This week on the podcast, we are going to talk specifically about our situation right now. We are in week 4 or 5—or maybe even 6 depending on where you live—of our stay-at-home orders, our quarantining, our social distancing. We’ve passed the threshold of the adrenaline, where something feels different, and now this is becoming sort of a normal routine. That’s quite different, isn’t it?
Do you feel yourself longing for social relationship? Longing to be with people? Longing to sit with people and to give people a handshake and a hug and just be with each other?
Longing for Community
There’s a reason that we long for that. For we who believe, we long to be in a community together. We long to be with one another. We long to engage in the one anothering of Scripture. A good question I think we can talk about in these days is: How in the world do we engage in one anothering while we’re staying at home and while we’re apart?
I think the Scripture actually gives us some really decent principles to help us with this. This is not really all that different than when we would normally be together. Just the social structure becomes a little bit different. We see that much of the New Testament was written by Paul, and it was written because he was in a different social location. He was in a different place than the people he wanted to write to.
It’s interesting to me how Paul, from the outset in almost every letter that he writes, begins with an endearing statement about those he is writing to. Galatians and maybe 1 Corinthians are exceptions, where his tone is quite different because he’s engaging some major problems and issues, but even in some of the other letters when he’s engaging problems of the church in that location, he still begins with an endearing statement about these people that he’s writing to. I think that’s fairly instructive for us.
Paul’s Example to the Corinthians
I would encourage you during these days to mimic Paul. We long to be with one another and we’ve now reverted to things like texting and email and those sorts of things, which are great for the present time. They’re the ways in which we communicate—there’s nothing wrong with that, to use them and make sure that we keep connected with with folks whether it is through text or email. Listen to the way Paul speaks to the Corinthians and introduces his letter in 2 Corinthians 1,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”
Here Paul is engaging the hearts and the minds of the people in Corinth exactly where they are. That’s important and instructive for us that Paul understands what the people are wrestling through.
I would say to you as a pastor, I would say to you as a church member, maybe a small group leader: Make sure that you’re engaging with your people on some level. That’s now through mediums like Zoom, texting, or FaceTime. Whatever it is that you use, make sure that you’re staying connected with your people to know: What is it that they’re suffering with? How do we go about comforting them and then making time to write notes to them, to check in with them, to make a phone call, to build that one anothering yet still.
Unfortunately, I think in our normal routine of church, what we see is is contrasting to what Paul says here. Paul is connected enough, even though he’s distanced from these people in Corinth, and he cares enough to hear reports to know what’s going on in these in these folks’ lives.
I would venture to say that for many of us in normal church flow and routine, we walk in the door. We say, “Hello, how are things going?” And it’s hard for us to engage in one anothering because maybe we don’t know the people well enough. We can’t tell: Are they having a good day or a bad day? We can’t tell how their week has gone because we haven’t talked to them in 7 days or 10 days or 14 days. Paul is keeping connected with these people, and he’s able to speak to them very pointedly using the hope of the Scriptures, encouraging them to endure the suffering that they’re currently going through, knowing that comfort’s on the other side and that God’s going to empower them with this comfort so that then they can use that for the sake of comforting others. This is how we build one anothering.
Paul models one anothering for us here, and gives us an example of how we are to engage people—especially in times just like this, where people are suffering in many ways. People have lost jobs. People are distanced. People are alone. People are separated from folks that they normally interact with and engage with. So there are real issues. There are physical issues that people are struggling with, people going without food, people looking at their bank account watching it dwindle at the current moment, and they are in real, legitimate need. For us to stay connected enough with people where they they feel comfortable humbling themselves and saying, “You know what, in this moment, I need help.”
I think this is a wake-up call for us in the church to engage people well enough, be real with people, remove the facades and the masks that we wear, so that we can humble ourselves and say, “You know what, I got laid off last week and I don’t have a lot of reserve and I need help.”
This is a great moment for the church to come together where we can provide for those physical needs. We can take care of one another. We can comfort each other in these types of ways, but that’s not the only way. In so many ways, we’re all struggling to some degree with the new normal. We’re being vexed in so many ways spiritually, which is this tug-of-war, this tension of growth. How do we grow? You have to know your people to help them through moments like this.
