No doubt our heavenly Father, who works all things for the good of his people, has countless lessons to teach us in this ongoing pandemic and the restrictions on church life that it has brought. Surely one of those lessons is a far greater appreciation for the value and importance of the fellowship of God's people. Often it's not until something is taken away that we realise how significant it is. I learnt that in a small way when I lost all sense of taste and smell after contracting covid-19 last November. Hopefully we will all treasure much more the ability to interact freely and face to face with our brothers and sisters when that privilege is fully restored.
Here's an article that I wrote in another place recently that reminds us of the need for and significance of the fellowship of the Church...
I’m in the middle of reading ‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson. It is both uplifting and tragic. Uplifting because every page is crammed full of detailed observations about just how fearfully and wonderfully made the human body is; tragic because Bryson, for all his rapturous marvelling, cannot see the fingerprints of God on everything he is describing but instead attributes them to the blind ‘processes’ of evolution.
One of the many wonders that Bryson sets forth so clearly is the miraculous way the many and various parts of the body work together for the good of the whole. For example: ‘Our bodies are a universe of 37.2 trillion cells operating in more or less perfect concert more or less all the time. An ache, a twinge of indigestion, the odd bruise or pimple is about all that in the normal course of things announces our imperfectability.’
And this harmonious cooperation of many and varied parts is one of the pictures the Lord uses to describe what the Church is and how it ought to function. Christians are joined to Christ, which means that we are all joined to one another as well. That brings many responsibilities and privileges as we go about ‘life together,’ to borrow Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase. It is summed up by Romans 12.5: ‘…we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.’
Generally speaking Western Christians are not good at thinking of ourselves as ‘members one of another’. So it’s good to be reminded regularly that a great deal of Christian discipleship takes place corporately, within the context of the Church. One of the best reminders of this in the New Testament is in Hebrews 10.24-25:
‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.’
‘Love and good works’ is a good summary of what the Christian life is all about. Jesus explained that love for God and love for neighbour sums up the law and the prophets (Mt 22.37-40). And genuine love is practical—it isn’t just words but shows itself in good works (1Jn 3.18). So how do we stir one another up to love and good works? By meeting together and encouraging one another. How does that work?
Meeting together gives us the opportunity to learn from other Christians. We are called to instruct one another (Rom 15.14). Human beings learn so many things, even unconsciously, by observation and imitation, and this is true spiritually. As you hear older Christians pray you pick up their emphases and burdens and even their very phraseology in prayer. As you pray with others with their particular interests and backgrounds you realise you have prayed about the same issue from ten different angles, instead of the one or two you would have thought of if you had prayed alone at home.
As you watch more mature Christians dealing with their children and relating to their spouses you are learning far more about Christian parenting and marriage than you realise. As you hear more godly believers speaking with grace, gentleness and courtesy in members’ meetings you are learning how Christians ought to express themselves. As you watch them interact with others in Bible studies you see meekness, humility and wisdom lived out in front of you rather than defined propositionally in a book. By their lives we are stirred up to love the Lord and one another more; we have a greater desire for and understanding of the good works He calls us to.
Meeting together for public worship on the Lord’s Day gives us the opportunity to be encouraged by the sacraments, by the corporate singing of praise as we teach and admonish one another singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3.16). As we meet we are stirred up and encouraged by the trustworthy teachers who have been called and equipped by the Lord, whose calling has been recognised by the church and who have been given the solemn responsibility of watching over your soul (Hb 13.17). Your pastor has spent his week studying a particular text of Scripture with you and your congregation in mind, praying that the Holy Spirit will help him understand it and apply it rightly to you; praying for you to be shaped and transformed by that message. As we sit under the ministry of the Word together, as we hear what the Lord is saying to his people, we are admonished and exhorted to love and good works.
Meeting together is sometimes messy. We sin against one another. We are frustrated and irritated by the weak, the silly, the complaining, the self-pitying among our brethren. It would be so much easier to stay home and get our teaching online. But the Lord works all things for his people’s good, and the very presence of tensions and sins can be a means of sanctification in his hands. Trials (and trying people!) teach us patience and steadfastness (Jas 1.2-4); when we are sinned against we learn to forgive whatever grievance we have, just as God in Christ forgave us (Eph 4.32); when we sin we learn to humble ourselves, perhaps even publicly, confess it, repent and receive forgiveness. In the church we replay the dynamic of the gospel over and over for all to see and rejoice in!
If your love and good works are waning, could it be that you are undervaluing the role of your brothers and sisters in your sanctification? I wonder, in the months of covid crisis, when churches were unable to meet in person for the sake of our own and our neighbours’ health, did we feel keenly the absence of this God-ordained setting for discipleship?
This article first appeared in Tabletalk magazine.