Waiting for Communion

A coronavirus reminder of our place in the time between the times.

Assumed Audience: Other theologically-orthodox Christians, especially (but not only) those in traditions which link the sacraments to the gathered church.

Epistemic Status: Humbly confident in the application… if a bit less persuaded by the Westminster system’s official view on the subject.

In the midst of the 2019 – 2020 coronavirus pandemic, many ordinary Christian practices are difficult in various ways. Right now, Colorado has restricted all public gatherings, so churches cannot meet together, through at least April 17. That means that our small groups cannot meet. It means our Sunday worship is a matter of families participating as best we can as our leaders live-stream from otherwise-empty buildings. And, in traditions like my own, it means that we cannot take communion: the Lord’s Supper, as Presbyterians and many other traditions understand it, is a practice of the gathered church — not of individuals or families.

There is much I could say on this specific issue from a theological-pastoral point of view. I could trace out the differences between Presbyterians and low-church evangelicals on the one hand, and between Reformed churches and Lutherans, Anglicans, and Catholics on the other hand. I could argue about whether the Presbyterian requirement that the sacrament be administered by a teaching elder is right. I could dig into the doctrine of the Real Presence and explain why I don’t think the Supper is just a memorial (though it is not less than that). I could explain why I think we really ought to take communion every week. I’m not going to do any of those today, though!

Instead, I just want to deal with a practical reality on the ground: for anyone in traditions like mine in places like mine, we might not be taking communion for many weeks. And, regardless of where one lands on all those genuinely-important theological questions, this reality is a painful one. The Lord’s Supper is a gift to us, a reminder of the finished work of Christ on our behalf and a promise-picture of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6 – 10). Every time we take the Supper, we are reminded that we currently live in what theologians sometimes call the time between the times”: between when Christ first came in humiliation and when he comes again in glory. We need that! God feeds our souls with the Supper! And now it is for a season taken away from any of us in traditions where we only partake as a gathered church.

There is a way in which this particular, painful season of waiting can move our hearts in the right direction even so. We are eager to return to gather with God’s people. We are eager to come to the Table again. This eagerness, this longing, is a pointer just in the same way that the weekly gathering and Communion are in ordinary time: to the consummation of all things when Christ comes again. The hunger we feel keenly now for the gifts of God in this age can remind us to hunger more deeply for the gifts of God in the age to come — the gathering of all the saints, the feast of the ages, and both unbroken and unending. Temporary loneliness can point us to final fellowship. Temporary fasting can point us to final feasting.