In it Together
Ours is an age of rapidly rising social disintegration. Loneliness and isolation are major issues – not just for the elderly, but for every other age group as well. It would be naïve not to see some connection between these issues and the steady erosion of the classic concept ‘family’ in Western culture for over half a century.
Historically the family has been seen as the basic unit of society. When families are strong, then community is strong also. Conversely, when the individual takes precedence over family, not only do families or even the wider community suffer, but nations suffer too.
In the midst of this social collapse, we as the church need to think again about how we fit into this picture. Many things could be said, but one thing stands out. It is the fact that, through the gospel, we hold the answer to this problem. In Christ we are God’s new humanity expressed in renewed community.
What this means in practical terms is very much to the fore in the book of Hebrews. It was written to Christians whose faith was wavering with a view to calling them back Christ as the only true hope for salvation. But, interestingly, it was not addressed merely to believers in isolation, but to God’s family as a whole.
In our natural families when individual family members, or the family as whole is in trouble, everyone ‘rallies round’. That same principle applies in God’s family. What we experience as individuals is deeply affected by how we function together as a family. The writer flags this up whn he says: ‘Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (He 10.24-25). We are called to ‘rally round’ as a family in three crucial areas.
In our Love for God
The writer literally says, ‘Let us spur one another on to love…’ It is not immediately clear what object of this love should be – God, or others? The ambiguity may well be deliberate given that, in biblical terms, you cannot have one without the other.
That said, love for God is clearly to fore in the author’s mind. His preceding exhortation to ‘draw near to God’ (10.19-22) is evidence of this. The only way we can approach God with heartfelt desire and deep confidence is through a deep appreciation of how deep God’s love for us in Christ really is. Seen in these terms, it seems almost incredible that our love for God could ever grow cold – yet it does. And when this happens it is impossible to recover this lost love on our own. To try to do so only leads to morbid introspection. So the first great thrust of this call to encourage one another is to mutually nurture our love for God. And we do so by faithfully gathering to worship God together (10.25).
In our Love for God’s People
As we have already noted, there is almost certainly a double edge to what the writer is saying here: our love for God seen in the context of our wider love for one another as fellow-members of his family.
He is calling his readers back to the kind of love for their brothers and sisters that had been expressed at an earlier time in their Christian life when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of persecution (10.32-34). Their love for one another thrived even in midst of hardship.
It isn’t immediately clear what had caused these relationships to cool off after their ordeal, but it may have had to do with wrong expectations – looking for their hope of salvation to be realised in the here and now. That would explain why he says they will ‘receive what promised’ when Christ returns (10.36-38).
The bond between the members of any family is galvanised by working towards some shared goal. How much more so in bond between God’s people. We need to keep reminding each other where our shared destiny lies – in the new heavens and the new earth - and so help each other to press on.
In our Love for God’s Work
Where there is true love, there will also be willingness to labour for the sake of love. The writer points to what love for God and each other means practically: it leads to ‘good works’. When love for God and our fellow Christians grows cold, the first casualty is our willingness to work – to play our part in the life of the church. When this happens we will no longer bless God or others as he wants us to.
The very heart of our calling as Christians is, ‘to do the good works which God prepared for us beforehand’ (Eph 2.10). If we truly belong to God it will mean we no longer work for ourselves, or for this world that is passing away, but for God. This doesn’t mean we must all go into full-time Christian service, but it does mean that we see everything we do as a unique opportunity to do something for God.
The simplest way to show our love for someone is to ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ The same is true as we look for ways to express our love for God – and we do this together.
In all of this we are called to be creative: ‘let us consider’ how we may help each other in these ways. As we look forward to the Autumn work ahead in our different churches, we should each think how we can play our part in church. Because, when this happens, the felt presence of the church in the community will begin to make some small difference to the loneliness and isolation all around us as we display the gospel of Christ our Saviour.