3 Things I Hate About COVID Church (or Why Every Sunday Is Like Christmas)

3 Things I Hate About COVID Church (or Why Every Sunday Is Like Christmas)

3 Things I Hate About COVID Church (or Why Every Sunday Is Like Christmas)

1. We have to sit in household clusters separated by at least 6 feet.

This fulfills our state’s COVID-safety requirements. But it also highlights one reason we shouldn’t normally sit so far from each other at church: We are family members, not audience members. If we’re simply audience members, then it makes sense to maintain a self-protective distance from others who happen to want to sing the same songs or listen to the same sermon. But we gather on Sundays as brothers and sisters—a blessedly uncomfortable reality! Since God’s grace has made me part of Christ’s household, I must intentionally move closer to my siblings in Christ, even if it means threatening their comfort and relinquishing mine.

Since God in his grace is forming Christ in his children, he plans to grow his family up together into living life as Jesus lived it—marked by commitment and compassion. In other words, sticking with and being for God’s family. Sundays afford us the opportunity to draw near to each other. And in that way God makes every Sunday like Christmas.

After all, Christmas is the anti-social-distancing holiday. The Christian celebration of Christmas centers on the  news that the Son drew near—and made himself vulnerable to all our diseases. He took on our infections so that we could be healed (Matt 8:17).

2. We have to wear masks and cover our faces.

For now, we’ve been wearing masks while we sing. We also wear them before and after each service. Masks are a tool designed to minimize risk to our individual bodies. But as with all tools, they have unintended consequences. These unintended consequences may have more of an impact on our overall health as a spiritual body than we realize…

Masks make it harder to understand each other. They make it harder to read emotions. They make it harder to show sympathy. They make it harder to know each other. In short, they make it harder to speak the truth in love…making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph 4:15–16).

Faces are important!

The importance of faces is not a bug in the system of human relationships. God designed faces as a dynamic metaphor for his self-revelation. It’s no accident that when God pours out favor and love on his people it is described as turning his face toward them and letting his face shine upon them. And it’s no accident that a face-covering of sorts remains for those who haven’t been unmasked by the love of Christ and brought into the knowing-and-being-known freedom of life in him (2 Cor 3:14).

We are being renewed in Christ to see respect, acceptance, and love in each other’s faces. Sundays afford us the opportunity to do that as a family. And so God makes every Sunday like Christmas.

After all, Christmas is the anti-masking holiday. For 33 blessed years, the God of the universe revealed his heart in human voice, body language—and facial expressions. The mystery of the ages was finally unveiled in the Word made Flesh. When Christians turn our faces toward each other, we are emblems of God’s incarnate affection and attention. One day we will see his face. For now, we see him reflected in each other’s (2 Cor 3:18).

3. We have members “Zooming in” who used to gather with us.

Members who are particularly vulnerable or who aren’t comfortable being in a group setting yet are watching our live services via Zoom. It’s not ideal, to say the least, though we’re grateful for the option. The danger is that we might end up staying home because it’s easier, not because we’re afraid to get sick.

Yes, you can privately take in the words of the sermon on the internet. It’s good to want to hear the sermon! But it’s not good to think that’s basically all there is to church on Sundays anyway, whether in person or online. That’d be sort of (only sort of) like thinking a Zoom call with the quarterback to learn the plays is the same thing as showing up at the game. The main thing—the miraculous thing—that God’s doing at church on Sundays includes the sermon but it also includes the context: Every Sunday the God of grace dynamically speaks and works in and through the gathered people of God by various means that cannot be separated.

Obviously God can work in and sustain you, beloved Christian, apart from church. He is God Almighty! But that doesn’t mean we should choose to seek him or prefer to serve him in isolation from the church his saving might has created. The dynamic ministry of life in the body of Christ—punctuated by the weekly gathering—is the ordinary yet amazing way he has ordained to glorify himself and manifest his kingdom on earth.

My prayer is that we can stop the Zooming soon. Sundays afford us the opportunity to be in the physical presence of fellow citizens in a microcosm of God’s new creation kingdom, as Christ addresses his people through the Word. And so God makes every Sunday like Christmas.

