Worship shows us both aspects of God’s kingdom, the already and the not yet. Worship at its biblical best – whatever its style – is a grand party, a celebration, a joy in which God’s people lose themselves amidst a deep focus on God and his glory. In fact, the bible’s picture of the end is precisely that, a party.
Masks are a political football. Why masked worship at all? After all, many congregations and many believers consider it anathema. The Bible commands God’s people to worship him in song. Christians have always been a singing people, and we treasure the joy of serving as a choir before our great, gracious, and merciful God. When we sing, we magnify the praise he is due. One side insists that if we do not gather and defy the risks, we have capitulated, whether to human authorities or to COVID-19 itself. The other insists that if we gather despite the risks, we have failed to love our neighbor.
The purpose here is not to engage that debate. In our congregation, we are worshiping in this unsatisfying way out of love for our neighbors. We try to give public health authorities their due and respect their expertise when presented rightly, and we believe them when they emphasize the risks of large gatherings, especially those with chanting or singing. Yes, with a new disease – and COVID-19 remains a very new disease – further research and more time may nuance or even change the conclusions that public health authorities give us. That nuancing is inevitable with anything as new as this disease, but it is no reason to ignore the best guidance that experts doing their jobs can give us. There are disinformation machines on all sides of most debates, especially on the web, and we have sorted through as best we can. With so much unknown, it simply seems prudent to our leadership to be careful with the lives of our neighbors, even if that means our worship is not what we wish. Other churches and congregations may make differing decisions, and we do not mean to disparage them. We all currently see through a glass, but dimly, and we can have charity for those who make out a different image as they gaze.
But might there still be some lemonade from this lemon? Here’s a sip: the profoundly unsatisfying nature of masked worship points us to the biblical reality of how God’s kingdom comes. Churches are fond of lingo: the already/not yet, the overlap of the ages, or – if you are more academically inclined – inaugurated eschatology. All these terms indicate the same thing, how the kingdom of God comes according to the New Testament.
While the bible is a bit too unruly to sum up in a single phrase or motif, the kingdom of God is as strong a candidate as any. From the very beginning, Genesis 1, God has been about bringing a kingdom on earth that would make manifest what is already true in heaven, that he is a great king. Through twists and turns, that kingdom eventually became manifest in the Old Testament through the offspring of one man, Abraham. The kingdom developed through more twists and turns with the Davidic dynasty and then crashed due to the ongoing, flagrant disobedience of David’s heirs. The Old Testament prophets who declared that judgment also looked forward in hope to a time when God’s kingdom would be restored, when messiah would come to make all things new. The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ is, in fact, that hoped-for messiah, the one who would restore the kingdom of God and bring in its fulness.
The coming of the kingdom in the New Testament, however, is surprising. If messiah was supposed to bring the fulness of God’s kingdom, that would mean perfect peace, the lion lying down with the lamb (and not to eat it!), everyone with perfect security, plenty of food, and justice raining down. Yet we look at the world around us; we read the Sunday paper; we watch the news; and we know this world is not as it ought be. How can Jesus be messiah and fulfill the Old Testament’s vision of the kingdom of God if the world still shows so much suffering and evil? The New Testament answer: the kingdom did not come as expected, in one fell swoop. Instead, Jesus is bringing the kingdom in stages. The coming of the kingdom began in Jesus’ earthly life, ministry, death, and resurrection (Mark 1:15). It continues its spread now, like yeast working through dough and like a plant growing (Matthew 13:31-33), and it will reach its fulness when Christ comes again (Revelation 11:15).