Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Greetings Narrow Gate,
I pray this past week has gone well for you all. I know that many of you are still not back in church. Being absent from the body of Christ manifests itself physically (spiritually, emotionally and psychologically) in all of us. I'm sure that this manifestation plays out differently in all of us. Some of us are frustrated, cranky, depressed, sick, lonely, confused, and a myriad of other symptoms. Some of us may be all of these things.
I wonder if the acting out that's taking place around the country would be taking place if the churches had not been shut down? I don't know, probably not a coincidence. But I do know this, once we've been in the body of Christ, we notice it when we are absent from the body. No, virtual church does not help to lessen the negative impact of being absent from the body.
We have a need for church. We have a need for each other. God designed it to be this way. Being held out of church doesn't feel right because it is not right. Today I hope to put a finger on what is it that we miss when we're not in church. I found a great article by John Piper online, We Need Each Other: Christian Fellowship As a Means of Perseverance. But first, let's talk about what it means to be in the body of Christ.
The phrase body of Christ is a common New Testament metaphor for the Church (encompassing all those who truly are saved by the blood of Christ. Romans 12:5 calls the Church one body in Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:17 uses one body and later on in the same book, 12:27, uses the phrase the body of Christ (so does Ephesians 4:12). Hebrews 13:3 and Colossians 1:24 both call the Church the body. So clearly in the New Testament the church is being equated with the body of Jesus Christ.
When Christ entered our world he did so in a body prepared for him (Hebrews 10:5 & Philippians 2:7). Christ took this body to the cross and paid for our sins in his sacrifice. When Christ, after his resurrection, ascended to heaven, he exited the earth. The Church continues to extend Christ's love to the world. The Church now functions as the body of Christ on the earth.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that if the Church is closed, the body of Christ suffers.
Look at this list of benefits from our membership in the body of Christ. (List is from GotQuestions.org, a great Christian website). I have also listed negative side effects to each from pandemic closure.
*Members of the body of Christ are joined to Christ in salvation (Ephesians 4:15-16). How many, have not been saved due to our failure to keep churches open, hmmmm? How many souls sacrificed eternally?
*Members of the body of Christ follow Christ as their Head (Ephesians 1:22-23). How many have continued to do this? Surely, this has been interrupted by the pandemic.
*We in the body of Christ are the physical representation of Christ in this fallen world. What ministries have suffered as a result of the Church being closed? What ministries' operations have been cancelled in the last six months.
*Members of the body are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). Thank God for his Spirit. This has been our (my) lifeblood during this outbreak.
*Members of the body possess a diversity of gifts to be used in ministry (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). Sadly, many of these gifts sit idle now and are not in use. This is why many of us are so frustrated.
*Members of the body of Christ share a common bond with all other Christians around the world. How many mission trips and support activities have been cancelled due to Covid-19?
*While members of the body are secure in their salvation (John 10:28-30), how many new believers, have been short changed on their essential early teachings?
*Members of the Body of Christ partake of Christ's death and resurrection (Colossians 2:12). How many communions did we miss? How many miracles have we missed?
*Members of the body share Christ's inheritance (Romans 8:17). Praise the Lord this is in God's hands.
*Members of the body of Christ receive the gift of Christ's righteousness (Romans 5:17). Less salvations taking place means less righteousness.
Hopefully, you see that the shut down has indeed had a negative impact on the Church, which in turn affects the body of Christ, which then negatively impacts the individual believer.
Let's go to 1 Corinthians to begin to understand the individual's perspective in all of this, 1 Corinthians 1:9.
"God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful."
This plays out in two ways for each of us:
1) sharing vertically in the union each of us has in Christ, and the Father, and
2) sharing together (horizontally) with other believers the common union we have with Christ and each other.
1 John 1:3 confirms this,
"We proclaim to what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."
The Greek word for fellowship here is koinonia. This fellowship is where we vicariously experience seeing, hearing and touching the incarnate Christ. The Bible gives us two great illustrations of this koinonia:
*The Vine and the branches in John 15:1-5
*The body and the Head in 1 Corinthians 12:12 and Colossians 1:18
We can also add the example of our communion with the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and our fellow believers.
So, it is not a stretch at all for us to see and understand how the vertical relationship with the Father and Son AND the horizontal relationship with each other have all been negatively impacted by this pandemic. What is so heartbreaking in all of this is that the UMC church closure was self inflicted. We did this to ourselves. No, virtual church does not solve this problem.
