The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 4
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day….” Revelation 1:10
John was in exile on the island of Patmos, a bishop separated from his congregations. He had neither pulpit nor altar. It was Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. What was John to do on his island of exile? John prayed. He was “in the Spirit,” worshipping in spirit and truth.
When the church is gathered as a body, we speak of “Word and Sacrament.” This is what the gathered church is gathered around – the preaching of the Word, the Breaking of the Bread, and the communal prayers of the church (Acts 2:42). This is the church’s koinonia, her common life together. But what happens when the church is scattered, for whatever reason, be it persecution or pestilence? What then?
For the church scattered, “Word and Sacrament” becomes “Word and Prayer.” Prayer replaces the Sacrament as the means of our communion with Christ. This may sound strange to our ears at first, because we are accustomed to thinking corporately rather than individually. We think of “church” as a gathering in a building more than we think of a priesthood of believers or a mystical communion of saints. We have also unfortunately individualized the Sacrament, whether through private masses, home communions, or individual wafers replacing the one loaf and individual glasses replacing the one Cup. This has conditioned us to think that our personal communion with Christ is found in the Sacrament. No Sacrament, no Jesus. But we never say that of our guests, catechumens, or non-communing children.
Christ is both among us all together and within each of us individually. He is among us in our gathering, and He is within us by His Spirit in Baptism. He is present where “two or three are gathered in His name” and at the core of our being. “I no longer live but Christ lives within me.”
In prayer, we commune with the Christ who dwells within each of us by His Spirit. The Father too is present, since God cannot be divided. I used to think of prayer as entirely external, words that went up to heaven, wherever that is, to Our Father who art out there somewhere. But as I learned the gift of prayer, I began to realize that when we pray alone, we are praying to the God who is very near, at the very core of our being. We don’t have to shout in a large group for God to hear. We can whisper or even be silent. The contemplatives among us may have a greater appreciation for what I am saying. Stillness in prayer is a bit like fishing with Dad. You don’t have to say a word to enjoy his company.
In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, one of our official Lutheran confessional writings from 1531, the thirteenth article on the sacraments has this fascinating statement:
Ultimately, if we should list as sacraments all the things that have God’s command and promise added to them, then why not prayer, which can most truly be called a sacrament? It has both the command of God and many promises. If it were placed among the sacraments and thus given, so to speak, a more exalted position, this would move men to pray. – Apology 13.16
When we find ourselves on the Lord’s Day, or any day for that matter, alone and isolated, away from congregation and community, as scattered priests of our Lord’s royal priesthood, we are not without the gift of communion with our Lord and one another. Like John on Patmos, we can be “in the Spirit” in prayer, as the Spirit joins our spirits to Christ and to all who call upon His Name. This is why Jesus taught us to pray our Father not my Father. Even when we pray alone, we are always in communion with Christ and with the whole church in heaven and on earth.
Where we lack one thing, we begin to notice other things. When my television broke down, I began to read books. When my car wasn’t working, I walked or rode my bicycle to work. When we don’t have the Sacrament, we still have God’s grace in Word and Prayer. This is a great moment for the grace of prayer to be exalted to its rightful position among the sacraments and also in our daily lives.
©2020 William M. Cwirla