord is our highest ministry, the one from which all others flow, and I am beseeching us all to consider again how to make worship attendance a priority in our own lives.
We continue to live through times and circumstances demanding flexible and innovative responses if we are to remain connected and carry forth the gospel. However, the unchanging nature of Christian belonging demands that each of us to consider anew how we might not only commit to life together as members of SJD but how we might bless the parish by doing so.