The news from Canadian sources today is that young people have been a key vector for the spread of COVID-19. In this case that means those under 40. That’s troubling. The other bit of significant news is that some government models suggest the social isolation requirements might need to be in place until July. Exactly which requirements is not clear, but it would seem likely that corporate church gatherings are off the table for not just weeks but months. This has lots of implications, but one is that we need to recover the Christian teaching about the “communion of saints.”
In my book Speaking of God I discuss this ancient Christian assumption a bit. The basic idea is that the connection between church members withstands all kinds of stressors. The usual stressors to community—like communication difficulties, physical separation, differences in background—are all overcome by God’s Spirit and the practices of biblical community. In fact, the Christian community has long taught that not even death can severe the links between us. In Romans 8 Paul writes this:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The other place in scripture that this teaching is grounded is Hebrews 11 & 12. The anonymous author of that letter writes this:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . .”
For the writer of this text the reality that those who have died remain present to us is so strong that it impacts how we make our way in the world. When I described the communion of saints in my book I mostly introduced the idea as something to help our theological thinking. Remembering that those who have died are still a part of the conversation changes how we approach issues today. We don’t think through things as lonely moderns, but as participants in a larger, older community. However, in our present moment I’m thinking that the communion of saints is equally important in how we understand our social isolation and our inability to gather as a community of faith.
The ancient teaching about the communion of saints means that we remain connected even if that connection doesn’t look as obvious as it used to. The connections that bind the church community run deeper than those of a club or an interest group. The connections that hold the Christian community together are unbreakable because they are made of God’s own life and love. Social isolation may—probably will—continue, but that doesn’t disband the community of faith. It doesn’t mean we are alone.