“Spirit and truth” during COVID-19

Easter 2020 — Today we remember our savior who died, resurrected, and came back to share this same resurrection power with us. But this Easter Sunday is nothing like what the contemporary church has experienced before. Our celebration of the resurrection is shrouded in worldwide mourning over lost jobs and lives and declining economies and hopes.

This is also the first Easter in which I’m reminded not of the final chapters of the Gospels. Instead, today I am reminded of a certain passage from John 4.
In the noon hour Jesus encounters a woman at a well. 
A Samaritan of inferior lineage.
A women disgraced by many men.
But it’s she that occasions the recognition of Jesus as Savior of the world. 

Woman: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem (4:20).
Jesus: Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (4:21-24).
Woman: I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us. 
Jesus: I am he, the one who is speaking to you. 

Have you ever stopped to consider just how radical this call to worship is? The woman was under the impression that worship was centralized. She believed it counted only if it was done in the right place in the right way and by the right people. Jerusalem was this place of worship.

But Jesus brings an important addendum. Not only are the place, way, and people important (because he doesn’t ever negate the importance of these traditions) but he adds to the equation saying that true worship is done in spirit and truth. These don’t replace Jerusalem, or the proper place, way, people of worship, but they expand the idea of acceptable worship. 

For contemporary Christians in countries like the US, our holy place is suddenly off-limits. On our most holy day, our temple is inaccessible. And that’s why John 4:23-24 can speak to this moment in time. We have the opportunity to learn what “worshiping in spirit and truth” is in a fresh way, and we have the opportunity to learn the value of the “outside,” the common places. Even Jesus didn’t reveal himself as Savior of the world from the center, the holy place Jerusalem. He chose Sychar of Samaria. 

Our holy place, the church, is not a building or geographic space that can be shut down. Our holy place, the church, is not a right that can be demanded. The Church is a people, and it is spirit and it is truth. We are the body of Christ, and if laceration, crucifixion, and burial could not destroy this body, neither can any word from the government. Do you see how encouraging the message of “spirit and truth” is? As long as the spirit of God moves and as long as he is true, we cannot lose. Whether from home, from basements, from quarantine, we cannot lose.

To call this persecution, I think, is incredibly disrespectful to those who are actually persecuted. And maybe this points to an unhealthy fossilization in our faith habits. Have we grown so accustomed to our holy place that we’ve become entitled, no longer recognizing it as the gift that it truly is? Have we grown so self-centered that we don’t think about the ways we may be endangering our neighbors by congregating? Have we grown so privileged that equal treatment feels like oppression? 

It’s true that Jesus rebelled against his government, but only in ways shaped by his compassion for the crowd. Jesus made neither pleas nor demands to imperial Roman government or religious leaders. He was busy concerning himself with the wellbeing of the crowd. In Jesus’s time, the crowd needed food and healing. In our time, the crowd still needs food and healing, yes, but they also need us to stay home and do our part to minimize any chances of further spreading COVID-19. This is something we can do.

I miss the physical church. I miss the energy that rises with our happy greetings, then falls to a silent rumbling during the call to worship, and breaks forth again when we sing and pray. I miss the special feeling of connectedness that only comes in a physically shared space. 

But right now the world needs us to be a church that celebrates not from a specific place, but in spirit and truth. Jesus promised suffering and persecution, but it shouldn’t be because we couldn’t give up congregating in buildings when our global health depended upon it.

I hope and pray that the church hasn’t forgotten that we exist here on this earth to humbly serve it and its people, not to rearrange policies that better suit our convenience and (this may upset some) to better suit even our convictions about what’s right and wrong. Jesus was holy without changing the law; instead the law killed him. So what makes the church think we are being Christ-like by asserting political power and fighting for laws that reflect our beliefs? Yes, Jesus loves the church and has given it power, but this love and power are in our hands so that we the church can serve the world. The mission was always the world, not just believers. Right now humanity is in collective mourning, and this is the time in which worship fully inspired by spirit and truth is the most compelling call that we can send out to the world.

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