How Can We Be Church When We Can't Meet?

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Well, good morning from the Garrett home, as we meet online a second time as church. And as we did that for the first time last week, I wonder what you missed? Our children said they missed the thrill of the chase for biscuits afterwards – that inexplicable pull of the custard creams. Someone else said they missed the church building – although if I remember right, they usually sit on the comfy chairs, not the pews. I guess Climbers, Explorers and Pathfinders missed that ‘Now’s the time to head out to your groups’ moment. But I hope what we all missed most of all was one another – people.

Because church is all about meeting as God’s people, to care for each other, and encourage each other to keep living for Jesus for another week. Which is why the Bible says:

"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another..." (Hebrews 10.25, NIV)

But that begs the question: How can we be church when we can’t meet? And the Bible answers that question in the reading we had, from 1 Thessalonians. So before we hear that part of God’s word, let’s pray:

Father, Your Word says that it equips us for every good work. So please equip us now to be church even when we can’t meet. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

So 1 Thessalonians was originally a letter from the apostle Paul to some new Christians in Thessalonica. Paul took the gospel there for the first time, people came to faith in Jesus, but then Paul was hounded out of town by people who didn’t like his message. (A bit like Franklin Graham’s been hounded out here, before he’s even arrived.) So in Paul’s case, it was persecution, not coronavirus, that led to some pretty major social distancing between him and this new church. But the result was the same. He couldn’t meet with them. But he was a great example of caring for and encouraging fellow-believers despite that. And there are three lessons from his example.

And the first is...

1. Let’s Have Each Other in Heart

Listen to 1 Thessalonians 2.17 again. Paul writes:

"But since we were torn away from you, brothers [and sisters], for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you - I, Paul, again and again - but Satan hindered us."

So he’d been hounded out of town. And he wanted to get back to see them. And he’d tried to – but couldn’t.

But listen again to what he says in verse 17:

"... we were torn away from you... in person not in heart"

So you could get Paul out of Thessalonica. But you couldn’t get the Thessalonians out of Paul’s heart, out of his concern, out of his love.

Which is humbling, isn’t it? Because with us and our brothers and sisters in Jesus, in the week between Sundays, or the week or even fortnight between small groups, it’s all too often ‘out of sight, out of mind’, isn’t it? And I think the Lord may use this time, when lots of things about church have been stripped away, to re-teach us that it’s all about people, and having each other in heart.

I certainly found connecting with my Home Group online for the first time this week did that for me.
I felt much more of an edge of concern for them, and really wanted to know how they were, and what we could do for one another. So can I encourage you to take stock of who you would normally see and care for and encourage week by week and to think for each one of them how you’re going to do that now?

And can I encourage us to do that especially for our single brothers and sisters, living on their own.
Because even in normal circumstances, they don’t have the immediate access to a listening ear or burden-sharer or decision-sharer that others of us do. And in these abnormal circumstances they’ll feel that all the more.

So that’s the first thing: Let’s have each other in heart.

Then the second lesson from Paul is:

2. Let’s Make Contact with Each Other

So Paul had been hounded out of Thessalonica. He’d moved on to a place called Berea, but been hounded out there too. And he’d ended up in Athens, 300 miles from the Thessalonians. And even though he’d decided he couldn’t go back in person, everything in him said, ‘Make contact.’ For which he didn’t have a phone or an internet or an email – or even a snail mail. But he did have a Timothy. So here’s 1 Thessalonians 3.1:

"Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's co-worker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, [so] that no one be moved by these afflictions."

In other words, ‘so that none of you get unsettled in your faith by these persecutions that hounded me out, and that are probably now coming your way.’

So it was a different situation – persecution, not coronavirus – but the result was the same: people being unsettled, worried, and puzzling over, ‘Why’s God allowing this?’ For example, why is he allowing this just when it throws a spanner in the works of my GCSEs or A-levels or finals?
Or just when we have serious illness or big problems in our family anyway?

So, like Paul, when we make contact with each other, it’s good to assume that our brothers and sisters will to some extent be unsettled and worried and puzzled – and need us to help them process all that Christianly. So as we make contact, it may be helpful sometimes to ask something like, ‘How are you feeling about all this Christianly? Or, what are you finding hardest about all this faith-wise?’

And that’s the kind of thing Paul wanted Timothy to find out for him. Because he says, verse 5:

"For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith [in other words, I wanted to know how you were doing spiritually], for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labour would be in vain."

And, coronavirus or no coronavirus, once you’ve talked about football, rugby, cricket and the weather (which should now be quicker), it’s always good, from time to time, to ask brothers and sisters, ‘And how are you doing Christianly?’ Or another question in the same ballpark is, ‘How can I pray for you?’

