Living in the world of Zoom has been hard. When the pandemic forced us all to forgo our normal human interactions in exchange for a life shared through a screen, we had to learn new skills, things like finding where the mute button is on Zoom or figuring out the best platform to use to teach a college class. Even I, who am somewhat of a geek, have learned more than I ever wanted to know about servers and forum, apps for creating music, online software for game parties, teleconferencing, and even dial-a-sermon services that would allow you to listen to my weekly wisdom over a landline telephone. (I haven’t pulled the trigger on that one yet but I can tell you all about how it works.) The technological learning curve has felt overwhelming for some of us, and tiring for all of us, but as difficult as it has been, I think the harder part of moving our lives into cyberspace has been the challenge to our basic assumptions about what living in society means in the first place because what we discovered pretty quickly is that we can’t seamlessly recreate our old lives into a perfect digital equivalent. The best software in the world will not allow us to hug one another. Which means that over the past nine weeks, we have all had to become armchair philosophers. We’ve all had to figure out what it means to us to be a family when we can’t get together to celebrate birthdays, or Mother’s Day, or commencements. What does it mean to be a parent if at 7 am, you are Mom or Dad making breakfast for your kids, but at 9 am you become your child’s math teacher? And of course, in church, we’ve had to ask, “What does it mean to be the body of Christ when we can’t sit in pews next to one another? What parts of worship are essential to our worship experience and which parts can be let go?” These are all very hard questions, so tough that you might be tempted to avoid them, to just hunker down and wait out the pandemic until we can get back to doing things exactly the way we did them before, in church, in our families, in our communities. I think, however, that the questions raised by this pandemic are really important questions that we probably didn’t ask often enough before the world changed, and to avoid those questions, to hunker down and hope that when this is all over, we can just go back to the way things were before, is to avoid growing.
I believe that crisis, when we allow it to, can often reveal what is essential.
It certainly did in the Bible. Every theological revelation in our scriptures was brought on by crisis: the Hebrew’s slavery in Egypt led to the formation of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, the collapse of the Israelite nation and the exile to Babylon freed them from seeing God as part of their tribal identity to understanding God as universal and omnipresent, and of course, for Christians, the crucifixion of the man they thought was going to usher in a political revolution forced them to go back and consider his teachings more carefully, embracing his message of persistent love. If the people living through those events had just hunkered down and said, “We are just going to wait until it’s over so that we can go back to the way things were before,” we wouldn’t be worshipping here together today. Our spiritual growth as human beings has always been driven by people who insisted on asking the hard questions about what is essential: in the midst of changing circumstances, what remains constant about family, about God, about community, about the human heart, about what gives our lives meaning, and how can we learn to express that essential in new ways?
In the scripture reading for today, the apostles and leaders of the church gather in Jerusalem to debate what is fundamental to the Christian faith. They too are facing a crisis — the synagogues have kicked them out for their declaration of Christ, and they have to figure out what it means to be Christian in these new circumstances. The old guard wants to keep doing things the way they have always been done, replicating all of the requirements of the Jewish law, and staying safely within the region of Palestine, while simply adding the new layer of faith in Christ. Paul, however, says, “This is an opportunity to think about what is essential,” and he pushes for an entirely new way of being a church, one where Gentiles and Jews will worship together, where following the law is a choice not a requirement, where women and slaves have a voice, and where every person has equal access to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Paul wants to take advantage of what was the first century equivalent of a new technology — the Roman road system. The Roman emperors had invested lots of time and money into creating a solid road system throughout the empire. It was so well-built that you can still walk on parts of it today! We don’t think of roads as technology but that new Roman road system, just like our modern day internet, provided for the first time a safe and easy way to connect people across their known world and Paul wants to use that technology to build up the church.
Without Paul’s challenge at the Council of Jerusalem demanding that the church consider what is essential to the Christian faith, the church would not be here today. Christianity would be a minor sect of Judaism in a tiny region of the Middle East, if it even still existed. A few weeks ago, I read an article that warned that the pandemic could bring about the demise of the small church but I think that if we, like Paul, are willing to use this crisis to consider what is essential to worship and what it means to be the body of Christ, the reports of our demise might be premature. The Union University Church has always opened its doors to everyone, regardless of gender identity, race, sexual orientation, age, or background; now we can add to that, regardless of zip code. I don’t want to go back to our old way of doing things; I want to continue to explore what the future can look like when we embrace the possibilities that have been opened to us because of this pandemic. I can guarantee you that the road ahead will be confusing and at times frustrating as we struggle with those essential questions of how to be the body of Christ in new ways, but I also hope it will also be exciting and rewarding and filled with the Holy Spirit.