Communion, Coronavirus, & the Songs of Ascents

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of the month and for my church that typically means observing the Lord’s Supper. The ordinance of Communion, in which we eat and drink of a very physical bread and cup in remembrance of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus for our redemption and our continual need of His grace, is not being taken by us. While fixing our gaze upon Christ’s crucifixion and our salvation, the Lord’s Supper also displays the unity of God’s people. As we together eat the bread and drink the cup, we are reminded that we are each saved from the same curse of sin by the same Savior. Without the gathered community, Communion loses much of its message.

We aren’t observing the Lord’s Supper because we aren’t gathered together. But why aren’t we gathered together? Life in the time of coronavirus is a life of physical separation. Like it or not, agree with it or not, this is the season that we are in. The ill and older persons among us are the most vulnerable, but everyone is capable of spreading it further abroad. Local, state, and federal governments have responded by prohibiting gatherings, including churches. Disagree as we might, this is not an attack on religious liberty. If anything, the message of the gospel is being proclaimed far and wide across the internet through this shutdown. Civil magistrates are making what they believe is the best decision to save the most lives. As Christians, we know that physical safety is not the most important factor for decision making, but it is not insignificant. A steadfast resolve to gather together regardless of the outcome is likely to be seen by non-Christians as an act of recklessness that could (through various points of contact) actually bring physical harm. Should we not instead strive for the testimony of being a people who show a ready willingness to abide by the governmental guidelines, who are passionately grounded upon the Word in both physical and digital interactions, and who are prepared to serve others, even from a distance? This season has certainly brought many losses, but it has also yielded an abundance of opportunities. The local congregations of Christ’s church will survive this suspension of our corporate gatherings and even of the Lord’s Supper.

Yet our hearts should rightfully yearn for the physical gathering again. Each week our assembly on Sunday is a reminder of Christ’s resurrection and of our future as the New Jerusalem. Every worship service is a mini-Jerusalem, and each time we gather, we are returning from a week of sojourning in the foreign lands of the world. To use the language of the Songs of Ascents, we enter the house of the LORD after dwelling for the rest of the week in Meshech and Kedar. But for this season, we have no Jerusalem. We try to sing songs of hope and joy from our own homes, but the sound rings flat without our brothers and sisters there to sing with us. We feed upon the proclaimed Word with thankful hearts from our screens and speakers, but it’s not the same as sitting before the pulpit, ready to be fed from God’s Word. We continue to worship, but inwardly we lament, “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land” (Psalm 137:4)?

The entire life of a Christian is one of exile and sojourning, and an unlooked for grace resulting from our inability to assemble is that many of us are feeling that reality for the first time. This time should be uncomfortable. It should feel wrong. It should remind us that we are not home yet, that even our weekly foretaste of New Jerusalem is not our eternal home. In His faithfulness, the LORD always provides our daily bread, but no two meals are the same. By God’s providence, we are experiencing this exile from some of our regular spiritual disciplines and means of grace, but the leaf of God’s people does not whither during such famines. Indeed, it is while journeying through life’s valleys that the LORD often most shapes and conforms us to the image of His Son.

For expressing our aches and longings to God, the entire book of Psalms is unrivaled, yet particularly, I would counsel God’s people to consider the Songs of Ascents. Written as psalms for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for worship at the commanded feasts and festivals, Psalms 120-134 describe the exhaustion of sojourning, the longing to be among God’s people, the cry for God’s protection and salvation, and the beauty of being in the house of the LORD. Until our feet are again standing within Jerusalem’s gates, pray the words of these psalms daily to God, knowing that “He will not let your foot be moved” (Psalm 121:3). This season too shall pass, and “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5).

O church, “hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption” (Psalm 130:7).

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