Know your people well enough and be a welcoming ear, where they know that you’re willing to listen, and not just hear for the sake of hearing to try and make them feel better with words, but you’re willing to be resolved to help them. That’s one anothering. This is a part of what Paul is saying here, he’s comforting them in their affliction. We can do that, but we have to make sure that we stay connected well enough and know people well enough and are transparent enough.
As Paul talks about, he’s okay with acknowledging his own suffering—his personal suffering. In doing so, that’s inviting to people. Then he comforts them with the truth of Scripture and says, “Now for you, go and do likewise.” He doesn’t allow them to just settle for self-focus. He encourages him through their suffering to use it for the intention that God has purposed in them.
We know that when we walk through trials, this is for our sake. It’s for our good—to grow us in perseverance, comfort, and hope, which is to be poured out now for the sake of others. One of the ways we foster one anothering is we help people to utilize what God is teaching us in this moment and pour that out for the benefit of others.
Paul’s Example to the Philippians
A second thing I want us to consider is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He writes a letter. Can I encourage you to sit down at your desk or the kitchen table, pull out an old-fashioned pen and piece of paper and write somebody a note. Now yours is not going to be inspired, we know that, but the fact that you’re thinking about somebody will be evident. And when they receive that letter a few days later, the fact that you were thinking about them, praying for them—what an encouragement that is when they get that letter to know that somebody was thinking about them, somebody had enough concern to care about them. Listen to the way Paul does this here in Philippians. Remember Paul is writing this from prison.
Starting in Philippians 1:3, he writes,
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul is encouraging the Philippians that what God has begun in them, He will bring to completion. He helps them to focus on eschatological hope for when Jesus returns.
In verses 7-11, he says,
“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Paul is helping them to work through this difficult situation with an eye toward what’s to come. None of this is meaningless. None of the affliction, none of the suffering that they’re dealing with at this present moment is meaningless, because God is doing something in it.
He keeps in mind not to wallow in our self-focus, which is so easy for us to do when we’re isolated and when we’re being afflicted in so many ways by fear. What Paul does is graciously and kindly—as a good shepherd would do—foster this type of one anothering among his people. And he models this for them. Pastors, can I tell you, please do this among your people. Acknowledge truly where your people are and what they’re struggling with—Paul never runs away from the reality of what people are walking through.
And then he helps point them to the hopes that they have in Christ. Prayerfully, you’ve been teaching the Word of God to such a degree that your people have anchors that they can hold to and you can remind them of those things during these days.
The whole of the book of Philippians is really about this focus on rejoicing. Rejoicing despite their circumstances. Paul is writing from prison and what he’s helping his people focus on, even in his scenario and situation, is not difficulty, but to rejoice despite. Rejoice despite what he’s experiencing now. To get back to the basics, to learn to rejoice no matter what. We have a God who is worthy of rejoicing over.
This is how we begin to foster one anothering. As Paul is modeling this for his people, he’s teaching his people how to do this for those who are in their sphere of influence. Pastors, you engage your people in this way—writing, texting, calling them on the phone, talking with them in this type of language—how your heart yearns to be with them, you care for them. You’re teaching your small group leaders, you’re teaching your Sunday School teachers, you’re teaching the leaders in your church to then go and do likewise.
You’re teaching them, by modeling, how to anchor folks’ hearts to the truths of who God is and keep their eyes not on the temporal moment, but toward the glory of Christ—turning them outward. The magical thing that happens in moments like this is God turns us away from ourselves toward the good of other people, as we die to the hunger and evil passions within our hearts to serve ourselves.
It turns us outward to care now about the others who may be suffering. We grow in compassion, grace, mercy, kindness, and tenderness toward the needs of others. This is how you begin to foster one anothering, as we teach our people through moments just like this to rejoice.
Can you take a moment just today? Think of two, three, four, or five people in your church where you can write a transparent note. You could write an encouragement from the Scriptures to demonstrate how you’ve anchored your heart on the Lord and how you would encourage them to do the same—acknowledging the difficulty in which we live and beginning to foster relationships just like this so that you obey still in social distancing the commands to one another.