Now, the aforementioned John Piper, talks about this koinonia (fellowship) as a means of perseverance. Piper describes it "as the mutual bond that Christians have with Christ that unites us in a profound and eternal relationship of love that should express itself in a joyful and affectionate service to and for each other's good". Again, this mutual bond is what has been disrupted, hindering our perseverance.
In other words, we are weakening in our faith. We see it, we feel it, we sense it and we know this to be true. This makes us feel uneasy. Now, not all of us feel this way. But some of us, isolated, more than others, may feel this way to the extreme, especially with all the violence and chaos taking place around the country.
I hate to use athletic analogies, they are so cliche'. But they do work, especially when referring to perseverance. I'll use an old fat person's athletic experience, because there is no cliche' there. Plus, I am the fat man.
It is no secret that I love to walk. I do so six days a week, in rain or sun, snow being the only type of weather that keeps me from walking. When it snows, I walk in my garage. Also, I pray while I walk. As I've become older, spinal stenosis has set into my back.
Meaning this, after about 2 to 3 miles my back begins to hurt, sometimes excruciatingly so. I get home, sit down, take my shoes off, and I'm fine, no more pain. I'd love to walk for more mileage. But I can't. I am limited by my back. It affects my stamina and my perseverance.
The closure of our churches due to Covid-19 has affected our stamina and perseverance as children of God. Faith requires our perseverance. Jesus, being the full disclosure teacher of Truth, teaches us in Mark 13:13,
"All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved."
Faith when looked at eternally, is a long game. It requires perseverance and stamina. Philippians 1:6, Paul encourages our perseverance, reassuring us,
"that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."
What these two scriptures are teaching us is that perseverance is guaranteed (Mark 13:13) for all those who are born of God and that perseverance is accomplished through means, one of which is fellowship (koinonia). When the vertical and horizontal fellowship of the believer is interrupted, it affects the perseverance and stamina of our faith, like my bad back affects my ability walk a little further. Hebrews 3:12-14,
"See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."
These three sentences describe how we help to save each other from destruction. Our fellowship helps to save our brothers and sisters from hell. This is how important fellowship is.
As a pastor, everybody thinks when I recommend regular church attendance that I am only concerned about their situation. This passage shows that a person being absent from church affects the entire congregation's perseverance, including the pastor's. Now, multiply this times an entire denomination being shut down for six months. The result is catastrophic. These are the numbers on the other side of the equation that the medical and political bureaucrats cannot understand or explain.
There are five crises (plural) of faith that can happen to any of us as our perseverance waivers. This is what we want to avoid more than anything else, by engaging in our fellowship with one another (horizontal) and with God (vertical). The five Crises of faith:
1) a sinful heart (verse 12)
2) an unbelieving heart (verse 12)
3) hardness, meaning a hard heart (verse 13)
4) sin (verse 13)
5) sin's deceitfulness (verse 13)
God's designed for our fellowship to prevent and to protect the believer and the body of Christ from these five crises of faith. Sin's essence, is a preference for anything over God. Therefore, all sin--whether tempting us or being experienced by us --is deceitful.
When this deceit digs and grows into the human heart, one description of the effect is hardness. Hardness then implies that the heart is not easily penetrated with truth or beauty or understanding. A hardening heart then can become an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. This is when the truth and beauty and worth of Christ become less and less desirable. Also meaning less and less able to penetrate the hardening heart, which becomes less welcome to the love of Christ.
Faith is not lip service to Jesus, but a heartfelt embrace of God and his Son, a rational and irrational reorganization of our personal priorities until --nothing is more desirable than God. Sin is the opposite of this, where anything is more desirable than God. Sadly, many of our friends and neighbors are in this very predicament. Owners of a hard, unbelieving heart.
The closure of the Church has magnified this vulnerability to sin. Satan is busy and, my guess, partying right now. He is at a high water mark, the Church at its point of lowest influence in the recorded history of mankind. More troubling, the Church ebbed out willingly, opting out for whatever bureaucratic reasoning sounded good on the surface.
Well, no longer should we stand by. No longer should we acquiesce to the fear mongering bureaucrats who don't understand what Christianity is about any way.
Fellowship defends the heart of the believer both vertically and horizontally. It provides protection for our hearts. When I say to guard your heart, I am encouraging you to fellowship. Will you fellowship with God? Will you fellowship with each other? Will you fellowship with me? Let's show Satan who really knows how to party!
Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.
and Harmony UMC