On Theology and the Christian Life: The grace of visible community
April 17, 2020
At the moment, we’re all in a kind of pandemic-inflicted exile. And exile, no doubt, is always hard. Nevertheless, as God is gracious, there is ever an opportunity to teach and learn. What can be learned when, in our community and nation, Christians have been forced into isolated services; when Christians must now be together apart?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” writes, “It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament,” (emphasis added). What, then, can be learned as you continue to hear God’s Word from home is what, perhaps, many Christians have often taken for granted; namely, that the visible, onsite gathering of Christian congregations is a grace that God affords us. That should be obvious, really. But I read these words from Bonhoeffer in the renewed light of this time of testing. “It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament.”
You ought to know that now in light of the fact that it is not permitted at present. You might say, “The government isn’t permitting it,” and this is, in part, true. But Paul calls our governing officials ministers of God for our sake (Romans 13). Stay-at-home orders have not been issued as an act of persecution against Christian congregations. Our earthly rulers are issuing such things for the sake of the public good; a thing Christians ought to be most interested in. And, as the governing officials carry out these duties — perhaps not always the way we think they ought to — we bear under them. We pray along with the Psalmist How long, O Lord? (Psalm 13). And yet, we also bear this cross and use this time of exile to reflect on the fact that, again, “it is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament.”
How often have I, as a pastor, thought on the Lord’s Day “Man, just another day of work” as I drive to and from Chinook as opposed to giving thanks that God’s mercy is new every morning? And that it is a mercy that my car travels down a paved highway to see his blood-bought people in order that I might preach life-giving words to those who, by his grace, have been permitted to gather visibly around His Word and Sacrament? How much I long for it now that it is not permitted. How much do I have to repent of?
“It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament.” But how often is it treated as something owed to you by right; some freedom owed because “This is America”? Or thought of as a thing that is there when you decide it is important or to be preferred? The visible gathering of the church is not owed by right. That it is by grace teaches this precisely, because if it is owed by right, it is no longer freely given by grace. But how often have we all come and gone as we please? How often do we reflect upon the grace of God when we hear gathered voices singing the responses and the hymns, standing for the Gospel, praying the Psalms and the Amens, stretching out hands to place offerings in the plates, praying the Our Father, kneeling at the altar, and all the rest? “It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament.”
“Not all Christians partake of this grace,” Bonhoeffer points out, and he mentions “the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora.” We all now belong to those Christians who do not partake of the grace of the visible gathering around God’s Word and Sacrament. This doesn’t mean, of course, we don’t partake of God’s grace at all and God be praised for that. As Bonhoeffer writes, “Yet what is denied us as a visible experience we grasp more ardently in faith.” And how gracious God is to bring the hearing of the Word to many through the technology we are now blessed to have.
So, for now, dear Christians, and again, you are not left with nothing; you are not left without God’s grace at all. To be sure, you’re left without the grace of a visible gathering. And it hurts. Now, more than ever, all the talk of folks who despise the communal gathering of Christians should be cast aside. You cannot go at it alone. I pray those who have not been in a visible gathering might realize this even if, for them, not much has changed.
But in his reflection on those who cannot partake of the grace of a visible gathering, Bonhoeffer comfortingly writes, “’In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day’” the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the author of the Apocalypse, celebrates the worship of heaven with its congregations in the loneliness of the Island of Patmos.” There, he was exiled.
So, you, too, might think of your own homes as a little Patmos. Know this: As the Word of God is preached, however it continues to come to you, there — right where you are — Christian faith flourishes, even if our earthly eyes, ears, and emotions betray this truth, for the flourishing of faith is nothing other than Christ’s dear sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd. You are exiled in loneliness, but not really alone.
In this time of exile, be like all who cannot partake of the grace of a visible gathering; who “know that visible community is grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes. I pray this time has this effect on every Christian; that it is will renew a desire, a longing, a thirst for the grace of visible community, bound together by the Word and Sacraments in the Lord Jesus Christ. As the deer pants for the water brooks, the Psalmist writes, so pants my soul for You, O God, (Psalm 42). God grant us all this panting desire to be gathered visibly, again, by His grace.
Yes, the visible community is grace and, for now, you don’t have it. But you’re not without the gracious blessing of the Word and our Lord Christ by which Christians are bound together, whether you feel it or not. Pray God that He soon bestows upon us the grace of our visible gathering again. And when he does — when things are back to normal and you’re settled into your day-to-day — never forget and give thanks that “it is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s Word and Sacrament.”
Pastor Marcus Williams
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Havre
Zion Lutheran Church, Chinook