Did you catch today’s Gospel reading (John 8:31-36)? It was short. Just four verses. Barely enough characters to fill up two “Tweets” on Twitter. Allow me to read it again.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
If your recent experiences have been anything like mine, you’ve been spending considerable time in front of a computer screen. Between Zoom calls and emails, social media and the endless news cycle of pandemic and politics, my days feel rather stationary. I remain seated at my computer, in my desk chair, in my basement, eyes glued to the screen. The day begins, the day ends, the pattern continues. Some days, I just feel stuck. I try to remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to work from the safety of my home, to remember that it is a privilege to stay home. But these times are challenging for people like me, those who value moving somewhere over staying put.
That feeling of being stuck in recent months makes today’s Gospel rather challenging. Today we encounter a Jesus who is speaking not to the authorities nor the skeptics, but to those who “had believed in him.” He’s speaking to those who, by the grace of God, had already come to faith. And he’s telling them not to get stuck.
This is one of those texts where we can learn just as much from how Jesus speaks these words as we can from what Jesus actually says. Jesus’ words depict an ongoing sense of motion. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” It’s a message to his newest followers, to remain moving, to continue working, to keep learning. And it’s phrased as a conditional statement. By saying “If you continue in my word,” Christ implies that many, perhaps all, will not remain in motion. Most will remain stuck. Most will cease to work at studying and applying God’s word. Most will not know the truth.
And the truth is this: that by grace Christ has set us free from the bondage of sin and death so that we might perform great acts of service for our neighbor. It is Christ who loosens the chains, Christ who frees us from the grasp of death, anxiety, worry, perpetual uncertainty. Jesus looks at those forces that would keep us stuck in one place, and boldly proclaims “no more”- go forth, continue in my word. Go forth to serve the neighbor. Go forth, confidently and decisively.
Yet here we are, seven months into the pandemic, cases rising throughout the world but especially in Wisconsin, and it feels like we may remain stuck for some time. Does this make us similar to those early followers who lost the momentum, who stopped moving, who stalled along the way? It certainly feels that way at times.
Two years ago, I began to research a book to bridge together my two passions – for the church, and for technology. At the time, church and technology seemed like different worlds.
Many believed that technology was, at best, a poor substitute for authentic Chrisitan connection, and at worst, a complete distraction from a life of true discipleship. When I started working on the book, only 2% of churches were streaming their worship service online. Most didn’t even have a website. The more I learned, the more I saw how those called to share the Gospel message had selectively unplugged from this digital age, choosing to remain in the ways of the past as the surrounding culture changed.
And then March happened. The Christian faith, once strictly analog, was forced to become digital. The church, once exclusively offline, was required to discover what it means to do ministry online. Seven months in, we’re doing far more than just figuring it out.
We’ve learned what it means to worship from our living rooms, we’ve learned to teach our kids Sunday School lessons from our kitchen. We’ve learned to discuss the scriptures on social media and to explore new spiritual practices via Zoom. We’ve learned how to pass the peace and give generously through text messaging, we’ve learned to advocate for social justice with online connections. While our eyes may have looked at the same screen, while we may have sat in the same chairs, we haven’t been stuck. We’ve been doing precisely what we in the church are called to do. We’ve been continuing in God’s word. And as we connect through a screen, our movement is bolder than ever.
This is not to say that social distancing has been easy. Nobody wants the church to remain exclusively online forever. Few, if any, would suggest that the digital church community can fully substitute for the sense of togetherness we enjoyed prior to March. The church has a digital future, but it is not an exclusively digital future. When it becomes safe to do so, we look forward to seeing each other face to face once again. I especially look forward to Dunkin’ Donuts after Sunday worship.
But we’ll need to continue on the path, to keep learning, what it means to be a church that is both online and offline. Because that’s where the world is headed – not to a high-tech future that leaves the physical world behind, but to a hybrid of online and in-person experiences, to a new normal where everything is simultaneously virtual and in-person.
503 years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg, that’s the Reformation to which we are called. Not just a reformation in theology or church structures, but a digital Reformation, one where we learn what it means to live out our Christian faith in digital spaces, where we define what it means to share the Good News in a world that is both offline and online.
On this and on all Reformation Sundays, we are reminded that we are always a Reformation church. Freed to show what it means to bring God’s world to a world that is ever-changing, so we to must be ever-adapting. We remember that we are called to evolve our practice and proclamation for the sake of our neighbor, for the sake of bringing God’s healing and redeeming word to an ailing and divided world. So let this Sunday be another early milestone in our ongoing Digital Reformation.
I imagine that Martin Luther, were he around today, wouldn’t nail his 95 Theses to any cathedral doors. He probably would be working from home, without access to a printer. He probably wouldn’t have made it to 95 Theses. He and his wife Katie had six children, who would likely be doing school online. I’m guessing his time to write the 95 Theses would be limited as he balanced homeschooling with his work as a church reformer. He’d still have his ideas. I don’t know if he would post his ideas to Facebook or Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat.
But I’m confident that he would look upon all we have learned, all we have changed in these recent months, at how the church has reformed to meet the needs of a changed world. From behind his mask, and at six feet of social distance, I know he would be smiling.
Happy Reformation Sunday. Welcome to the Digital Reformation.