When I walked up to my church’s outdoor Easter service, my first thought was a joyful one: “I have missed this so much.” But my second thought was much more unsettling: “I forgot how much I missed this.”
The pain of the pandemic has extended to every part of our lives. Some have lost loved ones. Some have lost jobs. Once-in-a-lifetime celebrations have gone uncelebrated. And many churches have made excruciating changes to our worshiping life. For some congregations, that has meant moving most of what we do away from in-person gatherings and on to the Zoom meetings, livestreams, and conference calls that have dominated our waking, working, and worshiping hours.
Such necessary, difficult decisions have wreaked a great deal of havoc on our lives. But in that moment at my church’s first outdoor gathering, I discovered that some of the damage done has been less obvious. The decision to lock down our churches was a necessary act of neighborly love in difficult times. But humans weren’t made to worship God in isolation. Doing so for an entire year may well have damaged us in ways we’ve yet to fully understand.
The CDC’s announcement that vaccinated Americans can stop wearing masks much of the time is just the latest reminder that, while the pandemic isn’t completely behind us, life is beginning to return to something like normal. While many Americans are prepping to make up for lost time with a “roaring ’20s” style return to social life, the church has an opportunity to embrace something far better: a feast of epic proportions, eaten in God’s presence and alongside our neighbors, a feast that overflows into a just, merciful, and generous way of life.
The problem is that our year under lockdown may raise new complications for the church’s post-COVID feast. Virtual church, and then church in small, masked groups, has become our norm. But as I discovered in our church’s outdoor service, by losing the habit of embodied church, my longing for the hug from an elderly fellow congregant or for the bread and wine shared with my neighbor at the Lord’s Supper has cooled.
Lockdown has numbed my felt need for community and dulled my desire to gather in worship with the corporate body of Christ as one physical body among other physical bodies. I like these ideas in theory, of course. But I don’t miss them in my bones, don’t miss them the way I did the first month I spent trying to make do worshiping in my living room.
As churches reopen their doors, at least in the US, many ministry leaders are wondering if people will come back to the pews, or depend further on online church, or skip out altogether. In the return to normal, churchgoers and church leaders alike need to examine problematic habits and heart lessons we’ve learned during our year of isolation in order to learn to worship God together again.
To help us, we can take a cue from Moses’ words to the people of God during another time of transition, the transition from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Moses knew that times of transition always offer God’s people new opportunities for rebellion and division. The lengthy Mosaic sermon we call Deuteronomy aimed to equip the people to journey through the transition and live the life God had for them, a life Moses summarized again and again as “fearing the Lord.” By “fearing the Lord,” Moses seemed to mean a whole-life orientation toward God, an orientation that included fear, love, awe, commitment, and obedience.
Moses had seen how fearing the Lord came fairly naturally to the Israelites when God was speaking to them out of a blazing fire atop Mount Sinai. But he also recognized that daily life in the promised land would dull their memories and their senses. The temptation to allow the comfort of their “new normal” in the promised land to lead them to forgetfulness would be strong. Israel would have to learn to fear God, again and again. How would the people of God keep fear alive in the days ahead?
Deuteronomy 14:22–27 gives us one strategy that is as unexpected as it is delightful:
You shall eat before the Lord your God, in the place which he will choose to establish his name, all the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and of the firstborn of your herd and flock, in order that you will learn to fear YHWH your God always (v. 23, author’s translation throughout).
The Israelites knew all about tithes. They knew all about taxes and tribute, too. If they were told to bring tithes or the firstborn of the flock to some central worship location, that could mean only one thing: Time to pay up.
But behind the scenes, God is inviting his people to a ritual that will teach them how to fear him. Lesson number one: The God whom they must fear is a King so generous that he takes the tribute his people owe him only to give it back to them as funds for a lavish feast in his presence.
In fact, learning to fear the Lord turns out to have a lot to do with desire. “If the way’s too far for you,” the Lord tells them, “sell your tithe back home and bring the money to me.” Then:
spend the money on everything that you deeply desire, on cattle and sheep and wine and strong drink, and on everything that you deeply desire. And eat it there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household (v. 26).
Why does the Lord invite the people to feast with him? Because he wants them to know, deep in their bones, that their desires can only ever be satisfied at the table of their divine King. And the way to get that knowledge into their bones is through their bellies. Israel will be a people who have tasted—quite literally—the extravagant generosity of their God.
The lesson the Lord is teaching them, though, can’t be learned alone. The feast that the Lord invites them to is a feast in his presence and alongside the full community. Deuteronomy makes it clear that the household that feasts in God’s presence must include “your son and your daughter, your male servants and female servants,” the “Levite in your towns,” the “stranger, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut. 12:18; 16:11).
Learning to fear the Lord together by rejoicing with him at the feast will prepare this community to fear the Lord by obeying his countercultural way of life all year round. That’s why the community that learns to fear the Lord by feasting together in Deuteronomy 14:22 is immediately charged to fear the Lord by also creating the world’s first tithe-funded social safety net, by embracing costly debt forgiveness in the sabbath year, and by placing dramatic limits on debt slavery for their brothers and sisters (Deut. 14:28–15:18). The people that feast together become a family of God-fearers together. The family that fears God together follows God in creating a just and merciful world for all their family members.
Many Christians and churches struggled before the pandemic to recognize just how central feasting together is for our life with God. A hyper-individualistic Western version of Christianity taught many of us to come to church primarily looking for a sermon or worship experience to “feed” us with a “spiritual” morsel, rather than looking for a family with whom to find our deepest desires satisfied by embodied life lived together in God’s presence. We were already often leaning on technological gimmicks within the church and religious community, cultivated in the echo chambers of social media outside of it, rather than on the rich mess of sharing actual tables with brothers and sisters from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
We should have known that, as long as we gather to worship the God who became flesh for us, church on the internet could only ever be church with an asterisk. But our longstanding love affair with technology prepared us for isolation long before the pandemic forced it on us.
Many of us church leaders already knew that we were struggling to foster real community among our congregants. Now, most American Christians have spent an entire year learning to live without the mess of embodied church life, consuming a steady diet of internet church, and like me, finding it far too easy to forget why we need to feel the touch of our neighbor’s hand when we pray or hear the sound of our neighbor’s voice when we sing.
What if we took Deuteronomy seriously? Let’s work through the social anxiety we’ve acquired from all our isolation and the inertia of being able to do everything virtually and make feasting the church’s top priority. Let’s end this pilgrimage through the COVID-19 wilderness with a season of feasting together with God’s people.
We’ve been separated for so long, forced to eat the bread and wine under such strange circumstances. Why not kick off post-pandemic church life with rituals that revel in our embodied existence? We can eat the Lord’s Supper as an actual supper, with food and drink and fellow feasters at our side. And instead of reveling in our newfound technology’s ability to help us “reach” people further and farther away, we can focus on finding ways to come together around the table with the orphans, immigrants, and widows nearby but often not among us.
While we’re not out of the pandemic yet, it’s fitting that as we glimpse the end of this pandemic, the church finds itself amidst the festival of Easter season and anticipating the joy-filled feast of Pentecost.
Maybe it’s time to get cooking.
Michael J. Rhodes is an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College and an assistant pastor at Downtown Church. He is the coauthor of Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give.