The Church Tested
I had a Covid test for the first time last week (it was negative, thank God!) and let’s just say I am no longer a fan of q-tips. No fun at all. But necessary. And likewise, I think it is high time to test the impact of Covid on our church’s relational health.
Church is more than a place to attend. Say that out loud. Church is a people I belong to. Nowhere in scripture is the church described as a place to attend. The word for church in the Bible, ecclesia, literally means “the called out.” It referred to people who were called apart from the world, to live together in Christ, in order to make him known to the world. Listen to how Paul charged the church in Rome in Romans 12:
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
He tells them that they are all one body, belonging to each other. As such, they should be devoted to one another in love. Oneness, belonging, and devotion. Those are heavily weighted words. Sounds a lot like marriage to me.
Whenever I do a wedding I try to gently promise the couple standing before me that not every day in front of them will be as happy as their wedding day. Oh, they will have happy days, for sure. But, they’ll also have bad days, sad days, frustrating days. Days that bring joy, celebration, and life, as well as days that will bring frustration, anger, and illness. And yet, the beautiful wonder of marriage is that God brings two people together to oneness, belonging, and devoted love that lasts through every season. And like Paul in reference to the beauty of marriage in Ephesians 5: This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
When I read the above verses in Romans 12 I am always moved by the beauty of the picture it paints of the church. A people with sincere love for one another; who serve each other and give to each other and honor each other and pray for each other. All of it with the underlying promise of Christ that the world will know we are his through our love. But the part of that little paragraph that always stops me is the charge in vs. 12 to be patient in affliction. There is a guarantee that affliction is coming. It is just a matter of when. In other words, not every day will be a happy day. And he encourages them to be patient, because like all seasons affliction will pass. But, how we respond in days of affliction reveals the level of our devotion.
Covid has taxed all of our relationships and has revealed much to us. Within the church, it has limited our ability to attend in person gatherings. But the one thing it cannot do is limit our ability to belong. Unless we let it. Between political divides, cultural and social divides, different stances on the pandemic, the enemy has done everything he can to “tear apart what God has brought together” in the relationships of the church. We must recognize this and stand guard. Our devotion to one another is being tested.
With that in mind, let me charge our church to do four things:
- Stay devoted to other church people. Re-read the Romans passage, you belong to others in the church and they belong to you. When you stop having connection to someone who cared for you, it hurts them and you whether you realize it or not. Just because we cannot do the things we used to, doesn’t mean we should let the relationships drop. Call, facetime, sit outside at a park. Do what “devotion” demands of you with sincere love.
- Don’t let the absence of the ideal scenario create an absence of true love for Christ’s church. Let’s face it, church outside on the lawn every Sunday and online growth groups is not our ideal scenario for what church should be. So how do we respond? In his brilliant little book on church community, Life Together, written while being persecuted by Hitler Germany, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer powerfully wrote, Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. Love those Christ has placed in your life as your church, that is your Christian community. Sometimes that will be easy, sometimes that will be difficult, rarely will it be ideal, but always will it be our calling.
- Expect disagreements and respond with grace. Increasingly, our world is splintering into smaller and smaller like minded groups as people isolate themselves only with those with whom they agree. In his creative picture of hell in the Great Divorce, CS Lewis imagined that hell is locked from the inside as people shut others out of their lives, thus isolating themselves. Reversely, the church is called to 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13). We are not called to all agree on everything, we are simply called to all agree on Christ as Lord. And as such, anything else that demands we have to agree in order to have a relationship should be done away with. Christ and Christ alone.
- Guard your zeal for the Lord, His mission, and His church. Keep your spiritual fervor, Paul says. That is on us. We can get worked up about countless other things, but the one thing that should demand our zeal often gets forgotten. If I remove an ember from a fire, it will soon go out while the other embers in the fire continue to burn. The fires of faith feed off of each other. It is one of the chief reasons we are called to live in community with others. So Satan’s plan often goes like this: splinter Christian community, isolate Christian, squash the Christian’s zeal. We’ve probably all seen it a thousand times, but how do we recognize it when it is happening to us? Perhaps you need to get a little closer and see if your faith is still producing any heat for the Lord. If not, let’s talk!
May our devotion to Christ in gratitude for what He has done and is doing in us lead to great devotion to one another. We are the ecclesia, we are the church.