God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:8 NIV).
How would you like being locked in a jail away from the church? Would you miss God’s people?
The Apostle Paul certainly missed the church. He wrote from a Roman jail about his longing to be with them. The forced separation from them was painful.
It is always painful to be separated from those we love. And for those who love the fellowship, worship, support, and mission of the church, it’s painful.
The pain of separation tells where love is. If you have voluntarily separated yourself from the church, and it doesn’t hurt. Then you have to ask yourself, “Do I love the church?”
Maybe you, like me, have been hurt by mean-spirited people in the church. I sulked at home on Sundays nursing my wounds. But, I missed some of the kind-hearted people in the church. I yearned for a church based solely on the love of Christ. That’s why I started North Columbia Church.
We miss those we love.
If you are like me, get out and find a church that is united in the love of Christ.
It’s kind of like Chipper Jones, my favorite player for the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are having a fantastic season. It reminds me of the 90’s when they won the close games in the ninth innings, when Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddox dominated the opposing hitters, and when you somehow knew that they would pull out a victory.
For 17 years, Chipper has been a part of that Braves’ dynasty. Now, he is sidelined from knee surgery that he had on August 14. He will miss the rest of the season. The injury may even end his brilliant career.
But more painful than his knee injury is the pain he feels from not being a part of the team. Jones told a reporter, "This team is in first place, and we've got a chance to do something really special, and I feel deep down in my heart we're going to do it, and the fact that I'm not going to be a part of it is what really hurts."
A man who loves baseball and loves being a part of a winning team is pained when he no longer can participate even though his injury occurred because of the game he loves.
In the same way, a person who really loves the Lord and really loves participating in the church is pained when he/she is no longer able to contribute.
Conversely, a person who has grown cold and indifferent to the church feels no pain on Sundays away from the field of worship, fellowship, and service.
I’ve heard all of the excuses from not participating with the church on Sundays.
“Preacher, I don’t go to church because I have some dogs.”
“Dogs?” the preacher asked.
“Yea, preacher. That’s right. Dogs. When you’re looking for an excuse to stay away from church, one excuse is as good as another!”
Just what is the church anyway?
First, it is not a building. A building that we call “church” is merely a convenience.
Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
The church then is anywhere believers meet in the worship of Christ, the Lord. Under a brush arbor, in a barn, in a living room, beside a river bank - anywhere believers gather is the church.
Thus, going to church is gathering with those who love the Lord and who love being together in the presence of Christ and one another. Christ is the connective power that forms the bond of union.
An amazing transaction takes place in the gathering. God through the Holy Spirit of Christ speaks to the gathered and the gathered speak to the Lord. It is a divine-human transaction.
I know the old argument that a person can meet God anywhere. “I can meet Him on the lake fishing. I can meet Him in my prayer time at home. I don’t have to go to church to worship.”
The answer to that argument is both yes and no. Yes, it’s true, and no, it’s not true.
Certainly, Christ met Paul alone through the Spirit in his Roman cell. It’s true Christ can be worshipped alone and that He meets us alone without the company of others.
But, the experience of being together is wholly a different one and equally necessary. To be a part of a visible fellowship and see the faces of one another is a great strength. A freshness and vigor from the living Savior flows through the gathering. The gathering heightens the spiritual quality of those present. The physical presence of other believers is a source of incomparable joy and strength.
The believer yearns to gather with others redeemed by the blood of Christ even as the Apostle Paul longed for the community of faith and love from his jail cell.
To the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul wrote, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see your faces again” (1Thessalonians 3:10).
It is by the grace of God that we are permitted to gather visibly in this country. The believers who are oppressed, imprisoned, sick, have to work Sundays, and others in similar straits stand alone yearning to be in the church gathered together.
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. Jesus identified the church as Himself.
Christ met Paul on the Damascus Road as he was going to arrest Christians. In a post-resurrection appearance, Christ asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).
Christ is the church and the church is Christ. That revelation led Paul to write that the church is the body of Christ and that we are members of the body like a leg, an eye, or a finger is a member of the physical body (1 Corinthians 12:27).
What are some of the acts that Christ did in his physical body during His time on earth? He worshipped, prayed, healed, taught, accepted the outcast and misfits, confronted hypocrisy, preached, served others and on and on.
As the body of Christ, the church does what Jesus did with each member having a gift to carry out the acts that Jesus did like Chipper Jones used his talent for the Braves.
How can a believer who has separated from the body of Christ continue to think that he/she is a member of the body and not use his/her gifts and talents for the body of Christ? If I chop my finger off, is it still a part of my body? Is it still useful for me?
And what I mean by church is the “true” church - those who are knit together in love. Jesus commanded his followers to “love each other” (John 15:17).
There is great difference between human love and the love flowing from the heart of Christ through a believer.
I have found that there is much human love in churches. Human love has little regard for truth. The root of human love arises from the flesh and from selfishness.
