‘Essentials’ in a Pandemic

Perhaps you are aware of the “essential controversy”—meaning the umbrage some Christian leaders have taken because the state has determined that only grocery stores, medical facilities, gas stations, and the like are considered “essential” services.  By implication (it is argued), the state is saying that religious services are “not essential,” thus forbidding worship and other religious gatherings.

This has offended some in more sacramental traditions, especially some conservative Roman Catholics, but also a fair number of Pentecostals.  They argue that corporate worship is essential, and for some the receiving of communion is especially so.  The feeling is that if at a time like this church is not seen as essential, and allowed to operate like these other services, it will seem even less so once the crisis is over.

This is poppycock. And shows a great deal of confusion among believers who should know better.  Of course corporate worship is essential. But when the state talks about essential services, it is not doing theology.  It’s not talking about all the dimensions of human life, but only those that concern the physical well-being and safety of its citizens. This is one of its proper concerns.

For the Christian, especially those in sacramental traditions, there is no fundamental divide between the spiritual and the physical.  That is the point of the incarnation, after all, when God became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was an act of divine blessing, making holy all of our physical existence.  To care for and preserve human life, then, becomes a divine calling.  It’s the reason Jesus spent so much of his energy healing people of their physical infirmities—it was a demonstration that the tangible, physical world God created is to be treated with the deepest respect and care.

Thus Christians, of all people, can applaud the state for anything it does to contain a virus, even if that means temporarily closing down religious gatherings.  For the state is more or less doing the work of Jesus at this point, working for the health of every one of its citizens.

This does not mean corporate worship is no longer considered essential—of course it is!  Is there any Christian on social media who is arguing that virtual worship and virtual prayer meetings are sufficient?  In fact, sheltering in place has made us more aware than ever of the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and of the absolute need to be physically with other believers. On the one hand, these virtual gatherings deeply encourage us.  At the same time, they only exacerbate the longing we have to be physically together again.

This is not a new phenomenon, this longing:

Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again.     — 1 Thessalonians 2:17

Why Jesus Fasted from Worship

And then there is this: Even in normal times, we sometimes temporarily forsake something essential.  Fasting is the best example.  We give up that which is physically essential for our survival to deepen our relationship with God.  Solitary retreats are of the same species.  Jesus himself did both, fasting alone for 40 days and nights, forsaking corporate worship (for at least five Sabbaths) and food, both essentials.  It is not much of a stretch to say that, by God’s providence, we are today asked to fast from corporate worship and the sacraments for a time, and that this will not decrease our faith but only allow us to ground ourselves deeper in him.

How can this be so?  Here’s one aspect: Fasting from corporate worship forces us to recognize that God is to be met not in just some ethereal space of the mind and heart, but most deeply when we are in the company of his friends.  This helps us see one continuing consequence of the incarnation, that is, of how God makes himself known today.  Worship is not merely fellowship on steroids—otherwise any gathering would do. Worship is not a spiritual pep rally, where we are privately lifted into God’s presence while enjoying the therapy of praise choruses. Instead, worship in the presence of other human bodies is that mysterious event in which we find that loving God and loving the neighbor are not really two commands but one, that one cannot be had without the other.

It’s Not About Us

And that leads us to one more dimension, which has little to do with us.  The act of refusing to meet is an act of love for our neighbor.  We abide by the state’s order first and foremost because it’s a way to help prevent the spread of a disease that can devastate the lives of millions. How can we love our neighbor at a time like this?  We can willingly give up something essential, like corporate worship and the receiving of the sacraments, so that we won’t inadvertently make life more risky for our neighbor.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in his The Cost of Discipleship:

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

In the end, I think our complaints about having to forsake anything at any time boils down to one thing. We mask it as concern about creeping secularism or the freedom to worship or lack of faith in God’s protection. But, if I may hazard a guess based on my own weaknesses, for most of us, we just loathe self-renunciation.

And yet self-renunciation is about the essential act of faith, beginning with forsaking sin and evil at our baptism. Despite all the bad news surrounding recent events, it doesn’t take a theology degree to understand that this is an opportunity for self-renunciation like none other. 

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