By Paul Baxley
We are at the beginning of a most unusual Holy Week. Even in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, we Christians are called to remember the final hours of Jesus’ life, so that the Holy Spirit may bring those events powerfully into our present circumstances so that we can experience grace, know Christ’s love, and be changed.
Each year on Maundy Thursday, we remember our Lord’s establishment of what we know as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. Then, on Easter Sunday evening, we will hear the account of the way the Risen Christ was revealed to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Not surprisingly, many congregations include the celebration of communion in worship on Maundy Thursday and on Easter Sunday. We do so in response to the command of Jesus “do this in remembrance of me.”
This Holy Week many Cooperative Baptist congregations will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Some are gathering their congregations live via internet broadcast, encouraging congregants worshiping at home to have elements prepared, and then as the minister guides the celebration from her or his empty Sanctuary or home, members of the congregation will partake of the bread and cup.
Others are recording video services in advance, but are either sending orders of worship for communion so that their congregations can partake at home at the appropriate point in the service, or even creating litanies that will make words of institution and prayers previously recorded come alive in each congregant’s home as words are repeated. Ministers and lay leaders are giving tremendous prayer and thought to shaping these services in faithful ways.
There has also been vigorous theological searching among Christians of many denominations in the last several weeks as to how we Christians can celebrate our Lord’s Supper in this time of physical and social distance—or whether we should do so at all. Some have proposed that we are called to fast from the Lord’s Supper and focusing on all the other ways Christ is present among us and break that fast after we can gather as normal again. These challenges are worthy of serious consideration. How does our faith enable us to observe communion in this time?
We Baptists hold some convictions that make it more natural for us to share the Lord’s Supper even in this time of social distance. Because we believe that all baptized followers of Jesus are called to be priests to one another, we have always held that a congregation can empower any follower of Christ to preside at the Lord’s Table in the absence of an ordained minister. Even in a traditional Baptist celebration of the Supper, as the elements are passed in a gathered congregation, each person present may have the experience of serving another believer and being served by yet another. As our congregations are gathering for worship in homes, when we choose to celebrate communion, we are living out our deep convictions about the priesthood of each and every believer in new and compelling ways.
Because we embrace the priesthood of all believers, we also must remember that Holy Communion is an act for gathered communities, not isolated individuals. So, whenever we seek the most faithful ways to celebrate the Supper in this season, we need to craft services that draw all of us into gathered community, recognizing that while some gather with their families at home, other worshipers are alone. How can our practice and our language draw all worshipers into a priesthood of all believers that together receives the gifts of Christ? When members of a congregation gather in their homes across a larger community at the same time, is there not an actual (and not just virtual) gathering of the faithful? How can our language invite those at home alone, just as those who are at sheltered with family, into a community gathered by the Holy Spirit?
Long before this pandemic, Baptist congregations have been discovering ways to extend the celebration of communion beyond the walls of our sanctuaries. On a number of occasions, church leaders have taken communion to home-bound or ill congregants who could not be physically present in worship as the feast was shared. Increasingly, these have not been understood as separate celebrations of communion, but rather as extensions of the celebration that began as the larger community gathered for worship. Now we are seeking new ways to extend our “table fellowship” in a time unprecedented for almost all of us.
There are also theological convictions common to all Christians that give us confidence that we can approach the table in these days. Particularly in this Easter season, we can remember that locked doors and walls are not barriers that separate us from the presence of Christ. Just as Christ passed through walls to greet his frightened disciples after Easter, so he can be present to his disciples gathered in homes the world over, and he can send the Holy Spirit to bind us to one another as we gather differently.
Just as he revealed himself to two disciples on the Emmaus road in the breaking of bread, won’t he do so now? After Easter, the presence of Christ is not confined to one specific location, but instead Christ has gone ahead of us, he has passed through walls, he has overcome barriers to be present among us, and I believe he can draw us to one another in this unusual time by the same power that tears down walls of division. Could not the Risen Christ who was really present to his disciples quarantined by fear at home not be powerfully present among his followers sheltering in place yet gathering for worship?
We Christians have also held dear the mysterious notion of communion of the saints. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are encouraged not to neglect the habit of meeting together. But we are also reminded that when we gather, and even as we live, we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” We are encircled by Christians of other times, places, and generations who run the race with us and cheer us on. Theologians of other traditions have invited us to consider how, when the church celebrates communion, we are one not only with others in that Sanctuary, but with believers in every time and place.
In some liturgical traditions, the celebration of communion is always joined with the reciting of the ancient creeds, in which those receiving the elements affirm their belief in a universal church and a communion of saints. Any time we gather at the table, Christ is joining us to a larger community than the one that is visibly gathered. As we gather now in these unusual ways, Christ is actually (and not just virtually) binding us together in the kinds of communities only he can create.
Some are concerned that the practice of “virtual” communion now will lessen our desire later on to be in a gathered community to share these gifts and offer our worship to God. I do not believe this is so. We were not made for distance and isolation. Our faith is built on incarnation and authentic community. While I am confident Christ will be graciously and powerfully present among us in this season as we eat and as we drink, I also believe a hunger and thirst will grow among us for the times we can be together again in the fullest expressions of Christian community. Christ will meet us in our celebrations now but will also grow in us a longing for even deeper communion.
These are painful and dark days. They are eerily like the darkness that surrounded Christ in his final hours. There is isolation, violence, excruciating pain, respiratory distress, and a deep need for the presence of God. In that darkness, Jesus gathered with a small group of his frightened followers in a single room, broke bread, passed a cup, and said: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I believe when congregations gather in homes across communities and even around the world, as the story of Christ’s passion is retold, as his instructions for the supper are repeated, as bread is passed and cups are shared, Jesus will be present among us because nothing in all creation can separate us from his love. In his risen power, he will tear down the walls that separate us and join us to himself, to one another, and to the whole church in a community more powerful than distance.
Relying on his grace even more than our certainty, nourished by his love that will not let us go, I believe even now, especially now, we can respond to Christ’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has created a resource hub for the benefit of individuals and congregations in these uncertain times. Bold Faith Resources features original and curated resources for children, youth, adults, worship, missions, prayer, spiritual care, Spanish speakers and digital ministry resources for churches. This hub also includes all COVID-19-related news and updates for the Fellowship. Learn more at www.cbf.net/boldfaith.