Painful lessons about community, thanks to COVID.
Do you think this is true? If we don’t hang together, we shall surely hang separately.
This quote has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, advising his fellow patriots as they plotted their independence from the British crown. There is a wisdom to it—isolated individuals are easier to corner, control, and kill. In political matters as in warfare, there is strength in numbers.
What about in the spiritual life? Do numbers matter? Do unity and multiplicity matter? Well, yes—and no. There is a sense in which what matters most is our own unique individuality. When I go before the Throne of God for my particular judgment I will be absolutely alone. I, and no one else, will have to answer for my thoughts, words, and deeds, for what I have done and what I have failed to do. I will have to provide answers and not excuses.
At the same time, numbers and unity matter a very great deal. Our Lord tells us to go out and “make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone; all human persons are called to a sanctification and perfection that is both truly human and truly divine and available only to disciples of Christ. That’s why missionaries sailed to the ends of the earth—the gospel is an indispensable element of the human vocation.
Unity matters too. Saint Paul reminds us that we are called to embrace “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5) He reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the members of the body need to be together; no member of the body may say to another, “I have no need of you.” Disunity has a terrible cost. We read in John 20 that Thomas the apostle missed out on an appearance of the Risen Lord because he was apart from the body of believers. It took extra effort for him to behold and believe Christ risen.
So far, we’ve been taking about the notional and the abstract. In other words, we’ve not spoken of much that is practical. For example, how do we maintain unity? How do we remain connected to the body of believers? How do we add members to the community? How do we preach the gospel to all nations?
These questions are all the more urgent and poignant as we struggle to overcome what I’ve called “the COVID interruption.” This painful and illuminating season has offered us many important lessons. We’ve learned that worship really is essential. We’ve learned that it takes work and initiative to hold a community together. And, if we’re honest, we’ve learned that sin, despair, presumption, sloth and lukewarmness are much more powerful in our lives whenever we are isolated from one another.
As people come back to public worship and fellowship, how can we apply those lessons? For now, here are a few suggestions:
- We must not let fear or fatigue move us to abandon Christ or one another;
- Prudent discernment and moral imagination are human gifts that can be magnified by grace;
- People won’t believe that Christ matters if Christians act as though Christians don’t matter;
- Start now to plan for happy reunions of Christian friends, families, and communities;
- Ask each other about how we can help to meet one another’s spiritual and corporal needs.
In the coming weeks, I will make suggestions about Christian communities recommitting to doing right by God and neighbor, despite the interruptions and distractions that we will inevitably face. We can make short-, mid- and long-term plans to nourish body and soul together. When I write next, I will continue this series of reflection on Christian community, especially about preparing to worship. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.