After all, Christmas is the anti-streaming holiday. In a sense, God had been “streaming” his saving word to his people for a couple centuries (through miraculous, angelic and prophetic media of varying clarity. There were some super HiDef appearances, for sure!). But  Christmas centers on the incredible news that the King made himself present in the flesh to establish once and for all his ongoing, unrestricted reign among his people. Though we are physically distanced from Christ now, he is Spiritually present in a real and special way when his gathered people—the temple-dwellingplace of the living God, the body of Christ—are physically gathered and engaged in corporate ministry and worship.
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So—obviously we at BHOF haven’t taken an extreme stance. We still social distance and wear the masks and use the gift of Zoom, because we want to protect each other’s bodies from COVID.

But only if we are more concerned with protecting each other from temptation, from drifting, from unbelief, from isolation, from compromise, from praise-less-ness, will our body function healthily, to the glory of God.

Corporate worship is essential to healthy Christian living. We are not designed nor saved to thrive spiritually apart from the embodied gathering of God’s people. Technological communication is not a good substitute for physical presence. Which is why God sends his people—body and soul—into each other’s lives.
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Christmas is about the incarnation. About God drawing near to us, about God knowing and making himself known to us, about God giving us himself in full embodied presence. Of course, the fullest gift was not just his birth but has come through his death and resurrection—the central focus of our Sunday gatherings! The best place to be reminded what Christmas means and made possible is to go to church every Sunday.

–Jordan Roberts

Returning to the Source

Returning to the Source

You’re one twitch of the finger and a screen-blip away from conjuring up scores of “results” on how Christians should think about everything from Coronavirus to George Floyd’s death and the protests following in its wake. I have found it increasingly difficult to absorb and synthesize all these resources. For the first two months of the pandemic, I sent out recommended “web resources” to our church every Wednesday. But now I’ve pretty much stopped. Not because there aren’t good resources out there, but in part because I realized I’d personally been neglecting a better resource right here.

I’m talking about the Bible.

When the pandemic hit and the protests began, I found myself instinctively looking to other Christians whom I didn’t know for insight into how Scripture applies to “the current situation.” I was partly motivated by a desire to figure out what “the current situation” even was, and the internet seemed like a reasonable place to look for help. After all, the body of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit are not coextensive with the Bronx Household of Faith. We are not self-sufficient as a church, and it is a blessing to benefit from the wisdom of the church in other places.

Still, after a while, I came to realize that I was neglecting the one “resource” (though it is much more than a resource) which matters most: the infallible Word of God. I was relying on other Christians and pastors to know their Bible and think through how it applies to “the situation” in general, rather than depending on the Bible itself to clarify my perspective. I was failing to press into something I would guess many of us struggle to enjoy: becoming so immersed in Scripture that rich and increasingly vivid, nuanced categories are ready at hand for interpreting “the current situation,” whatever it may be.

You could say that I have been failing to treasure the sufficiency of Scripture. The sufficiency of Scripture, as theologian John Frame explains the doctrine, refers to how “Scripture contains all the divine words necessary for us to please God in any area of life.”

The other “resource” I think I struggled, and still struggle, to grasp as fully as I can is the perspectives of other Christians in my church. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading a blog from Minnesota about the pandemic, or with listening to a podcast from Georgia about justice. But on the whole, it ought to be strange—or at least, it’s historically abnormal—to spend more time listening to the amateur reflections of believers I’ve never met than discussing and praying through these things with my own brothers and sisters.

You could say that I have been failing to treasure the importance of fellowship.

If you want to put a “media ecology” spin on it, you might say that I have allowed what is technologically possible and easy to replace what is necessary and beneficial. Just because I can spend more time trolling Facebook for info and opinions than I do reflecting at length with a thoughtful sibling in Christ, doesn’t mean I should. Of course, the problem is exacerbated when the only things my sibling in Christ and I have to say—we got from Facebook!

Hence we’re brought back to the need for Scripture. Not as a sourcebook for Twitter-quotes, but as a deep dive we take together into the history of God’s dealings with men and women, civilizations and devils. Not as a book of quick answers, but as the revelation of God’s character and plan unveiled over the ages. The tyranny of the urgent might make slow, systematic study of Scripture (which really is a study of God) seem impractical.

But really, it’s the one thing necessary. And it’s enough.

The Bible and the blogosphere are not mutually exclusive; I’m not trying to say I’ve abandoned the web or mastered the Bible. But I have been challenged to reflect on whether I am actively believing in the sufficiency of Scripture. And I’m excited about the possibility of spending much more time listening to the one source I know for certain I can trust.

