Pandemics force us all to change, whether we like it or not. Among the most drastic changes are restrictions on travel, gathering with others, and going about our business—literally our means of livelihood but also our range of activities outside our homes. Pandemics claim our attention, require us to do life differently than before, and raise questions about whether we can go back to the way things used to be. Or whether we really want to go back, should that be an option.
Isn’t it odd that for many followers of Jesus, the most obvious and painful change is the inability to gather in our church-buildings for worship? Indeed, for some the restriction feels like a kind of suffering, even persecution. It is as though Jesus commanded that we assemble with others in a given space at least once a week to do all the things we’re accustomed to doing. And, now, we are required to disobey Jesus, which by the way also violates our rights as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution!
Now, you can relax. It is important, even essential, for followers of Jesus to gather for worship, mutual caring and sharing, praying, learning, and equipping for serving others in his name. And, I miss this along with a host of other kinds of gathering. And, yes, there is also an important right, guaranteed by our Constitution, to assemble and to worship according to conscience.
Yet, Jesus did not give such a command per se, and he certainly did not issue a command to worship in the ways and places that have come to mean so much to us. Similarly, though I would venture to guess that Jesus would be pleased with the U.S. Constitution on this point, he failed to mention assembling for worship among the few critical matters he did stress after he was raised from the dead.
You might be thinking that Jesus wouldn’t have to issue commands and instructions on worship because he would assume it was unnecessary. His disciples would not need such a command. Fair enough. But this fact does not diminish the priority and even urgency of what Jesus did stress.
Luke tells us (Acts 1) that Jesus stressed the reality of his being alive and with his disciples. Alive! From the dead! With them! Then, he spent some forty days instructing them on the Kingdom of God—undoubtedly, stressing that God was their ultimate King, that Jesus’ teachings, healings, serving and suffering and even dying were, in fact, what brings God’s Kingdom to their world, and now stood before them as a path or way for them to walk, among other things. Then, Jesus told them they needed the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and God their Father was promising to meet this need. Finally, Jesus commanded them to wait for the coming, filling and indwelling Spirit to empower them to fan out across their world as witnesses to Jesus. From the story of Acts that follows, these Spirit-filled disciple/apostles led a movement that changed the world, down to our present pandemic days.
Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, they were assembled together. What’s more, they were of one mind and heart, and they had given themselves to fervent prayer until they reached a kind of spiritual-fission-point and the Spirit filled the room and lives of all who were there.
So, gathering was/is important to the story (which continues today, by the way), but what made the gathering so critical and strategic for Jesus’ mission was more than simply “coming together.” It was the preparation that Jesus alive from the dead gave them, particularly on the nature of God’s Kingdom and what a life-shaped by that Kingdom was like. Then, added to that, it was their further preparation through prayerful seeking and waiting for the Spirit of God to come upon them. Granted this kind of preparation, their gathering became world-changing.
The post-pandemic day will come when “our constitutional right” to gather for worship will be restored. I am sure there will be great celebrations when the day comes. And I am sure there will be much joy in the first post-pandemic gatherings of Jesus-followers.
But will they/we be in position to realize the post-pandemic possibilities for the mission of Jesus? We have been forced to gather “virtually,” and many churches have found multiple ways to carry on ministry to one another and the world. Some have discovered new ways to be the Body of Christ which will only enrich their mission once they resume gathering together.
But will they/we be in position to realize the post-pandemic possibilities? Come Pentecost Sunday, will there be Kingdom-committed and Kingdom-oriented followers of Jesus, forgiven and free from known sin and distraction, fervently praying and confidently expecting Spirit-visitation that has transforming impact on our part of the world?
Could Pentecost 2020, or whenever bodily gatherings are prudent and permitted, be a point of turning for the nation and world? I think this is one of the post-pandemic possibilities for a church who follows the lead of the risen Lord Jesus, retools itself in Kingdom ways, covenants together to pray fervently and expectantly for fullness of the Spirit and for fruitfulness in the world that only God the Spirit can generate.