Human love wants to gain and to rule. Human love cannot love a person unconditionally. Human love is demanding. It demands its way and sets out to punish or get rid of anyone who stands against its way. It turns into hatred, contempt, and slander. Human love cannot tolerate a threat to the dissolution of a fellowship that has become false. It cannot love an adversary. It cannot forgive but actively seeks to get even. Human love is jealous and rude, Human love becomes an idol to which it worships and to which it must subject everything. Human love loves itself. It produces dependence in others making others dependent on the giving or taking away of that human love. Human love is given with conditions. It is fickle, self-serving, and bankrupt.
On the other hand, spiritual love flows from the very being and essence of Christ. Christ tells me what love for the brethren, for the church, really is.
Spiritual love serves and welcomes others as Jesus accepted the misfits, tax-collectors, and immoral who flocked to Him because they felt and saw His love for them. Only the love of Christ can change people and that love is an accepting love manifested in grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Spiritual love loves a person for who he/she is, as one who for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Spiritual love lives in the clear light of truth and service as a member of the body of Christ. It is not jealous or rude. Spiritual love creates freedom of the brethren under the Word bringing out the talents, gifts, and abilities of others and rejoicing in those blessings that God has given others. Spiritual love creates the fruits that grow healthily in accord with God’s good will both in the rain and the sunshine. Spiritual love is given without conditions.
There is indeed a difference between a church built on human love and a church where Christ’s love flows through one another and united as one in Christ.
Jesus prayed for the church to be united “that they may be one” (John 17:11). He knits us together in love.
Through Christ and Christ alone is our unity. He is our peace. Through Him and Him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.
A fussing and fighting church is not a true church. There is no unity. No love. Hurt feelings ensue and wounded warriors often drop out like I did. And yet, many of these wounded warriors still yearn for the church - the true church of love and unity.
The Apostle Paul stressed as most important the love and unity of the church. He exhorted the Church at Colossae. “Above all, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14 NCV).
That’s why it’s important for the wounded not to give up and to seek out a church where Christ is loved. A church where His presence unites believers in love. The love from His wounded side flows freely into the community.
It is the expression of that love, the giving and receiving of that love, and the living out of that love that makes separation from the community of love so painful and so yearned for by Paul. That love is like heaven on earth.
If a person has never experienced the love of Christ flowing through the veins of true believers in community, then it is no small wonder that there is no yearning in such a person for gathering together under Christ. Such a person separated from the church realizes he/she is missing nothing of value.
The Apostle Paul valued the church and yearned for their community because that community gushed the love of Christ.
This means that we experience God in redemptive relationships. Since Christ redeemed us, our relationships in the true church are redemptive.
In the church, Paul found acceptance even with his sordid past and all of his flaws and shortcomings.
He was emotionally honest confessing, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). There is not much confessing in the church these days. The stones of shame and guilt are cast on a person like Paul by most church people. And yet, confession and understanding is exactly what we need. The stones need to be left on the ground!
Christ redeems us out of sin, out of our shame and guilt, and out of our failures. Paul experienced the redemptive power of Christ through appropriating Christ’s forgiveness from the cross.
And obviously, the Church at Philippi was a redemptive fellowship, a true church, who loved, accepted, and affirmed one another through the grace and mercy of Christ.
Throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he refers again and again to how they lifted him up, edified him, and strengthened him. They shared in his troubles and celebrated his victories. He thanked God for them. He prayed with joy when he interceded for them. They were his partners in the gospel ministry. They shared together in God’s grace.
No wonder he yearned to be around a community of faith like that! How many churches are like the Church at Philippi? A redemptive fellowship. A positive influence through Christ for one another. A loving and united church. Paul missed them deeply and who wouldn’t miss a church like that?
There’s an old adage. “The church is the only place that shoots it’s wounded.” It should never be.
Let’s go back to Chipper Jones’ injury and look at the redemptive actions toward him.
On August 10 in Houston, Chipper fielded Astros outfielder Hunter Pence's grounder. He ranged into foul territory, jumped in the air off his left leg and made a pinpoint throw across the diamond to record the out. He came down on his left leg and crumpled to the ground in tremendous pain. He had torn the ACL in his left knee.
What were the team’s redemptive actions towards their star third baseman? Trainer Jeff Porter ran out of the dugout to assess the injury. Legendary Manager Bobby Cox joined Porter. The rest of the infield gathered around him. His parents looked on with angst from their seats at the stadium. A hush went through the crowd.
Immediate action showed their concern. Out of that concern came attempts to help him. Thousands of fans have sent him get well wishes. That’s a great picture of redemption in action for an injured man in great pain.
Maybe the lack of redemptive action from the love of Christ is why emotionally injured and hurting people drop out of church.
But one thing is for sure. If our churches were more like the Church at Philippi and more like the Braves attitude toward a fallen player, there would be a longing, a yearning to be a part of such a redemptive, caring, and loving community.
May the good Lord give us such a church whose members apply the grace and love of Christ in the time of our deepest pain.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
Rev. John Fawcett (1740-1817)
I am grateful to Rev. Roger Bennett and his teachings for several ideas in this article. I also gleaned ideas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and Elton Trueblood’s The People Called Quakers.