“Online Church – Is God Calling You?” – Sunday, January 17, 2021

REV. DR. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM

Stouffville United Church

John 1: 43-51

Second Sunday after Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” It’s hard to believe that Jesus began his ministry with these simplest of beginnings when he asked himself, ‘Where shall I go today?’ And he decided to go to Galilee, where he ‘found’ Philip. Jesus called to him, and Philip followed him.

John Dominic Crossan, in his1991 ground breaking book about the ‘historical Jesus,’ writes a few lines in the introduction which helps me to understand the arrival of Jesus as he walked into this small town in the countryside, where no one knew him. “He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle.”[1]

And Jesus would call other disciples in the same manner he called Philip and Nathanael. And the numbers of disciples would grow from the few to the many. Their steps would travel across lands and cultures. And generations of followers continued the pilgrimage of faith that they had started. And their steps have met ours. And our steps have led us today to this time of worship, where we gather as one in the name of Christ.   

What does it mean to be gathered as one in the name of Christ?  It is a calling that uniquely claims us as a community of faith – 1 Peter 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”  “We are called to be the church.” These words may sound familiar to you because they are a part of our church’s New Creed. “We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” The United Church of Canada has always kept this call to be the church central in its theological statements.

In our church’s 1925 founding document, the Basis of Union, in Article XV we read: “We receive it as the will of Christ that His Church on earth should exist as a visible and sacred brotherhood.” And our 1940 Statement of Faith: “We believe that all members of the Church are one in Him, and that the life of the Church in every age is continuous with that of the first apostolic company.” And from our most recent theological statement, the 2006 Song of Faith, “We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.”

Clearly, this sense of being gathered as the church is well defined. And the church has been gathering for a very long time. And it hasn’t always been easy. The church has survived wars, plagues, persecution, changes in culture – from the Reformation to post-Christendom. And throughout it all, the church has shown an ability to live into these new ‘plot lines’[2], to adapt to a new script.  For when the road seems blocked, the Holy Spirit finds a way. Think of the Apostle Paul, thrown into prison, and yet he kept up his connections with the early Christians through the ‘media’ of the time – letter writing.[3]  

We are nearing the one-year mark of the global pandemic which put a stop to the way we gathered to worship on a Sunday morning in our sanctuary, the times we met for fellowship, the times we engaged in mission and ministry. Our gathering now is not about physical togetherness, because now we worship alone. But we are alone together, as the body of Christ.[4] The image of pilgrimage is helpful here. Stuart Murray writes, “[Pilgrimage] recalls one of the earliest names for the church – “the Way” … Pilgrimage encourages us to follow Jesus … and learn to be his disciples in a new context.”[5] For with the church moving into to an online format for worship, our context has drastically changed – from a physical gathering to a virtual gathering.

This week, I have been reading an e-book called Digital Ecclesiology, which is a collection of essays from different denominations and countries, looking at the theological implications of churches going online, and in particular in the area of the sacraments. In the United Church of Canada, we have been given the authority to hold ‘virtual’ holy communion, where you have the bread and juice at home, and I preside over the communion elements here, and we share in the communion, together, over the internet. 

However, for the Roman Catholics, who believe in the transubstantiation of the communion elements, which is the belief that the bread and the wine have become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, they will not experience communion the way you and I do here. Instead, the priest will offer to the congregation what is called a ‘spiritual’ communion. The priest stands behind the altar and presides over the elements of the bread and the wine. At home, the congregant’s response is as if they were in the church – they stand, sit, or kneel as if they were in the sanctuary. And then when the priest takes the wafer or drinks the wine, they watch. The spiritual connection is in the longing of the congregant whose mouth is actually ‘salivating’ in memory of the taste of the wine and the texture of the wafer.[6] The commentary observed that “practicing communion spiritually through online church does not replace the physical communion, but through it “we realize that there are several ways to pray to the father in our home, over the Internet, connected with the People of God, and that God’s grace exceeds the space-time limit.”[7] Churches are finding a way to be a community of the faithful, even when gathered over the internet. As I read this week, “If cyberspace is the new public square, the church online is taking the gospel to where the people are.”[8]

Worship is graced by the presence of God. And this is true when we gather in person, and this is true when we gather as an online church.  We are the church however we gather because God is in our midst.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) Whenever Christians gather, the Holy Spirit is present. And not only when we’re together in a church sanctuary, but wherever we gather. Over the centuries Christians have gathered under duress, whether as exiles or refugees, or in hiding because of persecution. On the day of Pentecost, we know that the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room. “They were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1) And the Holy Spirit came into their midst and the church was born. And in the same way, the Holy Spirit gathers us together in worship. Worship is graced by the presence of God. And this is true when we gather in person, and this is true when we gather as an online church.  We are the church however we gather because God is in our midst.

When Jesus walked into the town of Galilee on that day, his steps took him to Philip. He said to him, ‘Follow me,’ and Philip followed. And Jesus walks into your life, to seek you. And Jesus finds you. It happens to you whether you’re sitting on a church pew or if you’re sitting at home in your living room. Jesus doesn’t need the internet to find you. As a community of faith, we are called together to worship. And even though we worship alone, we are together in Christ’s name.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), xi.

[2] Sarah Travis, Metamorphosis: Preaching After Christendom (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2019), 87.

[3] Heidi A. Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology: What if the Future of the Church is Digital (Digital religion Publications, 2020), 25.

[4] Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology, 29.

[5] Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018), 222.

[6] Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology, 68.

[7] Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology, 68.

[8] Campbell, Digital Ecclesiology, 57.

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