When you come together … reflections on community in the midst of a pandemic

“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor 14:28). So writes Paul to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth.

In these words, Paul indicates the importance—some would say, the highest priority—of gathering together in communal worship. The body of Christ, meeting together, in one place at the one time, sharing fellowship as we share in worship, is accorded central importance in the life of the church, back then in Corinth, as now in our own times.

How do we understand that imperative, now, in the midst of a growing sense of anxiety and uncertainty, as the pandemic of COVID-19 gradually makes it presence felt more clearly and definitively? And what will we doing as communities of faith, as we face the reality that gathering together as a community of faith might become limited or prohibited?

I When you come together …

It is clear from various New Testament passages, that communal worship was regular, expected, and valued, right across the movement that arose amongst the earliest followers of Jesus. This is evident, at face value, in the fact that all but one of the authentic letters of Paul were written to gathered communities: one to Rome, two to Corinth, one to Philippi, one to Thessalonica, and one to the region of Galatia.

There is only one authentic letter which we say was sent to an individual, Philemon—but even at the start of that letter, after naming Philemon and two other individuals, Paul continues, “and to the church in your house” (Phlm 2). And even in the later letters, attributed to Paul but not directly authored by him, the individuals addressed (Timothy and Titus) are given clear instructions regarding the ordering of life within the community of faith.

Elsewhere in his first (extant) letter to the Corinthians, Paul reflects what took place in those communal gatherings (1 Cor 14:26). It sounds like many of the elements we find in our communal worship today, as Paul lists the various elements that the Corinthians brought into worship: “a hymn [singing songs or choruses], a lesson [from scripture], a revelation [sharing our experience of faith with each other], a tongue [offering prayers], or an interpretation [the function of a sermon]” (1 Cor 14:26).

It is also evident that interpersonal interaction was integral to what took place when those communities of faith gathered. “Greet one another with a holy kiss”, Paul instructs the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:20 and 2 Cor 13:12), as well as the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:26) and the Romans (Rom 16:16). (The same instruction appears at 1 Peter 5:14). These five verses all indicate that first century worship was not just sitting formally and watching what went on at the front; it was interactive, engaging, personal.

II Greet one another …

One of my colleagues, Sarah Agnew, suggests that the best way to translate these five verses is by referring to a “holy embrace”, rather than a “holy kiss”. That understanding is premised on the fact that the Greek word which is translated as “greet” in these texts, contains elements of making personal contact which are both interpersonal (greetings) and also physical (the word can be used to signify hugging or embracing). See https://www.academia.edu/28243257/A_call_to_enact_relationships_of_mutual_embrace_Romans_16_in_performance

Given that, then, on each of the sixteen times that Paul instructs for greetings to be given to named individuals in Romans 16, he may well be saying something like, “give them a hug from me”. Such relationships were personal and intimate.

This rendering takes us to the heart of community—and to the centre of the controversy swirling around the current situation with COVID-19 (which is the technical way of referring to “the novel coronavirus disease 2019”). The ancient practice clearly envisaged that physical contact was involved.

Physical contact, in the intimacy of either a kiss (on the cheek) or an embrace (with the upper body), is now, we are told, not advisable, given the way that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 (or, indeed, the common cold—which is itself a form of a coronavirus) are spread.

How do we reconcile these current guidelines with the scriptural injunctions? Do we ignore current guidelines (and keep on meeting together) because “the Bible says…” ? Or, do we turn away from strict biblical teaching (and stop our gatherings), because of contemporary concerns about the pandemic?

See my reflections, from a week ago, on this, at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/05/passing-the-peace-sharing-the-elements-greeting-the-minister/

III Be separate from them

Alongside the texts cited above, there are other biblical references that we ought to consider. One cluster of passages to consider relates to keeping separate from the community in certain circumstances. Paul himself advocates keeping a certain level of separateness in his advice to the Corinthians, quoting a Hebrew scripture passage, “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; and I will welcome you” (2 Cor 6:17).

(I note there is scholarly debate as to whether this section of 2 Corinthians was actually written by Paul himself, or added by a later scribe or compiler. Nevertheless, the passage he quotes is in our scripture, and we need to make sense of it in our context.)

Paul is here quoting Isaiah 52:11, verses immediately before the famous song of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), which sets forth the means for the redemption of Israel through the work of the Servant. Israel, the holy nation, is to be set apart, sanctified, separated from the nations which surrounded it. That is why the holy (clean, sanctified and redeemed) people of Israel are to remain separate from the common (unclean, sinful and unrighteous) peoples of the nations.

But it is entirely possible that we could (if we pursue a certain hermeneutical approach) adopt 2 Cor 6:17 into our current context, and use it as a text for advocating the kinds of distancing and separation advised by government health departments and religious institutions: do not shake hands, do not embrace, do not share a common cup, do not let there be anyway of passing on the virus to others, do not do any of the things that we value in our coming together as a community of faith—even, do not come together to worship and share together.

I am not advocating this line of interpretation, let me clear; I am just noting that some might be attracted to going down this pathway. But I think that is too simple: staying apart because we are set apart, consecrated, holy. That is sectarian thinking, and that is not how I think the church needs to be. We need to think further about “how to be church” in the crisis situation of a global pandemic.

IV Care for the needy

Alongside these biblical injunctions, there are other instructions and admonition that are found in scripture. These are equally valid and equally binding upon us, as we think about how to be church. I am thinking, at this time, particularly of the responsibilities that we have towards those who people within our midst are most in need of care and support.

In Hebrew Scriptures, the Law advocates this as a priority: take care of the needy: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour”. (Deut 15:7).

