But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face. 1 Thess. 2:17 (ESV)
As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus and its uncertain outcome, the faith community struggles to find a new identity. Daily news and other social media outlets inundate our minds with grim pictures of the realities we face. As such, we have come to embrace a new norm that includes social distancing, quarantine, and limitations on our ability to come together as a group. These restrictions strike at the core of who we are as a people. Nowhere is this more deeply felt than in our places of worship, where togetherness epitomizes our identity as a spiritual community.
In times like these, we can more deeply appreciate Paul's sentiment when he wrote his epistle to the church at Thessalonica. Although he was not able to be with them physically, Paul's spiritual connection with the church was not severed. The time of separation intensified Paul's desire for fellowship with his brothers and sisters in Christ. His sudden departure left a deep void in Paul's life and he looked forward to the day that he would be reunited with the church.
I think we can all identify with Paul. While we are thankful for Zoom, Facebook, and other means of electronic communication, we also admit that they do not completely fulfill our need for fellowship with other believers. We feel an emptiness that does not result from a lack of social interaction, but from a desire to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a relational community. We thrive on sharing our spiritual journey with others. Whether it is Sunday School, worship service, small group activities, or a fellowship meal, the church flourishes in community.
Unity is the hallmark of the Christian Faith. This unity is best expressed in togetherness. This concept is illustrated in Jesus' analogy of the vine (see John 15). As believers, not only are we connected to Jesus, we are connected just as grapes are connected on the vine. Grapes grow in clusters. Consequently, it is natural to feel a bit discontented when we are not able to be together and the bonds of our fellowship are being maintained through video or telephone conferencing. Many Christians are even feeling isolated or estranged. To combat these feelings, we must remember that our bonds in Christ transcend physical nearness. During this time of social distancing, the faith community must not lose sight of its identity or its purpose. One way to achieve this is to offer fervent and consistent prayer on behalf of fellow believers. Paul found that this was the key to maintaining spiritual oneness with the churches he established. Although we may not be meeting together, we must stay in fellowship.
As the body of Christ, we must continue to stand strong and united in the faith as we continue to pray, like Paul did, for the day when we can once again worship together. When grapes are harvested, they are removed from the vine, but they go on to fulfill a greater purpose. Similarly, we are chosen to bear fruit (John 15:8). What better time to show what it means to be in Christ and bear fruit for his glory?
To this end, let us become more intentional in our prayers, more focused in our service, and more unified in our purpose of advancing the Kingdom of God. Take time to call elderly members to offer them companionship. Encourage those who may be going through a particularly difficult time. Pray for pastors who are faithfully leading their flocks during this time of crisis. Continue to financially support your local church. Donate to the organizations that are taking tangible steps to meet the needs of others. Pray for the essential workers and those in healthcare and medical professions, whether in hospitals, nursing homes, or local physicians' offices. Pray for the wisdom and safety of political leaders who are taking unpopular stands against the demands of a consumer-driven society. These are just a few ways that we can demonstrate our unity in Christ.
If this pandemic has done anything, it has increased our longing for better days and our hope that God will speedily intervene. Because we are in Christ, our spiritual connection remains sure. We may be socially distanced, but we remain together in Christ. His Spirit makes us one regardless of our physical location. In fact, our love and sensitivity toward each other are heightened during these times of physical separation. When this coronavirus crisis is over, perhaps we will have an even deeper appreciation for each other and the blessing of Christian fellowship in the house of God.