Over the weeks since we have been separated from one another I have thought a great deal about the value of Christian community. Verses that were once read mindlessly pop off the page with new life and relevance.
...as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3.10)
“For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1.8)
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For 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. (Romans 1.9-12)
“As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” - (2 Timothy 1.4).
I can feel Paul’s longing with a fresh perspective. His heart beats for Christ and his Church. This was not just some formality in a letter it was the heart of a man who knew the gift of Christian community. He who once ripped that community apart, now longed deeply for their fellowship and worked tirelessly for its growth!
Why? Because he had not just come to Christ, but to “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12.23). Paul knew that Jesus had not only saved him, but had called him to unity with a saved people. This is why John writes of love for one another as a key trait of the life of Christ in us (1 John 3.10). And this is why Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother and no longer as a slave. The Gospel creates and shapes Christian community uniting us together as the very household of God.
What is a kingdom without a people? Of what value is the promise of a heavenly city without its citizens? God has not called us merely to himself, he has called us through Christ to one another: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may now that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17.22-23).
The fellowship we enjoy as Christians is not a mere side-effect of a common faith. It is at the heart of God’s salvation plan. Paul explained this in Ephesians where he wrote: “But now in Christ you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2.13, 18-20).
Paul is telling us that the church is not an afterthought or a side-effect. Instead it is a major part of God's plan through the work of Jesus. What a gift! What a blessing to be together as God’s household. Whatever the effects of this pandemic, I do hope that this season of separation will forever breakdown the idea that we can go it alone or do without the actual fellowship of God’s people. I hope it awakens the church to the value of life together.
It is so easy to forget and dismiss this truth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who deeply longed for such fellowship while imprisoned by the Nazi government, wrote of our tendency to forget the value of the church. In his book Life Together he wrote:
“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, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
As I write this I am reminded of the Ephesian elders weeping at the shore of Miletus as Paul was departing for Jerusalem, never to see them again. I can feel the sand on my knees as they prayed together for the last time, some steeling a glance at Paul, remembering the nights and days spent under his careful teaching. The text reads “there was much weeping on the part of all” because they would not see him again (Acts 20.37). The heat of their tears is almost palpable.
Unlike Paul and the Ephesian church we will see one another again and our fellowship will be a welcome change to phone-calls, live-streaming, and video-conferences. Yet let’s not lose the truth behind their tears and embraces: Christian fellowship is a gift of God and is not a guarantee while we are on this earth. This pandemic will lift and our restrictions with it, so as we gather let’s value the time we are given with our church family and work hard to preserve our unity and fellowship.
Photo - Felicia Buitenwerf
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016)
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together, SCM Press Limited, 2010.