Over the last several weeks Australia has experienced a rapid ratcheting up of restrictions aimed at protecting our population from the pandemic that is COVID-19. Among those scrambling to keep pace with the ever-tightening changes are churches, and one result we have witnessed is the overnight arrival of church online. Elders and leadership teams have suddenly been thrust into countless hours of Zoom meetings to develop reactive strategies to what their livestreamed Sunday service will look like.
When it comes to livestreaming the normal Sunday sermon, the overwhelming majority stand united on the importance of continuing to comfort your congregation through the preaching of God’s living Word. Where evangelicals have become divided is around the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and whether it is appropriate to deliver these through a screen. Regarding baptism, this will be a conversation for another day except to say that it’s normative for baptism to be performed as a public profession of faith in the physical presence of their congregation. I think the answer to the baptism question requires a lot more time, but for now I think the short answer is patience. We will gather together again. Since baptism isn’t essential for salvation, it’s OK to wait.
When it comes to whether the shared meal of the Lord’s Supper can somehow be shared virtually, for me it’s a hard no. It should be noted that there’s no question we’re living in unique circumstances. But the answer we’re seeking is—in part—whether that should give us permission to create unique ways of participating in what has always been a whole-church-gathered event.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul makes crystal clear that a necessary precondition (note: this is not the only condition) of administering this shared meal is when they all came together as one whole church. The point that this meal is to be shared in the context of being physically present is repeated by Paul five times in this chapter. There’s just no two ways about it; this sacrament isn’t merely the bread and wine—it’s the people of God spiritually called and physically gathered by the Holy Spirit in remembrance of the Son, of whose body they are now a part, joined together in one place. To attempt to geographically disperse the Lord’s Supper would be to miss the symbolism of the sacrament entirely.
What then are we to do?
We are living in a time of anticipation. We wait with eager longing for the day when we once again gather together and resume the normal expression of worship to the God who gathers us together by his saving grace. We look forward to that day of feasting together in one shared meal as one covenant assembly. But until that day comes, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is closed to us. And we lament that as we lament the loss of physical connectedness with the rest of the body of Christ. Moreover, we shouldn’t feel pressured to repackage it to suit the season; for in doing so we immediately reduce it to something it’s not
So for now we fast. Soon we will feast together again.
Finally, Pastor Abraham Cho (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, East Side, NYC) wrote this prayer of longing for the Lord’s Supper, which is reproduced here with permission.
Lord Jesus, our hearts brim with longing today. We long for one another, for the day when we might gather again as your body, around your table of grace. We long for your table, spread out for us in this wilderness, where we feast upon the abundance of your house and drink from the river of your delights. We long for you, for your presence that is ours in the Supper. It is your body broken and your blood poured out that alone can strengthen our hearts and satisfy our thirst.
But until the day of joyous reunion, teach us to lament this absence in our lives. Teach us to long for you, for your church, for your kingdom, and for the day of your coming again. For on that day you have promised to lead us up the mountain of God where we will partake with you a banquet of rich foods prepared for all peoples.
We pray this in the name of him who is the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.
A Few More Voices (for additional reading)
Dr Scott R. Swain (President and Chair of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary): Should We Live Stream the Lord’s Supper
The Gospel Coalition: Can Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Go Online?
Dr. John Macarthur: Preaching, Pastoring, and Leading Well through the Coronavirus (Lord’s Supper discussion begins at around 27:00)
A helpful discussion from Joe Thorn in the Doctrine & Devotion podcast
This thoughtful piece from Andrew Wilson (Andrew is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London): Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna?
Bob Kauflin recommended this thoughtful piece on the Sovereign Grace website: Streaming The Lord’s Supper