How are we to think biblically about our present physical isolation? (I prefer “physical distancing” to “social distancing”). How might our time apart sharpen our understanding of the church?
Our physical isolation should cause us to think anew about the church. This isolation, due to the pandemic, maybe a unique situation in our lifetimes; it is not the first time Christians have been inhibited from gathering together. Historically, these times apart have proven fertile ground for theological reflection on the nature of the Christian community, fellowship, and what it means to be together. The Roman poet Sextus is credited with the earliest version of the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
While we are blessed to be able to connect in so many ways through technology, that distance can produce a greater yearning to be together. Within the last few weeks, one of my sons called me. Something had happened, and he needed to talk to me. I am thankful that we could speak on the telephone, but I yearned to be with him.
It is a privilege for believers to live among other Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized the goodness and the gift of corporeal (physical) presence in his book Life Together. God created human beings with bodies. The Word became incarnate in a human body and was raised in a glorified body. Dwelling together in those bodies is a great privilege as Bonhoeffer wrote, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
Christ’s church remains His church, whether it be gathered or scattered. It is a community already realized by the work of Christ and the Spirit. It is a divine and eschatological reality, created by God, and it remains so.
Even in our isolation, we live as members of a divine reality, a community made real by God through Christ and by the Spirit. Yet as we yearn for physical presence, we are grateful that we have several ways of being connected and that we have not lost the divine reality that makes the church the church.
Our physical distance from each other is an occasion for critical reflection. Do we miss the Christian community or something else? Some are concerned that people will not return once the physical distancing restrictions are lifted. My conviction is that those who have a heart for God and His people are thankful we have a means of connecting now but desire the when we will be physically together again. Maybe this time of being physically apart will make the times of being physically together become more valuable to us.