A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on January 10, 2021 by Revd Dr Samuel Wells.
Baptism of Christ
‘I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.’ It’s a phrase I used to hear a lot when I lived in America, when a person was telling me about a place where they felt happy like never before. But let’s imagine for a moment now that you had died and gone to heaven. What would it really be like?
I suggest heaven is the end of painful separation. The hardest things in life are about painful separation. There’s someone you love, but you can’t be with them. There’s someone you’ve had a fight with, and you can’t be reconciled. There’s a social group from whom you’re alienated, and there’s no gesture you can make to rectify the situation. Most of all there’s the essence of all things, God, from whom you’ve been separated in a thousand ways, but with whom you’re now united.
But there’s something else about heaven, that runs somehow counter to the end of painful separation. That’s because there’s such a thing as healthy separation. We want to be close to one another, to hug, now especially, to play, to talk and interact, perhaps to be very intimate; but not to lose our identity, to be the same as each other, with no separate being. Even when we love someone passionately, their difference is at least as thrilling as their sameness. And if we think of God, we’re not sure we want simply to be absorbed into the divine essence. We’d actually like to keep our own identity, a healthy separateness, thank you – even if we lose all the negative associations of that separateness.
So this balance, between the togetherness that’s like being utterly united, and the separateness that ensures this is relationship and not absorption, names the perfection of being we strive for on earth and long for in heaven. We have a word for the togetherness – it’s called union. We have a word for the relationship – it’s called with. The Latin for with is com. Put the two words together and you have communion.
Communion is the centre of the Christian faith, because we believe it names the experience we can glimpse on earth that we can know fully in heaven. Being with but also being together. It also names the way in Christ the divine and the human come together: Jesus is one person, which is together, but has two natures, divine and human, which are with. Communion is also the word we give to the ceremony in which we tell our truthful story and infuse it with the story of God, with and union again, and the bread and wine are both ordinary foodstuffs and carriers of Jesus, who when we consume the elements is both in us and with us.
But being human isn’t just about feelings and experiences, the soft stuff, it’s also about the hard stuff of planning and preparing, paying for and making, organising and running, working and restoring. This is communion turned into practical action. We have a lightly different word for this – a word so similar to communion that it’s almost the same, but still different enough that it’s a separate word. That word is community.
Communion and community name the two aspirations of church. The one is about being in, and bringing others into, relationship with God; the other is about relating civilly, cordially and sacrificially with one another, and attending to the things that need doing to function humanly. When Jesus talks of the kingdom of God, he’s talking about this communion and community becoming a reality for all people.
Something significant happened this week in relation to these things. Last March we ceased to be able to experience communion and practise community in ways we’d assumed we always would. We discovered kinds of online interactions most of us had never known before and, in many cases, we started personally or professionally connecting with groups of people online in a way and to an extent we’d never done before. For what we might call the 2020 pandemic we saw this as a provisional measure to tide us over until we got back to new ways of relating. But with this week’s new and probably lengthy lockdown, we’re starting to realise not only that the virus and its variants might be with us for a long time yet, but that online ways of connecting aren’t just an interim make-do – they’re here to stay.
And that means it’s time for us to think seriously about what online communion means, and what online community really is. Let’s start with communion. Faith and discipleship don’t necessarily suffer or significantly change in our current circumscribed circumstances. We can still pray, grow in holiness, read scripture, seek God’s kingdom. What changes is church. In baptism we are made part of the body of Christ; we are no longer atomised individuals. When we gather for the Eucharist that body is restored in its divine sense when we make our confession and receive absolution and is renewed in its human sense when we share the peace with one another – especially with anyone from whom we’ve been estranged. In receiving communion, the body of Christ that is the church meets the body of Christ that is Jesus.
This isn’t just a present-tense thing. When we celebrate communion, we recall Jesus gathering at the Last Supper. We recall how he incorporated the Passover tradition and himself became the lamb of God whose sacrifice delivered the Hebrews from slavery. We recall Jesus’ words, ‘Do this and remember me.’ We are making the past present now. Like a ring that reminds the wearer of a commitment made in the past, celebrating communion is a renewal of our conviction that in Jesus, God has given us everything we need.