So let’s make contact with each other – not just to talk about how we’re doing spiritually; but equally, not just to talk about everything else. Because we all need spiritual encouragement more than ever. So for example, I’ve not done it every time this week, but more than usual in phone calls I’ve said, ‘Shall I pray before we ring off?’

Or for another example, someone in my Home Group said he’d received so many texts, emails and weblinks with Bible thoughts that, to quote him, ‘Even though we can’t do church as normal right now, the Lord’s giving me even less leeway than usual for drifting away.’ Isn’t that a great thing to be able to say? And all thanks to brothers and sisters making contact.

So let’s make contact with each other with all the technology that Paul didn’t have. And even if you’re not a tech-lover, please make the effort if you can to get up to speed with Zoom or Whatsapp or whatever – especially so that you can connect with your small group. 

And, again, can I encourage us to make regular contact with our single brothers and sisters? Because even in normal circumstances, as a single person, the start and end of the day on your own, and any mealtimes on your own, can be especial downtimes. And in these abnormal circumstances that’ll be felt more. So how about inviting single friends to eat at the same time as you, and join together on Facetime or Zoom?

How about making some mealtimes a week a regular fixture like that? Or read a Christian book in synch, and chat about regularly? Or watch a film at the same time and Whatsapp about it after – or even during. Or – without breaking social distancing rules – take your exercise time in the same place so you can at least see one another, and maybe even pray loudly together keeping two metres apart. Depending on who’s around. Or use your exercise time to walk past another person’s house so you can talk appropriately distanced through the window – or even on your mobile, but where you’re actually there. But don’t forget low technology either. Because the card or gift through the post is still there to read or smile at again, in a way the phone call isn’t.

So that’s the second thing: Let’s make contact with each other

Then the last lesson from Paul here is:

3. Let’s Pray for Each Other

Looking on to 1 Thessalonians 3.6, Paul says:

"... Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love"

So Timothy’s come back, and reassured Paul that the Thessalonians are doing OK, spiritually.
And the next thing Paul does is to pray for them. And first of all he thanks God that they are doing OK spiritually. Verse 9:

"For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God..."

Which reminds us that it’s ultimately God who keeps Christians going, through thick and thin.
Because that’s why Paul thanks him that the Thessalonians have kept going.

And that’s why, as I think of all of you in our church family, I’m concerned about you right now,
but I’m not worried about you. Because it’s down to God to sustain the faith he’s begun in each one of us. And our response should be to pray for each other that he does.

So I guess, even this past week, you’ve been left feeling helpless about how to help someone in our church family. Maybe someone who’s elderly and isolated. Or someone already facing huge issues without coronavirus to deal with as well.

But when we find ourselves feeling helpless and thinking, ‘What can I do for these people?’ The next thing to think is, ‘What can God do for these people – and what can I ask him to do for them?’

And that’s what Paul did. So verse 10:

"... we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith"

So he prayed for their faith to grow – and we should pray that for each other.

But we need to remember that, just like muscle only grows through exercise – for example, in the face of the weights in the gym – so faith only grows through exercise – for example, in the face of the difficulties God allows to come our way.

So we should be concerned for each other, but not worried. Because it’s God who’s allowed these difficulties, and he will use them to grow our faith.

So for example, I remember reading Tortured For Christ – the story of the Rumanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, under communism. And he was kept in solitary confinement for an unimaginable time. And yet when he was finally released and reunited with his wife,
he said to her, "I am simply swapping the precious fellowship of Christ – which I’ve enjoyed all these years without you – for the precious fellowship of Christ, along with your fellowship again."

So let’s pray for each others’ faith to grow in all this – as people must have prayed for Richard Wurmbrand’s.

But let’s also pray, like Paul does, for each others’ love to grow. Verse 12:

"and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all"

Those of us living under lockdown in families certainly need to pray that, and have it prayed for us.
Because siblings are having to cope with one another undiluted by friends and school; returning students are having to cope with abnormal levels of parental proximity – and vice versa, and many husbands and wives now have all-day scope for irritating each other. Which all brings home those old Christian lines:

To live above, with saints in love,
That truly will be glory.
To live below with those we know,
That’s quite another story.

But those living under lockdown as single people need to pray that and have it prayed for you just as much. Because without others immediately around you, it’s easier to become self-focused. And the best antidote to that isn’t waiting for others to make contact (although they should), but for you to get on with loving others in whatever ways these strange times allow.

So can we be church, even if we can’t meet? The answer is yes.

And it’s also that God may use these circumstances to re-teach us that church is not about the biscuits or the building, or many of the other things we might have missed last week. It’s about the people he’s given us to care for and encourage, and to be cared for and encouraged by, as we trust in Jesus day by day, and make our way to heaven.

Well let’s pray.

Father, you tell us in your word that you will refine your people. So we pray that you would use these circumstances to refine us and re-teach us what a church should be. And we ask that whatever the future, we may not go back to what was normal for us, but may become more a church as you intend. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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