This commandment is precisely what Jesus was alluding to, in the scene set in Bethany, where Mary anoints his feet, when he says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8), where he was referring to Deut 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”

The command to care for the needy is replicated in other places in the Bible the Psalmist exhorts is to “rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:3-4), amd in Proverbs we are exhorted to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:8-9). These instructions to the people of Israel are based upon the understanding that the Lord God “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing” (Deut 10:18).

The ancient instructions to care for the needy are replicated in the New Testament, in instructions spoken by Jesus (Mark 10:21), in the blessings he spoke (Luke 6:20), in his signature synagogue sermon (Luke 4:18-19), and in the description of his ministry as fulfilling prophecy (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus demonstrated the priority of caring for people at their point of need.

Such an orientation is also found in directions in the epistles (Eph 4:28; James 2:1-7; 1 John 3:17), as well as in the summary description of the early community of believers who gathered in Jerusalem (Act 4:34-35, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and … it was distributed to each as any had need”).

My colleague Chris Goringe has written in a very helpful way about how we could, in fact, take the opportunity of the moment, in the pandemic crisis, to refocus and intensify our efforts to care for one another, paying particular attention to those who are in need. See

https://roseville.unitingchurch.org.au/2020/03/covid-19-and-the-church/

In the UK, a useful resource encouraging us to care for one another has been published by the Anglican Bishop of St Albans, at https://www.stalbans.anglican.org/coronavirus/

In my mind, helping the person in need is as central to our faith as it is to gather together in fellowship and worship. That, it seems to me, is the word for our times, a time of global pandemic, where the number of affected needy people is increasing on a regular—and frightening—basis.

We would do well to remember, in this instance, the words of Jesus in the last parable he spoke in the Gospel of Matthew: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

V Community in the midst of a pandemic

The context that the whole world now finds it in, is that of a pandemic. The alarmingly rapid spread of this virus is leading to a disturbingly rapid increase in instances of people who are significantly impacted by the virus. The rate of growth in cases is exponential, meaning that it is doubling each day. That is very worrying.

In this context, we need to ask: who are the needy? The best medical advice indicates that there a number of factors which predispose certain people towards being seriously affected by this virus. Age and health are two key factors; people aged 65 and over are more likely to contract the virus, and people with one or more of the co-morbidity factors are likewise at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Co-morbidity factors include hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiovascular disease (heart problems), chronic respiratory disease (breathing difficulties), diabetes, and cancer. Anyone with one or more of these can be viewed in terms of their being one of “the needy”, who are to receive particular care from other believers. Avoiding situations where such people are exposed to a greater risk of contacting the virus, is surely a responsibility that we have, as a community of faith.

See this accessible discussion of co-morbidity factors at https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/examining-factors-that-worsen-coronavirus-severity

Occasions when large groups of people are gathered together are precisely the situations when the passing of the virus to other people can occur. People with a number of the factors that predispose them to be significantly impacted by the virus are at greater risk in such situations. Our responsibility in this situation is, not only to those in our community of faith, but, more widely, to those in the society of which we are a part. We are committed, after all, to “the common good” (see Neh 2:8 and Gal 6:10).

That raises, for me, the question as to how we balance the desire, and the felt importance, of gathering together for worship and fellowship, with the responsibility of the community of faith to care for the needy, and particularly, for the elderly and medically unhealthy individuals who are found, inevitably, across all of the Congregations of the church. What is the responsible way forward?

The worship service that I attended today was scheduled to be a service of Holy Communion. During the week, after considering the medical advice available and the evidence concerning the spread of the virus, the elders decided to hold a service without communion. An empty plate and goblet stood at the front, as the minister—my wife, Elizabeth Raine—led a time of lamenting and remembering, in place of a full communion. See https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2020/03/a-lament-for-communion.html

However, there are further questions to explore. Should we suspend our regular worship gatherings, until the peak of the pandemic has passed? Caring for the needy—ensuring that we do not place them in a situation of greater risk—would seem, to me, to mitigate the need, and the desire, to gather each week for worship. We may well be better served to suspend our gatherings for the moment. That would be a good way to show that we are serious about “opening our hands to the poor and needy neighbour in our land” (Deut 15:7).

Gathering together on a Sunday for worship and fellowship is precisely the thing about “being church” that is valued by the group most exposed to risks in the current pandemic. People over 65 make up the majority of church attenders in any denomination, as, indeed, in many denominations. Older people attending are what keeps many Sunday worship services continuing. They have a strong commitment (so they keep on telling me) to keeping the doors open, making a witness to the community, by worshipping each Sunday.

So closing worship on Sunday in the face of such intense commitment will be difficult. But it might now be the issue that we need to confront, and the decision that we need to take, if we want to ensure that the incidence if illness and, indeed, the death rate, amongst elderly and inform church members is minimised. It is that serious, that dangerous, and that pressing.

Up to date statistics on the spread of the virus in Australia can be found at https://www.covid19data.com.au/

The NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church has published guidelines for how we act during the pandemic, at https://nswact.uca.org.au/communications/newsroom/letter-from-the-general-secretary-regarding-the-prevention-of-novel-coronavirus-covid-19/

In the USA, the Wisconsin Council of Churches has a very helpful and comprehensive set of resources available at https://www.wichurches.org/2020/02/28/flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=flu-season-the-coronavirus-and-the-church

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

3 thoughts on “When you come together … reflections on community in the midst of a pandemic”

  1. Thanks John, you managed to sneak in ahead of my less exegetical reflection, but I have referenced you for the benefit of the masses. Fully agree that the better hermeneutic is care for the needy, not purity of the holy. I reckon by the end of the week both blogs may need to be updated and rewritten. Autre temps, autres moeurs. Cheers Graham

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