Loving at a distance

Father Iain McKillop

There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about the importance of touch.  Radio 4 was involved in a survey of people’s responses to touch and its psychological effect upon us.  British behaviour was once notoriously supposed to be less tactile than many Europeans or West Indians.  Apparently, in recent decades, we’ve learned to hug, embrace or grasp the shoulder more than previously.  But in our straightened present circumstances we are keeping so much more of a distance from people than usual. 

When the ‘Peace’ was introduced into the Anglican liturgy several people complained and didn’t want to be involved; some avoided it. Others embraced it so fervently that it became a free-for-all and the time for it has to be curtailed!  Yet we have become accustomed to this sign of our oneness with each other, which recognises that Christ reconciles our differences, so that we can truly and honestly share in his Communion together.   However we cannot at present express our unity, companionship and support of others in the same way as we used to do.

Yet our unity remains.  We are ‘one in Christ’ and are each part of his one Body, part of each other, even though we are not participating in the Eucharist, staring the peace, and only in contact at a distance.  Somehow we need to be able to sense that we are part of each other. Our isolated circumstances call us to draw on slightly different spiritual resources.  We need to strengthen our individual spiritual lives to flourish during the lock-down.  But that requires that we also remember that we are part of each other, and as God’s community have a covenant responsibility to each other.  Partly that encourages us to keep in touch, if we can.  But when we’re apart there are other ways of maintaining spiritual links.

We don’t see God, yet are assured that he is present with us and that we are spiritually united. Unless we use a contact system like ‘face-time’, which I’m afraid I don’t, we can’t see one another, yet can perhaps learn to form spiritual links that unite us.  I have a list of church-members, and though I don’t personally know everyone in our community by name yet, I pray through it and ask God’s blessing on all as individuals as well as praying for us as a collective whole.  Many won’t have such a list, but you could make your own list of all who you remember in the body and pray for them.  As someone else or another face comes to memory add them to the list.  I used to use a mall note-book, which I kept with me, with the names of all my acquaintances and people for whom I’d promised to pray, which I would use to pray for a few daily.  My most treasured way of praying for the community is to imagine myself in our full church service, looking round  at the congregation, choir, servers and ministry team and as I remember a face, praying for them, for their protection, spiritual strengthening and for God’s blessing on them.  Try it; it’s a very special way of valuing people in our church community and expressing your responsibility for them.

Like the ever-presence of God, we are always part of the Church whether we are physically there or not.  We were united in baptism and in God’s Spirit.  Christ brought us together through his love and his self-sacrifice, to be part of him and part of each other.  I would recommend that we all read and reflect on the final teaching of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and death from John chapter 13 to John 17.  He commands us to “love one another as I have loved you”[Jn.13:14]. –  Having that same commitment to each other as he has to us is quite a challenge! – Then he assures us that we and our futures are safe with him… “I am the way the truth and the life… If you know me you will know the Father” [Jn.14:6].  We are assured that we come to the Father and know what God is like through Jesus. “If you love me you will obey my commandments… and the Father will send us his Spirit”, another strengthener to be with us for ever. “I will not leave you orphaned”. [Jn.14:15-18].   He expands on what his Spirit will do for us in John 16 and assures us of joy and peace over the future.  This reinforces his former promise: “Peace I leave with you; peace I give to you” [Jn.14:27]. Then Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and us the night before he died speaks truly to the heart.  It is one of the most moving passages in the Bible: “All mine are yours and yours are mine” [v.10]… “Holy Father protect them in your name” [v.11]… “Sanctify them in your truth” [v.17]… “May they all be one, as we are one… I in them and you in me, that they may be truly one” [v.23]… “So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them” [v.26].

This oneness with God, with Christ and with each other is further emphasised in John chapter 15 where Jesus speaks of himself as the vine and we as his branches who gain strength and nourishment through him [Jn.15:1-17].   That chapter finishes with another assurance that his Spirit would unite, strengthen and work for Christ’s followers after his return to the heavenly dimension.  We no longer see Christ, as for the moment we no longer see each other, yet God’s Spirit remains in us, uniting us.  May he strengthen each of us as we remember each other, pray for each other and support one another and our communities at this difficult time.  AMEN!