My wife has a friend who lives near Chicago. They don’t see each other all that often, but they connect somewhat regularly over text and email. There are definitely no Zoom meetings and absolutely no phone calls—I have trouble getting my wife to answer my calls. (Apparently introverts don’t like talking to people. Weird.) Occasionally we’re able to visit and every time we do we are reminded that being with a person physically is different from “seeing” a person electronically through some sort of screen. Some things cannot be communicated fully except through a physical presence together. You can certainly share information with a text or email or phone call but some things cannot be communicated electronically.
Have you wondered why we did not have communion together for three months last spring when we were in quarantine? It would have been simple to do. One of the elders could have spoken the words of institution over Zoom while each of our households sat on our couches, staring at a table or computer screen or phone, and consumed some bread and wine at roughly the same time everyone else did. Well, it seems as though it would have been simple. The truth is far more complicated than that.
The apostle Paul had never been to Rome when he wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome. He did not plant the church there, though he knew several believers in the city (see Romans 16 for a list!) as he had worked with many of them elsewhere. He had wanted to visit Rome for some time but had been prevented from doing so for various reasons. His aim in visiting was, in part, to receive their support for his missionary activities in Spain and he would visit after first stopping by Jerusalem with the financial resources he had been collecting for the church there (Romans 15:24–25).
There has been a lot (no, really, I mean A LOT) of scholarly debate as to the real purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but some things are clear. For example, he really wanted to visit them. He wrote this in chapter 1:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.Romans 1:8–15 ESV
Paul’s desire to visit Rome is clear, and it wasn’t because he wanted to see the sights or taste the gelato and espresso! He says very clearly that he wants to give them “some spiritual gift” to strengthen them. Paul’s use of the word “some” may suggest uncertainty on Paul’s part, as if he did not know exactly what gift they needed, but more likely Paul is being humble and gentle with them, not wishing to assert that he, “the mighty apostle”, has all the answers. He indicates this is not a one-way bestowing of a spiritual gift, as if the apostle were the only one gifted and they were to be the recipients of his spiritual gift(s). He tells them that his intent in sharing with them some spiritual gift is a mutual sharing of gifts, that both he and they may be mutually encouraged by one another and built up in their—his and the Roman believers’—faith.
What strikes me about this assertion from Paul is that he seems to suggest that in order to impart some spiritual gift to them he must be present with them. This seems odd. Through this letter he exercises the gift of teaching, of exhortation, of encouragement, of discernment, of wisdom, and numerous others. (Yes, the apostles seem to have been gifted extraordinarily, beyond what “ordinary” followers of Christ are, given their role in establishing the church of Jesus around the world.) Why can’t Paul simply share his spiritual gift(s) with them through his letter? He teaches in all of his letters. He exhorts. He encourages. All sorts of gifts are on display in his letters, so why does he say that he longs to visit them in order to impart a spiritual gift to them? Some gifts require presence. To say it another way, some presents require presence.
There was much Paul could do for them, and they for him, from afar. As mentioned, he could teach and he could encourage and he could exhort. Who hasn’t prayed for and with someone over the phone? There are lots of things that can be done for the good of others from a distance. There are spiritual gifts that do not require physical presence. It appears, however, that some gifts do. I don’t think Paul has in mind a specific gift. I think he recognizes that while many spiritual gifts can operate from a distance (the gift of faith, for example, is often exercised in one’s private prayer closet), physical presence provides a more powerful experience of the Spirit’s power. This isn’t because God’s Spirit is limited by distance, but because God desires his people to live in community with one another and real community requires physical presence.
This is the reason we all felt disconnected and so very isolated while in quarantine this last year. This is why those who are shut-ins and unable to assemble together with the church suffer. We are communal beings, which means we require real, genuine community. The so-called “Zoom fatigue” is not merely an exhaustion that comes from having to see yourself on screen during a meeting (though this is exhausting) or of constantly starting and stopping and interrupting others and trying to remember how to unmute yourself or forgetting to turn off your camera while you use a tissue. Engaging with others solely through a camera and a screen is exhausting because it is a poor replacement for physical presence. It is a stop-gap. It is amazing that those who are shut-in, for example, can still participate in some way with the gathered assembly, but I promise you that if you ask one, he or she would greatly prefer to be physically present. Some gifts require presence.
When we observe communion together, what is it that we are doing? We are consuming physical bread and wine (read “Welch’s”) as we proclaim the Lord’s death for our salvation. There is a reason we do not simply imagine we’re eating something. If it were merely a reminder, words can evoke memory, yet that is not what happens when we observe the Lord’s Supper. It is a physical, tangible thing we do to recognize the physical embodiment of God when he became one of us and bled and died for us. Because it is representing the very real presence of the Lord, both on earth during his ministry with his disciples and in his gathered assembly, it is—necessarily—a physical experience. This means it cannot be accomplished virtually.
The Lord’s Supper is not merely a recollection of something that happened in the past. It is not the recitation of facts, like a middle-school student reciting all the US presidents in order. The Lord shares a meal with us when we assemble together in his name and he is present in that unique and powerful way that he promised when we gather in his name. Communion is not something we can do privately. When we participate in this meal together we mysteriously and spiritually yet truly participate in Christ, and this event shared together has a real effect on us and our spirits. Communion is a physical, tangible experience of our union with Christ—our corporate union with Christ. It simply cannot be done alone or separated from one another.
On a basic, very fundamental level we all understand that certain things cannot be replicated over a video call. Your family’s Thanksgiving meal, for example, cannot truly take place via Zoom—even if each person were eating turkey and gobbling down green bean casserole. Can your family connect over Zoom? Sure. Can you catch up and encourage one another and show love for one another? Absolutely. Can you share a meal over the internet? No. A shared meal is necessarily an embodied experience. Communion is a shared meal, one in which the Lord himself is really present, and his presence is most powerfully experienced when we assemble in his name.