One of the best ways for any Christian to listen to that source is to sit regularly under gospel-proclaiming, Scripture-expositing preaching. The Scriptures are sufficient—but the church is essential, and preaching is the crucial, God-ordained means for all believers (including the illiterate) to be taught, rebuked, corrected, and trained in righteousness, built up as a body, and strengthened in our faith and walk by that sufficient Scripture.

But I am also referring, more specifically, to reading and studying the Bible. In our busy age, some of us might need to drastically cut back on looking to other resources for guidance so we can absorb wisdom from the source. David Wells writes:

“We need to carve out space for ourselves in which we can daily attend to God’s Word, to study it, mark it, learn it, and inwardly digest its truth. This truth must shape our whole understanding of life as we recognize from whom this truth comes and why God has thus given it to us. This must take precedence. It must take precedence even at the cost of phones, e-mails, the internet, texts, TV, Facebook, music, and all the other ways that our technology wires us into a major competitor for our time and attention. Innocent though these things may be, they stand in the way of our knowing God if they steal from us the time that we need for that pursuit. And we do need time.…Let us make no mistake about this. If we do not do this aright, if we are not daily seeking God’s face, if we are not pondering the truth he has given us in his Word, if we are not daily being nourished in our souls by it, and if we are not daily repenting of our sin where we need to, our faith will wither and our walk with God will disappear.” (God in the Whirlwind, 185–86)

In the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of protests and all the questions these things raise: are you settling for second-rate summaries, or sitting at the feet of the Master? Are you just searching for resources, or are you going to the Source?

 ~Jordan Roberts

Your Salvation Is Just a Baby!

Your Salvation Is Just a Baby!

Your Salvation Is Just a Baby!

The Christmas story we read in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel is full of surprises—angels showing up out of the blue and startling people who we’re surprised are even in the story (like the ruffian shepherds and lowly Mary—and God himself as a baby in a manger!).

Surprising, the whole thing!

But halfway through chapter 2, suddenly we meet a man who doesn’t really seem surprised at all by the arrival of Jesus!

 

How to Celebrate Christmas

If all the surprises up to this point make us sit up and take notice of this savior, the story of Simeon comes in as a lesson on how we are to respond to this savior.

The story of Simeon is here to teach us something many of us still struggle with: how to celebrate the savior’s birth. Simeon is the first person we meet in Luke’s Gospel who knows how to celebrate Christmas because he had waited for it his whole life!

In a nutshell, here’s how he did it: he embraced Christ.

Take a look:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:25-32 ESV)

 

Embrace Your Need…

Simeon was “a righteous and devout” man—but what we see about Simeon’s righteousness was that it came not from what he was doing for God but from the fact that he knew he needed God to do something for him.

The shepherds needed a savior and they didn’t know it. The difference with righteous Simeon isn’t that he didn’t need a savior—it’s that he already knew he needed one.

This is what prepared Simeon to embrace the birth of Christ—to literally hold on to Jesus—and it’s the only way we can rightly embrace the birth of Christ: if we are prepared to face our need for this savior. To see the savior, we need to look honestly at our sin.

 

Embrace Your Savior…

Ironically, it’s because Simeon knew “the bad news,” that he and all Israel needed God’s help, that he responds with wonder and joy to seeing a little baby carried into the temple! As it became clear to him who Jesus was, he realized that the one he desperately needed and the one he had trusted God to send—he was now holding in his arms. Embracing his need prepared him to celebrate his savior!

And what’s the result? This surprise: now he’s ready to die.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (vv. 39–42)

In some ways, his response makes sense: God had promised that Simeon wouldn’t die before he saw Christ; now he sees Christ, and he’s ready to go.

But at the same time, it’s a little strange, isn’t it? Wasn’t there anything else on Simeon’s bucket list?

“Well, he’s an old man.” Hm. Maybe. He comes across as elderly, but actually we’re never told he’s old. What we are told is that Simeon gets just a glimpse of what God is doing through this baby—and he’s ready to die.

For Simeon, embracing the Christ who’d come to save him wasn’t a means of improving his circumstances. Salvation to Simeon was about having peace with God that enabled him to face death with joy. Christ was the peace-giving guarantee that death for Simeon would bring him face to face with a saving God.

In other words, through the incarnation God had set himself up to face death—and judgment—on behalf of Simeon and anyone else who’d trust in him. This is the Jesus who would one day say “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

 

Not Grown Up Yet!

Holding Jesus in his arms, Simeon saw a salvation that was as certain as it would ever be—but not nearly as good as it was going to get. This baby, this person who was salvation, had yet to accomplish that salvation.

