Early in the pandemic, I concluded A Theology of Incarnation Amidst Online Worship with a premature promise: “When we have the chance, we will return – joyfully – to a fuller presence with each other.  And we are going to throw a great party when we do.”  Premature how?  The sentiment was good, but the idea that the pandemic would be over in a sudden swoop has turned out to be wrong, at least in terms of suddenness.  Many of us fell into the error of thinking, “This will stink for a while, and then it will end.”  There will still be an end someday, a time when the “new normal” can more fully revert to the old normal.  But that time is still to come.  Our return to worship hasn’t turned out to be a sudden return from online worship to a full, crowded, glorious congregation standing before God.

The psalmist penned, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” (Ps 122:1)  Yet our church returned to a limited in-person worship schedule a month ago, with masks, socially distanced, limited singing together, and our rejoicing is tinged with sadness and grief.  This is not what we remember, nor is it what we cherish.  Ten feet apart, only seeing our friends’ eyes and hair, the sacrament given by a latex hand, only about five percent of our congregation gathered at a time, songs by our worship team but without our voices – this worship creates a grief that mixes and dilutes our joy.  Most of us would agree – including our worship staff, who have done an excellent job of creating our online and our socially-distanced in-person worship – returning for masked worship is wonderful and yet profoundly unsatisfying.  This isn’t the party that worship is supposed to be, nor is it the return to God’s house that we all envisioned.  We are already worshiping together again, but not yet how we wish to.

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).

So, is the kingdom of God here now?  Yes, it is already here – Mark 1:15.  And no, it isn’t yet fully here – Revelation 11:15.  Oscar Cullman famously suggested an analogy to help understand this New Testament perspective, that of D-Day and VE-Day.  Once Allied troops established a secure beachhead in Normandy, once they began pouring in men, munitions, and supplies, the ultimate outcome of World War II in Europe was assured, Allied victory.  Nonetheless, D-Day was June 6, 1944, and VE-Day, the complete victory in Europe, was not until May 8, 1945.  In between lay some of the most brutal fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge and other terrible struggles.  Though the victory of the Allied cause was assured, the actual end of the war remained in the future.  This, Cullman said, is an analogy to help understand the kingdom of God in the New Testament: with Christ’s death and resurrection, the victory of the kingdom of God was assured, but only with his second coming will the victory be complete.  As with World War II, the time between the two is an oscillating war zone, a war between Christ’s kingdom and the devil’s kingdom, the war amidst which we live our daily lives.

Cullman’s insight makes so much of our lives intelligible.  In both our individual and corporate lives, we live in a world that mixes unimaginable beauty with wanton cruelty, a world that shows selfless love and selfish brutality, a world that can send a man to the moon but could blow itself up at any time.  How can we make sense of such a world?  Only with an understanding of history that explains both good and evil.  How can we avoid cynicism in such a world?  Only by understanding that good and evil are not equals, that God will win out.  The resurrection proves it.  Christ has conquered death, and because of that historical fact, nothing will ever be the same.

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.  Revelation 19:6-9 recount part of John’s image of heaven:

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6–9, ESV)

Most Westerners, at least those with food security, miss the importance of this image.  To a people who lived in continual danger of starvation, one bad crop, one drought, one enemy raid away from hunger or death, trying to describe the indescribable, what heaven itself will be, the best thing the bible can say is “It will be like one, never ending, over-the-top party.”  The wedding banquet was a time when inhibition was thrown to the wind, when expense was not spared, when the best was offered and the community celebrated.  To a people who rarely ate meat, who knew the pangs of hunger as they tried to sleep, who often went without, the image would have been stunning – you can eat as much as you wish, as long as you wish, one eternal celebration, with God, himself as the host.

Every feast in the bible looks forward to that great eschatological feast, the wedding banquet of the lamb.  In Numbers 9, the Israelites celebrated the Passover, already delivered from slavery in Egypt, but not yet in the land of promise.  And even once in the land of promise, they would return to slavery as exiles in Babylon.  In Esther 9, the Jews celebrated Purim, their deliverance from destruction, but they remained scattered throughout the Persian Empire, still living as a vulnerable population.  They would eat the feasts, but they would hunger again.  Even Christian communion looks forward to the final feast, when the sacrament will give way to the reality, the eternal wedding feast of the lamb, where we celebrate with Christ forever.

And the sacrament provides the bridge.  We celebrate Christian communion as part of worship, and worship more broadly does the same – it points us to the greater reality to come, our perfect communion with God.  Worship even in the best of times is still tinged with a “not yet.”  For many years Western societies, particularly American Christians, have been able to worship with such peace and freedom that most of our worship experience has been the “already” not the “not yet.”  In a flourishing church, worship can be a crowded party, full of song, even dancing depending on one’s tradition.  We celebrate together the foretaste of the even greater worship to come which Christ returns and we all become what we ought, when even sin itself is banished from our world.  Worship has often been a foretaste of eternity to come.

Even then, though, the “not yet” casts its long shadow – a 1963 bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  Beyond the violence, even our peaceful corporate worship is tinged by the not yet – unreconciled marriages, unforgiven slights, grudges and alienation, and our personal worship the same – distracted, harried days, to-do lists looming upon us, minds that cannot rest before the Lord.  Even in the best of times, worship is still tinged with the “not yet.”

Masked worship simply makes the “not yet” of our worship so much more apparent.  Our worship may have for many years given us a foretaste, a glimpse of the fulness of the kingdom to come, but our COVID-restricted worship reminds us of the worship so many of our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide experience – joyful worship, but under the threat of persecution, imprisonment, even death.  Our masked and socially distant worship services are a blessing and a joy, yet a sadness, because they now emphasize so much more that we hope for so much more, not just a return to worship together but a coming of that to which all worship points – our eternal feast with Jesus.

When the “new normal” of worship gives way to the old normal, it will be wonderful, and it will be a great party.  I can’t wait.  But even then, our party will have a “not yet” to it, because it must, because it still points to something greater. The lemonade: masked worship reminds us that it is supposed to be this way, because we are supposed to long for something more.  So, do we still plan to throw a party when this is all over?  Yes.  Do we look forward to pulling off the masks and singing with abandon without fear of plague?  Yes.  Do we look forward to giving hugs again and shouting for joy?  Yes, yes, we do.  Just not yet.  Even then, though, we will merely stand on Jordan’s stormy banks:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand
and cast a wishful eye
to Canaan’s fair and happy land,
where my possessions lie.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

O’er all those wide extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns,
and scatters night away.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

No chilling winds or poisonous breath
can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death
are felt and feared no more.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

When I shall reach that happy place,
I’ll be forever blest,
for I shall see my Father’s face
and in his bosom rest.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

(United Methodist Hymnal, 1989)

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Meet Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove