Every spring crowds of people flock to High Park to see the cherry blossoms. This year the blossoms will be enjoyed by the birds and the squirrels, and by God himself, who delights in every petal he has made. Our experience, however, will be virtual. The City of Toronto has barricaded High Park, but thoughtfully installed a “Bloom Cam,” so we can, as the local headlines have announced, “watch the cherry blossoms from home.”
Watching cherry blossoms sounds a bit odd. The current restrictions have reduced our experience of God’s beautiful creation to virtual “watching.” Think about the various senses and actions that are engaged when you walk under and stand among the cherry blossoms. You don’t just watch. You examine, you study, you ponder, you perceive. While your visual senses are engaged, you’re also listening and smelling and touching. The whole sensual experience is magnified when it’s shared with another person. The sense of beauty, delight and joy affirms that we’re alive. None of this can be mediated through the “Bloom Cam.” The“Bloom Cam” does not give us access to the cherry blossoms. It denies access.
The “Bloom Cam” proves that we cannot separate beauty and joy from direct engagement with reality. There is no virtual substitute for walking under and standing among the cherry blossoms. The delight they give cannot be mediated. It’s immediate.
If this is true of cherry blossoms and the “Bloom Cam”, how much more is it true of our fellowship with one another. This is why the Apostle Paul longed to see fellow believers in person. He writes to the Thessalonians, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3:10). Again, he writes to the believers in Rome, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11-12). Surely all they needed was Paul’s letter. Was Romans not a sufficient spiritual gift and encouragement to their faith? No. Paul longed to see them, so that they may be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith.
Christian faith is shared, sustained, and strengthened by face-to-face fellowship. And so is joy. The Apostle John concludes his second letter, “I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Without face-to-face fellowship, our faith wanes and our joy wants.
Again, Dietrich’s Bonhoeffers book LifeTogether speaks to our current context. Here is an extended quote from his chapter on “Community”:
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer . . . The believer feels no shame, as though he were living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benedictions of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!
It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us. (Life Together, trans. Doberstein, pp.19-20)
Bonhoeffer is elaborating upon what the Apostles Paul and John have written about our face-to-face fellowship and he is working out the implications of our membership in the body of Christ and the priesthood of all believers. This is why he draws attention to the presence of Christ in our fellowship. Christ’s presence is known in our presence with one another, especially when we’re gathered under his Word and around his Table on Sunday mornings. Our computer screens do not give us access to that reality any more that the “Bloom Cam” gives us access to the cherry blossoms in High Park.
Even so, I’m reminded of what Gerard Manley Hopkins has written in his poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Although we’re separated on Sunday mornings, we’re still permitted to gather in groups of five, where Christ is present, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his. Although we’re thankful, from the bottom of our hearts, for the physical presence of fellow believers, we must never accept our separation from the congregation as the new normal. And so, we long to be together, that we may be mutually encouraged by our faith and that our joy may be complete.