Early on in the COVID-19 Pandemic, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau advised people to not “speak moistly on others,” for fear of spreading the virus, it nudged me to think about the theological significance of incarnation for us as Christians. As a Reformed Christian I am mindful of our common faith in the risen Christ that takes both human flesh and breath seriously, or as Eugene Peterson said, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Jesus “spoke moistly” on his disciples when invoking the Holy Spirit that birthed the church, “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20: 21-22, NIV).
How has our understanding of incarnational faith, of koinonia and fellowship changed during this time of physical separation and COVID-19, and what might it mean for our understanding of church moving forward? Prior to the pandemic, many assumed that the only way to experience Christian community was “in the flesh.” As a congregational pastor, I confess that too much of my time was spent trying to figure out how to get people into a church building, rather than focusing on equipping people to be sent out as witnesses in the community, to be the incarnational presence of Christ in God’s beautiful, yet broken world.
But COVID-19 has scrambled all the digits. And despite many churches and pastors spending the last decade doing what they can to resist change, many have been reflecting on presence, virtual and otherwise, long before we discovered how to make non-medical face masks out of old socks. Kathryn Reklis was one of those exploring this question of incarnation in a digital age, noting in a blog post entitled “Give me that digital religion” that online practices are, undoubtedly, “altering domains of human life that are assumed to matter most for the practice of religion,” and that “what these practices ‘mean’ is harder to predict without falling into eschatological hopes about the unlimited potential of digital technology or apocalyptic fears about the way the digital will unmoor all that is holy.” Perhaps that’s why even during COVID-19 some pastors still hesitate to engage digital Christian community (check out the survey by Waybase on how COVID-19 has affected Christian charities), with one pastor even telling me that the online platform was not a “legitimate” way to worship God.
Surely God has always worked through various methods to communicate and shape people’s faithfulness and build relationships? A burning bush. A talking donkey. Angelic visitations. Prophetic dreams. A dewy or dry fleece. And on and on. God is communicating not on our terms, but on God’s. In Holding Faith: A practical introduction to Christian Doctrine, Cynthia Rigby reminds us that, “The triune God acts, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in these multiple actions creaturely existence is touched and transformed.” The ways in which God shapes believers’ practices changes from culture to culture over time. Reklis has described this distinction as moving from the fear of being disembodied to differently embodied. Is that how church has felt for you during lockdown?
As the pandemic has spread around the world, Christians discovered new ways of forming incarnational relationships through digital platforms across countless miles. Where once apostles used letters to stitch together churches across the Roman Empire (2 John: 12), now we use Zoom to connect around the world. The important emphasis of incarnation, enfleshment, is rightly focused on relationships, not the particular technology used to enhance it, whether microphones in a church building or Microsoft Teams for online church. In Pilgrims and Priests, Stefan Paas writes, “Viewed through (the) lens of koinonia theology . . . God’s mission is about the restoration and renewal of relationships.” So, is the online experience of life together helping to restore and renew relationships? James K. Smith seems to think so. A philosophy prof at Calvin University, Michigan, Smith has been voicing his thoughts on Twitter. He has observed countless congregations that are “innovating ways to care for their parishioners and embody the specificity and warmth of the community they know – their ‘parish’ – in digital forms.” The innovation that is happening, according to Smith, “is often aimed at recreating a sense of being-with, worshipping together, the embodied solidarity of being a local congregation. So, this trying experience of being distant, separated remote, could turn out to be a season of learning to be a more incarnate community of faith – an embodied, located parish. The digital could, paradoxically, be a way to renew the local.”
A new togetherness
Is that the case in your Christian witnessing community? Is this time of quarantine renewing the local or is it continuing to highlight what Zygmant Baumen named as the tension between our desire for both autonomy and community? We want time with others, on our own schedule. And we call this freedom, progress. But as Baumen warns, progress was once “the most extreme manifestation of radical optimism and a promise of universally shared and lasting happiness” (Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty) and now has moved to the opposite with a dystopian and fatalistic anticipation. Is this what it means to be human today in community, existential angst and never-ending FOMO (fear of missing out)?
Surely Christian community, the eccleisia, God’s called out people, have a deeper example of a shared, meaningful life that offers the world hope beyond human progress? Our Saviour has “spoken moistly” on us, and the Holy Spirit leads the church in its continuing conversion and reformation. Our telos is bent towards the coming, and already present, Kingdom of God. Participating in the Missio Dei invites us to, as Darrell L. Guder in Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology puts it, experience the purpose and promise of ecclesiology by reversing the traditional marks of the church to dig in and engage with God’s mission by being a part of an apostolic, worldwide, sanctifying and unifying body of Christ. By doing so it provides the opportunity to be far more than simply human beings being human; rather, it is the chance to become fully alive and catch a glimpse of the Kingdom that is coming, and by grace has already arrived.