By Nathan Peterson

The Ministry of Physical Presence

It was a nice relaxing evening. Work (from home) had gone well. I managed to not burn up dinner. And now I was getting to watch a movie and unwind a little (maybe Bourne Ultimatum isn’t relaxing for everybody, but hey, it works for me).

Across my TV screen, a huge crowd milled along the streets of New York. A group that big, in public, without masks? Yeah, that’s not happening again anytime soon, I thought.

And just like that, COVID-19 strikes again . . . just a friendly little reminder of, “Don’t forget, you’re living in a pandemic! XOXO 2020.”

In light of recent events, this bit of cynicism hardly seems worth mentioning. Except that I think that we’ve all had moments like that. They point to something deeper, a harder reality we might not really want to face but know is there. In this case, casually watching a movie morphed into a stinging reminder for me of something I’ve been learning during the craziness of the last six months: physical presence is a gift, one that we’re not guaranteed.

Though this pandemic certainly puts the spotlight on this fact, it’s always been there. Gathering in one room for worship is not something we’re guaranteed. Ask the persecuted church whose every meeting could be disrupted by government officials and drastic punishments. Getting to see classmates, friends, and family in person isn’t something we’re guaranteed. Long-distance missionaries know this all too well. Even a hug, a handshake isn’t guaranteed. Up until a few months ago, I kinda thought they were.

In all this, it helps me see that God had a clear plan for making us physical beings and that there’s something more to gathering together than just breathing the same oxygen.

Physical Presence in Scripture

God could have taken any number of alternative paths to reveal Jesus to us. He could have done a worldwide service bulletin, parking a huge spaceship in the middle of the sky and commanding all human beings to believe in his Son effective immediately, à la the Vogons in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After all, he’s God. He can do whatever he wants.

Thankfully, that’s not how Jesus and his good news was revealed. He “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). When Jesus enters into his full-time ministry, he invites 12 disciples to follow him. To sweat together in the desert heat as they traveled, to break bread together, to weather storms together on the Sea of Galilee. And through that close contact, through doing life with Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, these 12 ordinary men were transformed into preachers, miracle workers, and catalytic leaders of the early church.

When Jesus heals people in Scripture, he often lays hands on them. Especially for those like the leper in Matthew 8, Jesus’ physical touch is a powerful sign of God’s radical, barrier-crossing love. When Jesus rose from the grave, he appears, not as a hologram, ghost, or vision, but physically, so Thomas can feel his wounds (Jn 20:24–29).

And though it’s occasionally tempting to gloss over the opening and closing verses of Paul’s epistles in order to get into the “meat” of the message, it’s worth noting how often Paul refers to previous or upcoming visits, like in 2 Timothy 1:4: “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.”

All these examples testify that our physical presence can be a huge part of ministering and caring for others. And I believe that’s something we all have experienced in our own lives. Think of your closest friends. Whether they were your first-year roommates in the dorm or just had nearly everything in common with you, a big part of your friendship likely involved hanging out together in person. When you needed encouragement or had big news, you went to see them. You didn’t just call or text, distance and schedules notwithstanding. There’s something special, a sense of honor in being invited into someone else’s physical space and presence. Out of the million other places a person could be, he or she chose to spend time with you.

Using the Gift of Physical Presence in a Pandemic

So where does that leave us right now? When our physical presence feels more like a risk than a blessing. When more and more of our campus ministers feel like Paul under house arrest, shooting off social media posts and video chat invitations into the great void that is the Internet.

With everything else vying for our attention and energy, it seems best to start small and simple. Could you ask a neighbor or person on your floor to go for a walk? Are there people you’re quarantining with at home or in your dorm, who you could be more intentional about encouraging and blessing, even if it’s just through watching a movie or playing UNO? Are there socially distanced church services near your campus?

We can also intercede for God’s grace in a swift return to being able to gather again. And in this way, these little daily reminders, whether seeing crowds on TV screens or people walking around with masks in the grocery store, instead of discouraging us can help spur us on in prayer and longing to see this pandemic’s end and our physical communities restored.

 

If you’d like to learn more about how to intercede with others now, check out our online group prayer guide—in the hope of someday soon trading these in for in-person gatherings.

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Nathan Peterson is a writer on InterVarsity's Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. He formerly was the Urbana 18 writer. When he’s not at work, you can find him working on his book, at the gym, or watching movies at home. 

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