Even though when we receive Christ we welcome him not as a baby but as the one who now has lived, died and risen again for our salvation—still, in a sense, God’s salvation comes to us even today “as a baby.” We are still supposed to long for our full-grown salvation. God has not yet accomplished in us everything he’s guaranteed for us through Christ.

We have, a “baby” salvation, so to speak. Your Christmas festivities this year and then the return to “regular” life—the highs and lows of following Christ—is not the be-all and end-all of Christianity.

Christianity is not cyclical—it has a direction. It’s about waiting for THAT day—not  a day when we’ll embrace the newborn Christ, but a day when we will be welcomed and embraced by the risen lord of the universe, absolutely astounding, totally satisfying, awe-inspiring, setting every troubled mind right, freeing every burdened heart, ushering us into an eternity of wonder! Like an old  hymn says:

“Oh resurrection body, young, radiant, vibrant, free; with powers un-thought, un-dreamed of, how rich your joys shall be. Through endless years to marvel, design, create, explore—in resurrection wonder to worship, serve, adore.”

 

Therefore We Do Not Lose Heart

So don’t be discouraged, those of you who feel like sometimes “salvation” seems sort of half-baked, like things are still not totally right, either in your own sinful heart or in the wicked, tragic world around you.

Let’s help each other remember, let’s be reminded by Simeon: our salvation is still in its infancy! This is just the beginning! This is just the newborn stage—the first faint indications of a strong, solid, joyful life on the other side of death or Christ’s return.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).

So we can face death and all the deadly struggles of this world with joy, because the salvation that HAS come in Christ guarantees the salvation that WILL come when we get to be with Christ.  Like Simeon, our bucket list should be weighted toward what lies beyond death, not before it. There is joy to be found in embracing Christ not just for what he does for us now but for what he holds in store for us: seeing him.

Christmas is just a reminder of the beginning, friends. Let’s not forget the end! Thank you for your friendship with us in Christ. Merry Christmas!

~Your brothers and sisters at BHOF

God Will Never Leave You or Forsake You

God Will Never Leave You or Forsake You

God Will Never Leave You or Forsake You

God pursues his people.

This is an incredibly comforting truth, because the more I get to know myself, the more I realize that the greatest threat to my walk with God…is me.

His Word makes this clear.

Satan is ferocious, and I must be watchful. But he can’t overpower me if I am relying on God: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

People can do me great harm. But compared to unrepentant sin and God’s judgment, they’re not worth worrying about: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

God sure isn’t an obstacle to my faithfulness: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

My sinful heart, on the other hand, left unchecked, is a public menace: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

I am prone to wander: easily discouraged, quickly offended, repeatedly tempted. Sometimes, I’m not just prone to wander—I’m liable to run into spiritual trouble, into sinful territory.

You and I can be like toddlers. We hear the voice of our Father telling us to “stop, come back,” and we turn and take off in the opposite direction—toward the oncoming traffic of disobedience and its deadly consequences.

Which is why I am so grateful that God doesn’t just shrug and walk away. Like a good Father, he chases us down. Convicting. Restoring. Renewing.

He’s been doing this for his children since we started sinning.

He came looking for Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, and he clothed them.

He came to Jacob-on-the-run and started capturing his allegiance.

He threw a storm at Jonah and pulled him back to obedience through the belly of a fish.

He sent Nathan to David and moved him to repentance. He blinded Saul on the road to Damascus, allowing him to see Jesus as glorious and precious for the first time in his life.

God chases us down like a father, because he intends to make us like his Son.

He is not content just to “save” us. He plans to sanctify us—to “bring us up,” to mature us into children who are with him and like him.

And so when we run from him, he follows. Even when we trip and do irreparable damage, he is with us. Seeing everything. Ready and able to apply the power of his healing grace to the wounds of our rebellion. The injuries of our waywardness might sting. The healing process may take a lifetime. But it is God’s process—and nothing can separate us from his love.

This is the love that we continue to experience at the Bronx Household of Faith, and we in turn desire to be instruments of God’s pursuing love in the lives of others.

This is in fact one reason for God’s church—to manifest the reality that through his Son the Father is adopting wayward children and creating by His Spirit a family. We call others into that same family when we speak about the Son and when we love like him.

What a wonderful reality to share: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

If you love God and his people, it’s because he has loved you. Which means he loves you still. If you are walking with God, it’s because he has pursued you—and he will never stop.