And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. –Matthew 24:31
I don’t think I’ve ever felt this verse as I should. I’ve always focused on the sounds of the trumpet and I’ve missed it’s functioning; namely, the gathering together of all Christians. And I’ve missed that verse because I’ve never had to feel the ache. I’ve always been able to “go to church”. I have taken the gathered assembly for granted. These words of Bonhoeffer have been true of me:
It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that it is “grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren”. I will confess, I have not treasured this grace as I ought. And if it ends up being eight more weeks before we can once again gather together as a full assembly I am certain that these feelings will only deepen.
Bonhoeffer himself would experience this “scattered loneliness” as he was arrested and lived out his days in Nazi imprisonment—eventually being hanged. So he knew something of this deep longing of wanting to gather with other believers. But this also, I believe, helped him to rightly understand the great promise found in Matthew 24:31. Our longing for togetherness is a call to “seize upon by faith” that which is denied us in actual experience.
I think these words from Mark Dever are also really important as we think through how to still “kind of meet” together—even if its in online gatherings. When Capitol Hill closed and did not offer live streaming I asked Mark Dever if there was a practical or theological reason for this. This was his response:
Yep. A providential time of abstinence could have good, chastening soul benefits. More useful than a part of a service people may mistake for a substitute. Many benefits of the assembly could usefully be mourned over, appreciated & longed for. (Here)
I believe Dever is saying something similar to Bonhoeffer. We are not Gnostics. We cannot live entirely in a disembodied internet world. Yes, we can hear a sermon. Yes, we can gather funds. Yes, we can hear the music. But we cannot “greet one another with a holy kiss”. We cannot touch. And we were made for touch. There is a reason why the resurrected Christ made such a big deal about touching his physical body. The resurrection is physical. Touch is eternal.
And so it’s not wrong for us to mourn the fact that we cannot for a season physically gather. In fact it is right for us to mourn. Bonhoeffer is correct:
“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians…The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God…But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians! (9-10)
My hope is that this will have “good, chastening soul benefits”. May this help us to once again deeply appreciate this grace of meeting together. And may this push us towards hoping for that great gathering, when the truth that “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” spills over into the truth that nothing will now separate us from one another.
Though we may try to replace elements of our gathered assembly we ultimately cannot. And so no matter how we attempt to gather together as much as possible let us be certain that a part of our “gathering” is to mourn that which cannot be replaced but will some day be fully enjoyed.
Photo source: here