by Edward Reifsnyder | 15 October 2020 |
Does the Holy Spirit inhabit cyberspace? Can true Christian fellowship occur in electrons flying through wires? Can a Christian experience the blessings of meeting together with other Christians virtually? Can new and permanent fellowship groups form in with people across the globe, from Australia at one extreme, Finland and Africa on the other? Is cyberspace amenable to fellowship and spiritual experience, or is it just a temporary stop-gap thing?
The wind [spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. John 3:8
This past Sabbath (October 10, 2020), the wind was blowing through cyberspace. I felt it.
The Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar is conducted on Zoom every Sabbath. This past Sabbath the discussion topic was communion—the Lord’s Supper. But the remarkable thing was experiencing cyberspace communion together.
To begin the seminar, Bob Johnston, retired professor of theology at Union College, and Loren Seibold engaged in an interview regarding the background and historical development of the communion ritual.
As is common in the AT Sabbath Seminar, the conversation was very interactive. There are two streams of communication that are almost constant. There are verbal comments and questions by participants as well as a running dialogue among participants in the Chat dialogue box. These dynamics make for a much more interactive experience than a typical church service. Multiple viewpoints are expressed and discussed. This provides exposure to a broad variety of viewpoints, and an opportunity to understand people and their views.
One discussion point of note was the foot washing ritual. Participants expressed a variety of views, with some describing the foot washing as personally difficult but a blessing at the same time. Others disclosed that they are uncomfortable and stay away. Still others said that the foot washing has lost meaning since the trend began toward family or couples foot washing. This is clearly a ritual that is not uniformly perceived or observed in our fellowship.
By the way, in our back and forth about this article, Loren Seibold introduced a term new to me: pedilavium, the Christian rite of foot washing. (My spell check does not know this term!) Don’t you think this terminology should go in your church bulletin?
Then, in a thing of beauty, Christians from around the world joined in fellowship to celebrate Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Our corner of cyberspace seemed palpably alive with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There were no solemn processions of elders and deacons, no deaconesses folding a white cloth, no ritual, no formality. We did not seek to replicate the traditional communion service. Instead, we engaged in an unusual combination of elements. Matthew Shallenberger, a musically talented pastor from Tennessee, set a tone for the experience by playing his guitar and singing simple hymns at the beginning (and end.) The rest of the proceedings were led by women.
Monika Arnold, a laywoman from Cleveland, Ohio led us in a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, a first for me; not only have I never engaged in this basic Christian creed in a communion service, but it is a rarity in any Adventist gathering. Jeanne Mogusu, a pastor from Kenya, led us in a confession from the Book of Common Prayer which begins: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone”—this last clause a decidedly sobering realization, that there’s more to sin than doing a bad thing or breaking a law. Dr. Olive Hemmings, a professor of New Testament from Washington Adventist University, led in a scripture reading from Psalm 116 that includes the this line evocative of the Lord’s Supper; “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
Cyberspace adds an unusual, almost ethereal note to responsive readings: due to the variety of speeds of connections, distances, and personal response times, the voices of the respondents were not synchronized. The effect was an interwoven symphony of voices that sounded like they were echoing around a canyon.
Then Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist, a pastor from New Zealand, spoke briefly and led us a blessing prayer followed by the Lord’s Supper. A defining moment, perhaps the capstone, was when she reminded us that Jesus wrapped up the first communion by telling his disciples he had a new commandment for them: Love one another. It was the first time I made the connection between the original Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ new commandment. But doesn’t it make sense? Jesus loved and served the disciples, and then urged them to do the same. You can read about it in John 13.
We finished with the traditional Lord’s Prayer.
I am sure everyone’s communion experience was slightly different. My wife Janelle had a gluten-free sweet potato cracker and pomegranate juice. I had crispy sea salt baked crackers and wine. I’m sure across our 100-some participants there were a variety of breads and beverages—that choice was up to the participants.
What impressed me most was the strong sense of community, even of intimacy. Zoom gatherings can be boring, can feel disconnected, impersonal. Not this one. I felt a strong sense of connection and fellowship with an international collection of Christian brothers and sisters.
I have been observing attitudes during this COVID-19 pandemic. Some people are just chomping at the bit to get back to their church building. They examine all kinds of schema and rules to try to meet the technical requirements for gathering. They also experience dissonance as some people wear masks and others refuse. They witness compliance and rebellion.
Other people seem content to experience Sabbath and fellowship differently. Some people are okay with not dressing up, not going somewhere yet another morning of the week, not being at a certain place at a certain time. Some people find Sabbath to be more restful this way. I am probably one of those. Is it possible some will de-conflate Sabbath and church buildings?
One thing I am learning: spiritual life can be experienced and enhanced in multiple ways. This past Sabbath’s cyberspace communion has confirmed that in my mind.
We may find that our current milieu will yield a multiplicity of worship forms and styles. We may find that our pastor lives 1,000 or 10,000 miles away. We may find our fellowship with like-minded believers is far-flung. Or we may be very happy to get back to the local church building. I don’t think we know yet all the implications of our current experience.
But one thing is sure. “The wind [spirit] blows where it chooses…”
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife, Janelle, live in Fort Collins, Colorado.