When we need to smell their breath
“A.A. saved my life. Can it work online?” asks a contributor in this morning’s New York Times. You may be familiar with the work of the tremendously influential Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 in Ohio with the stated aim of enabling its members to "stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. Over the years I have become impressed with this mutual aid fellowship. Certainly one person I know became a disciple of Jesus through its ministry. He was totally convinced that its Twelve Steps were thoroughly Christian, not least in #3, “to make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” At the heart of the ministry of AA is the regular, usually weekly, meeting of those with a self-professed "desire to stop drinking," Mutual support is everything. So what happens when we are in lock-down and the only way we can communicate with each other as a group is through Zoom? Or to ask the same question in a different way, how important to us is physical presence when you can smell each other’s breath? This was the very question I was asking myself when I spoke at yesterday evening’s meeting of the Christ Church, Bedford, Lent course, looking into the camera at the same time as seeing those attending the meeting on my screen (except I didn’t, John the curate who was directing the zoomcast had decided to turn everyone’s video stream off to save band-width). And for a first attempt I think I managed reasonably well given the fact that it felt that I was speaking into the wall. We did have two break-out sessions which not everyone managed to access and John was able to intersperse my talk with my PowerPoint slides. Of course, like everyone else we are on a steep learning curve but as author Seth Godin observes “Every activity worth doing has a learning curve.” I’m sure next Tuesday’s meeting (note to me: different day of the week) will be much smoother. Certainly it saved me the horrors of negotiating the M6 and M1. But the questions remains, when all this is over and life resumes as normal, will we still travel or simply stay with Zoom? In other words, how important is physical presence? My guess is that it is more important that we think. In fact, one of the comments of my daughter who was in the Christ Church Bedford Zoom group is that my talk was not interlaced with my usual humorous asides, at least I think they’re funny if no one else does. It’s difficult to fully engage with people online, certainly with those we don’t know. We need to smell their breath, so to speak. Sadly the whole talk has been uploaded to the church’s YouTube channel. I have no intention at all of looking at it but if you can cope with cringing, you can visit youtube.com/c/christchurchbedford. And yes, I know I need an autocue. At it happens my final live talk was on how, in order to develop as a disciple of Jesus, we need the spiritual discipline of church membership. It’s important just to turn up, even if we don’t feel like it. Without realising the prophetic nature of my words then, I addressed our need for physical presence, to be with other people in person. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus himself realised how important his presence was for his distressed disciples. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18). And how does he keep his promise? Through the gift of his Holy Spirit, the presence of God in the lives of believers. The Old Testament writers were awed by the presence of God, described as the Shekinah in rabbinic literature. Following their rescue from Egypt God travels with them through the wilderness shown visibly in the pillar of cloud during the day and even more powerfully, the pillar of fire during the night. His powerful presence comes to fill the tabernacle tent as they head towards their promised land and then wonderfully, the temple on mount Zion in Jerusalem built by King Solomon. So the Psalmist rejoices: “Lord, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.” (Psalm 26:8) I’m still reading Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, now on page 1110. Wright argues convincingly that right at the outset of the early church the Holy Spirit was known as the Shekinah, the personal presence of God no less. And through the cross of Jesus, he comes to dwell in the life of each Christian, of everyone who confess Jesus as Lord. This means we are now the temple of the living God. “Don’t you know,” asks the apostle Paul, writing to the wayward Corinthians, “that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Corinthians 3:16) This is revolutionary stuff, not least if you think the temple on Mount Zion is where everything happens. No more. Now no need to make the journey to Jerusalem – for God is with us, our Emmanuel. God knows we need physical presence for full relationship and in a way we don’t readily understand but in a profound way his presence may be ours through the gift of his Spirit, his Shekinah. So even at Pentecost the apostle Peter makes sense of this long-promised gift of the Holy Spirit to all people by referring to Psalm 16:11 “You have made known to me the paths of life you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2:28) And that makes all the difference.