Andy Walton reminds us of the need to meet IRL
by Andy Walton
"Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
In this short passage from Chapter 10, the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a profound theology of church. The first part of this passage tells us how Jesus has torn the curtain in the Temple which used to separate the presence of God from the people. Then the second part tells us what we should do in light of that. We must spur each other on toward love and good deeds. And how are we to do this? By encouragement, face to face, while meeting as the people of God.
This may sound remarkably simple, but in fact it is as radical today as it was in the context in which it was written. The Greco-Roman world in which the book of Hebrews was written was as individualistic as our contemporary world. Gnostic philosophy tried to explain away the radical, miraculous and transformational nature of orthodox Christianity. But the Incarnation had changed everything. Those early Christians who read Hebrews and those of us who read it today are physical beings. We have bodies which are integral to our faith. And when we think about church, there can be no substitute for meeting together -even though social media, online congregations and podcast sermons have done wonders for those with mobility problems and time constraints. We must not give up on meeting together - even though Skype, Facebook and satellite phones have enabled us to be in touch much more closely with those who are physically far away.
In the last couple of months, I've been a regular guest on the Stephen Nolan show on Five Live. It's been great to get the opportunity to debate the big stories of the day. But as I'm in London and the show is broadcast from Salford, I often feel like I have an incomplete relationship with those I've been speaking to. I'm looking forward to being present in the studio for a slot soon, and physically meeting some of those disembodied voices I've been sparring with from a distance.
I'm not suggesting we can only encourage each other and spur each other on toward love and good deeds if we are in the same room. An uplifting tweet, carefully worded email or supporting text to someone who's in another town or even another timezone can be invaluable. But the ability to shake hands, hug, or even provide a shoulder to cry on mustn't be forgotten. And the chemistry when people come together for church or for other forms of fellowship is powerful. This doesn't have to be in a stadium-sized megachurch. "Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them", Jesus says in Matthew 18.
The simple truth is that we need each other. We have to spur each other onto love and good deeds, because that's one of the main jobs of the church. My boss is co-writing a book at the moment about the transforming love of Jesus. In it, he writes about Martin Luther King's ministry, and the role played by those who supported him, like Rosa Parks.
"The way the story is told, Rosa Parks is seen as an accidental heroine – an ordinary woman who simply had a flash of anger, or tiredness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like the cleansing of the Temple, her act of defiance was calculated. Moreover, Parks was not acting alone. She had been active in the civil rights movement for over a decade, and in the summer of the bus incident, had attended a school in Tennessee for civil rights training."
If Martin Luther King couldn't go it alone, neither can we. That's why we must not give up meeting together.
Andy Walton is a writer and broadcaster, he works for the Contextual Theology Centre in London’s East End and is on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum