Longing for the Embodied Church

Here in Victoria, we have reached five months of worshiping online. For a brief month, we were able to have a few other people over in our homes, and so we were able to worship with others not in our family. Still, we all sat on our couch in front of the TV screen. And now that we are in a season of the tightest restrictions yet, I sense the longing of so many to be together with others once again. 

But what if some Christians don’t want to return to church? 

Even as virtual church exhausts me, I love the ease and comfort in participating in worship from my own home. I have more time in the morning, my kids and I don’t have to have polished appearances, I can sit on my couch with my blanket and cup of tea. While many long to return to meeting together physically, others express contentment: attending church from your living room is pretty comfortable. 

If I know myself, however, I know the seduction of comfort. I know the forceful pull of what is easy and effortless — and I know that while God gives the good gift of comfort, that gift easily becomes an idol. What’s more, virtual communication pulls us more and more into disembodied ways of living, ways that gratify our physical comfort and yet paradoxically deny the importance of our bodies. To resist this pull, we need a healthy vision of what our bodies mean to our faith. Then, we will be able to say with David, “I was glad because they said to me, ‘We will go to the Lord’s temple’” (Psalm 122:1). 

Embodied Discipleship

Our bodies are essential to discipleship. Jesus’ name, “Immanuel,” God with us, communicates this. In Jesus, God came to us, leaving the comforts and glory of heaven to be present bodily. As the God-man, Jesus demonstrates that the salvation he has purchased for us does not only affect our souls. We are not saved out of our bodies and out of history. Jesus’ obedience was embodied; so must ours be. We cannot live as true disciples with only a mental or heart assent to Jesus’ words and identity. Instead, our discipleship must be lived out in word and deed.

Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment highlights this. At the second coming, he says, the King will tell all those who he welcomes into his kingdom, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matt 25:34-36). Jesus’ criteria for inheriting the kingdom includes embodied practices and physical presence. These activities do not earn one’s salvation, but they are the natural outworking of faith. Faith, as James tells us, bears fruit — physical, tangible fruit.

Embodied Love

One essential fruit of our faith is love. As capable as technology is to convey our words to each other, it fails to fully communicate love. Again and again in Paul’s letters, he expresses this insufficiency — letters and representatives are a poor substitute for his bodily presence with them. Our bodies are the means God has given us to express love — acts of kindness, hugs of encouragement and solace, hand-squeezes, sympathetic glances, and the profound encouragement of simply being there

Being present enables us to perceive unspoken and perhaps even subconscious needs. The droop of the shoulders, the avoidance of eye contact, the lightness of someone’s step — to these slight but significant gestures, the wise person pays attention. When our relationships are mediated by technology, we lose our attentiveness and our ability to respond appropriately. Our love for one another depends on our commitment to physical presence. 

Embodied Praise

The significance of our bodies is not only for the present. In the physical gathering of God’s people here and now, we reach into the future: our earthly worship prefigures our eternal worship. In John’s vision of the new earth, the sound and sight of worship fills John’s eyes and ears. It’s a glorious experience: the cries of the multitude, “like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder” (19:6); the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, falling down in front of God on his throne (19:4); the banishment of darkness in the presence of God’s eternal light (22:5). John sees and hears the future reality for us: — joyful, glorious worship of the great I AM.

This is the future we await, and, because of the resurrection, the future even now breaks into the present. Our worship here on earth is a foretaste of the worship in which we will participate in the future. In the new creation, we will not shed our bodies. We will not worship as disembodied spirits. The one who we worship, Jesus, lives even now in his glorified body, and we are promised that we will be made like him (Phil. 3:20-21). To speak truthfully, then, about the future means that we participate, whenever we are able, in embodied worship. We long to gather with other believers in worship, because when we do so we taste and testify to the future. 

Digital technology has been a gift in isolation, allowing us to continue to connect and worship with each other. But technology cannot give us the whole, embodied lives of discipleship, love, and praise that God calls us to live. For that, we look to his Son: Immanuel, the One who did not observe the mess of our sin and misery from afar, but stooped down to dwell with us. We look to him and we long, not only for this time of virtual worship to end, but ultimately for his coming again.