Gathering corporately as God’s church is not as glorious as it once was with the current technological hurdles and health-conscious minutiae. Knowing whether someone is smiling or scowling makes a significant difference in our interaction with them—and we are left to guess. Signals of welcome and warm regard, such as a hearty handshake or friendly embrace, have been replaced with knocking elbows or waving distantly. The simplicity of staying home is preferred to navigating current social codes. Muffled and masked words require repeating, and often we resort to saying as little as possible just to avoid the trouble.
Our connectedness has devolved into something drastically static, and the result is a cautious and uncertain speculation of how we are perceived.
Meanwhile we are desperately calculating how to interpret others. Was I friendly enough? Did I make them uncomfortable? Did they hear what I said? Did they wash their hands?
The warmth and rest of Sunday morning fellowship— once as familiar and dependable as my Italian grandmother’s spaghetti and meatballs— has been replaced with a rigid substitute, and the difference is cold and disappointing.
The temptation is to give up.
We are right to mourn what has been lost in this pandemic. Mourning (or lament) is Biblical; it acknowledges that things are not as they should be. When Israel returns from their exile, the Levite patriarchs, who saw the ornamental glory of Solomon’s temple, weep loudly as they dedicate the post-exilic temple, which is bitterly disappointing in comparison.
“Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy,”Ezra 3:12 NASB
The Lord’s dwelling place was supposed to be a place of magnificent splendor, and these men had enough years behind them to see that even the temple had been tarnished by sin’s curse. If your Sunday mornings have drastically shifted like mine have, then you too are witnessing a painful substitute for what once was. “Beloved, let us love one another” (1 John 4:7) has been smoked out by the prevailing fear of whether or not my brother accepts me with or without a mask. Our current experience of God’s church is startlingly unfamiliar, and we are going to need eyes to see His long-term vision in order to press through and not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing (Hebrews 10:25). Like the discouraged Levites who gathered around the humble foundations of a down-graded temple, we are looking squarely at a new temple patch-job that leaves much to be desired. I believe we can relate to what the Levites experienced in Ezra:
“This time there is no ark, no visible glory, indeed no Temple: only some beginnings, and small beginnings at that…conditions more conducive to humility than to pride, and called for a faith that had few earthly guarantees to bolster it.”Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
Right now, gathering with the people of God includes some emotional stress, relational tension and even logistical changes that make for an underwhelming experience.
These “conditions more conducive to humility” could easily give way to disassociation, distance, and an every-man-for-himself strategy for living. But operating at an individual level is utterly counteractive to God’s plan for His new dwelling: a city called “The Lord is there” (Ezekiel 48:35).
This city is also a bride. For a bride to be anything but singular is strange to us, yet John’s vision in Revelation is of a beautiful city (a group of people) finally consummating a marriage covenant with a Bridegroom!
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”Revelation 21:2-3
All of history has been coordinated to exalt God’s glory through a redeemed relationship with a people. It would be pride and foolishness on our part to think that a solo pursuit of Jesus is what He is looking for— especially when He’s told us otherwise!
The distance and isolation of this pandemic threatens to strip Christ’s bride of her most attractive qualities, and we ought to consider how we’re called to combat this.
Christ’s Bride is most radiant when, as a community of believers, we tenaciously pursue love and good works. We are called to an active faith that pursues fellowship and transparency in resistance to isolation and anonymity—and that may mean getting creative about how you use telecommunications. It is in our togetherness that we are being built into God’s house.
“You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”1 Peter 2:5
God has appointed us to the office of priesthood. What do we, His holy priesthood, offer to Him as a sacrifice in this new spiritual temple He is building? Paul tells us:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship… Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.”Romans 12:1,4-5
Paul is urging the church to offer their bodies as instruments of service to one another! This is pretty radical! Serving God in the abstract sense sounds really noble and worthy of my time…but when Paul tells me that serving God means serving the brothers and sisters I’m in community with, as I serve myself, my reluctance is telling.
If we are going to extend generous, gospel-motivated, hospitality in our interactions with others, we must set aside guardedness and love-of-ease, for servant-fueled, Spirit-enabled, devotion to one another.
To be ambassadors of a new kingdom is to conduct ourselves in a manner that imbues a physically dying world with the hope of spiritual life. We have been appointed to represent and proclaim a better and coming kingdom! We must abandon self-interest, and embrace loving sacrifice. Paul provides a detailed list of what that should look like in the church:
“According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the proportion of one’s faith; if service, use it in service; if teaching, in teaching; if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness… Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Take the lead in honoring one another. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.”Romans 12:6-13
We are called to strategic, multi-faceted, costly involvement in one another’s lives, for the mutual benefit of the church, as an amplification of the Gospel.
God chose the church as His ultimate dwelling and the greatest expression of His presence, and we by no means play a passive role in that fulfillment, regardless of how a crisis reshapes things.
Zion, the new Jerusalem, is what God has promised to make “a praise in the earth”, and as we experience what feels like another devastating blow to His building plans, we must take no rest in crying out to the Lord to establish the glorious, full reign of Christ’s kingdom (Isaiah 62:6-7). The Church (spanning time and cultures) must pray: Your kingdom come, Your will be done…for Yours is the glory. But this is important: God’s plan is not for His kingdom to come in spite of us but through us.
“Living sacrifices” are a messy and uncomfortable order in this current health crisis.
It would be easier to draw the curtains on our lives in the name of pragmatism than to fuss over a mask, log on, or risk swapping oxygen with our neighbor for the sake of attending to their needs (whether encouragement, prayer, generosity, hospitality, etc). But if we fail to be the church in this very practical and vital way, we fail to exist as the captivating and fragrant dwelling place of God’s glory.
This is no theological pawn.
God has some sobering words for the citizens of Judah who, in the face of national disaster, abandoned God’s ways and lived contrary to the establishment of His kingdom. Fearful and seeking their own means of rescue, they traded their allegiance to God for idols of safety and provision.
“Sharon will be a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me. But you who abandon the Lord, who forget my holy mountain, who prepare a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will kneel down to be slaughtered, because I called and you did not answer, I spoke and you did not hear; you did what was evil in my sight and chose what I did not delight in.”Isaiah 65:10-12
When we fail to love our brothers and sisters because it is inconvenient or challenging, we risk choosing what God does not delight in. If that seems extreme or costly, it is.
Christ, who laid down his life in obedience, rather than guarding it as His own, calls us to take up our cross and follow, and anyone who does not is not worthy of him (Matthew 10:38).
“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:35
In a time and place where discouragement surrounds us and devastation impends, desperation for safety and comfort (“Fortune” and “Destiny”) tempts us to abandon living in alignment with God’s mission. But there is no “city on a hill” without the city (Matthew 5:14). If the church is not operating the way the church was intended to (in sacrificial love), God’s city light, the light of the new Jerusalem, is very dim.
“In the same way, Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.”Matthew 5:16