And the future tense is no less significant. We believe that, beyond death, we shall be raised to everlasting life; and that such life resembles a banquet, at which, as in the parable, we eat with the whole panoply of those God has sent Jesus to invite. Our engagement with the outcast, the enemy and the stranger today is rooted in our awareness that these are the people besides whom we shall be sitting in glory. The Eucharist is an anticipation of the way we shall be spending eternity.
Now here’s the important part. All the connections we may take for granted in a Eucharist – the forgiveness that makes us one with God, the reconciliation that makes us one with one another, the communion that gives us both with and together – and all the connections in the past with Passover and the Last Supper and in the future with the banquet of the dispossessed – they all depend on the action of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the bread and wine are just a wafer and a sip, reconciliation is just words, the Last Supper is just a story. When we say for us it’s a whole lot more than that, and that in an act of worship perhaps we felt we’d died and gone to heaven, we’re saying we felt the action of the Holy Spirit deeply and tangibly. So what happens in online communion is that the past and future dimensions are largely unchanged, but that in the present tense we’re needing the Holy Spirit to do more work than it usually does.
By that I mean we need the Holy Spirit to make us mindful of the diverse members of Christ’s body, rather than having many of them sitting all around us. We need the Holy Spirit to help us be reconciled with those from whom we’re estranged, when we can’t just go and shake their hand. We need the Holy Spirit to bring us face to face with who we are and who God is, when we can’t just eat the bread and drink the wine. It’s a bigger ask of the Holy Spirit. But let me tell you a secret: I think the Holy Spirit’s up to it. And sometimes the more you’re given the more grateful you are; and the more stretched you are the fitter you become.
Let’s turn to online community. Here the issues are different. We’re still talking about the practical outworking of being separate and together. But here’s it’s more obvious that there are some features of online community that genuinely enhance regular community. By this I mean social networking platforms enable a regularity and breadth of conversation and interaction person no one person could keep up – it carries on when you’re busy and you join in when you’re free. And teleconferencing makes possible a depth of international relationship we’ve never known before, instantaneously connecting us to people and fostering conversation across previously daunting distances and divides.
Of course this technology works better for some people and can leave others feeling left out. Meanwhile there are things essential to community that can’t happen online. Some of those things, like ensuring vulnerable people are brought their shopping and meeting destitute people in their isolation, incur some risk; although eradicating risk is never the only consideration where community is concerned. But I humbly suggest we consciously change our mode of talking about online community, from lament about the valuable things it can’t give us, to gratitude about the remarkable things it can. That means reconceiving these next few months: not as clinging on to as much of our old life as we can for as long as we can, hoping it’ll still be intact enough to be resumed when the pandemic ends – but instead as grasping a unique opportunity to explore online community to its fullest extent, in a conscious experiment in something of which we might otherwise never have recognised extraordinary potential.
The way to engage in community is not to say ‘In-person is deep and tangible and real, and online is superficial and trivial and disembodied’; it’s to say, ‘How can we learn to take part in online community in ways that expand, enrich and extend the capacity and quality of community as a whole?’ We’re never going to get a better chance to work on that than now. And, at the same time, we might alter our notion of charity from ‘Can I get you a sandwich?’ to ‘Can I help you access online community?’
The secret of happiness is learning to love the things our heavenly Father gives us in plenty and not setting our hearts on the things that are in short supply. The situation of being suffused with the things God gives in plenty, and wanting nothing else, is called heaven. We’re full of complaint about death, disease, disruption and distress. Why don’t we take this moment to re-examine the heart of our faith: communion and community? If we do, we might see that what we’re being offered is a deeper understanding of how the Holy Spirit creates connections that constitute communion; and a greater appreciation for the abundant ways to be community.
If so, by the end of the pandemic we may or may not have died and gone to heaven: but we’ll be much better prepared for the communion and community we’ll discover when we do.