Meeting CHURCH Again for the First Time

by Terry Maples, CBFVA Coordinator

In his seminal work Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg describes his personal journey from understanding the Jesus he was taught about in Sunday school during childhood, his discomfort with continuing to embrace those depictions of Jesus, and his re-discovery of Jesus revealed in scripture. Most of Borg’s book focuses on Borg’s understanding of the pre-Easter Jesus. For me, Borg’s insight gleaned from Jesus’s overt attack on the Jewish Purity System is eye-opening. This purity system laid down sharp social boundaries (pure and impure, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile). The temple was central for the ruling political and economic elite and for temple priests whose income was supported by the purity system and depended on strict observance of purity laws. Jesus often attacked the purity system and offered an alternative social vision that put him on a collision course with religious leaders of his time. Borg asserts Jesus sought to replace that flawed system with compassion. For example, Jesus asked, “Who was the good neighbor?” Answer: “The one who acted compassionately.” Not position, not power, not public piety defined “goodness.”  Jesus poked the purity laws by doing what no pious Jew would do—touch lepers and hemorrhaging women, talk to a Samaritan woman, enter a graveyard to encounter “legion,” etc. Jesus chooses the image of an inclusive table where the socially acceptable are turned away and those labeled by society as “unclean” are invited. Jesus’s inclusive love dismisses all forms of social ostracism. Jesus’s inclusive ethos births a movement for everyone. Jesus included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, the marginalized, and others drawn to Jesus’s understanding and expression of God’s kingdom.

During this global pause due to COVID-19, I’ve been thinking a lot about regathering as church. Congregational leaders have figured out how to do church remotely in innovative ways, but we yearn to return to the building to be together for face-to-face worship and study.

For many, returning to church is going to feel like Meeting CHURCH Again for the First Time. Why? 1) church folks who come back together won’t be the same because of their experiences during physical separation, and 2) the church to which we return will not be the same because of the COVID-19 journey. Allow me to explain.

Ask yourself, “How am I changing during this crisis?” In what ways is my faith being confirmed or challenged? How difficult is it for me to trust my life to Creator God in the face of an unpredictable virus and uncontrollable situations? Does this time of pause prompt new spiritual practices that draw me closer to God? In what ways is my faith put into action for the lonely and hurting during physical separation?

We must acknowledge, some wrestle with many more difficult issues and challenges than others. Those who contracted the coronavirus, especially those who developed severe cases of COVID-19 and ended up on ventilators fighting for their lives, have different stories to tell and perspectives to share than those who didn’t. People who lost loved ones to the disease are impacted more deeply and directly than those of us who encounter the virus from a distance or by watching the news. The narrative of those who lost jobs and their ability to pay bills or buy food is much more intense and emotional than those whose paychecks keep on coming. The stress on medical workers and first responders is palpable. Because both of our adult children work for Richmond Public Schools, I know up close and personal how hard this season of physical distancing is for students and teachers alike. Parents struggle to juggle work at home while caring for and teaching children. Events to mark milestones like proms, musical productions, honor ceremonies, and graduations were cancelled; family members may not visit loved ones in care facilities; weddings and funerals are delayed; and the list goes on. To be clear, hardship and stress are not experienced equally.

No matter who we are, the journey through this pandemic is difficult. We will not return to community the same people who gathered in early March. Our experiences shape and form us. Pay attention to this dynamic when church resumes. Find opportunities to invite reflection around the overt or hidden realities of grief and suffering.

Congregations to which we return will NOT be the same either. Much has already been written about this phenomenon, and much more is coming. Fear around the spread of contagions necessitates new patterns and practices be established upon resuming church. Don’t expect handshakes and hugs or small group gatherings right away. Don’t expect choir practices or congregational singing to resume any time soon. Experts in the medical field can guide us on this phased journey; CBF, too, will offer wise counsel and resources to assist. Each congregation must be thoughtful about safe, confidence-instilling practices before re-gathering. While giving appropriate attention to prudent health practices, be intentional about spiritual practices that address the sadness we are certain to encounter because “church is not the same.”

Reflecting upon spiritual truths described by Borg in Meeting Church Again for the First Time helps us develop new perspectives on Jesus’s ministry in community. What inspired and motivated Jesus apart from patterned cultural expectations or tradition? How does our understanding of Jesus’s behaviors expose gaps between current reality and our growing understanding of the church’s real mission? I pray these and all of our reflections birth greater compassion for everyone especially the needy and marginalized who always suffer most. May our vision line-up with Jesus’s vision for God’s kingdom!