Prior to commanding the believers in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, noting that God Himself is granting them the ability to do so, the apostle writes: "just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence" (Phil. 2:12, emphasis added). I wondered if the believers found exercising spiritual disciplines easier when Paul was with them, but, perhaps, a bit more difficult apart from him, or, more to the point, when he was away.
I know from my own experience that when I am spending a lot of time with a spiritual leader, like a pastor or a visiting evangelist, I am much more inclined toward spiritual truths than when I am on my own. Perhaps many of us experience the same. Could this be a primary reason we are encouraged and commanded: "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' so that none of you [believers] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:13); "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24)?
Though I have been writing this truth for quite some time now, I think that I am just now beginning to feel the weight of it: brothers and sisters in Christ need each other for their spiritual well-being. Not one among us can say, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor. 12:21, 22, 23, 24); but, rather, God has "so arranged the body . . . that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor. 12:25). We suffer together and we rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26). We also pursue God together, as a unit, intent on one purpose and one goal.
I think that God has so arranged our unity in the Body in an effort at encouraging each of us to the chasing of Himself -- seeking not merely for what He can do for us, or give us, but just to live our lives in His presence and enjoy His love and grace. Sadly, I think many today have forgotten what the church is for, and what it means to be the church. While some people in our culture are frustrated with "church-as-they've-come-to-know-it," thereby forsaking the assembling of themselves together with other believers, they are unknowingly robbing themselves of not only developing rich relationships with others but also experiencing the one, true and living God. Robert E. Webber writes:
"The church, like a tribe, is a cultural community defined by the story of God. This story and shared vision is taught and communicated primarily as a lived experience. When a convert enters into the Christian community and becomes a disciple of Jesus, the person confesses that life is defined by the story of Israel and Jesus. Therefore it is important during the disciple stage to experience the biblical nature of the church. The church is not a mere voluntary society of like-minded believers, but a continuation of the presence of Jesus in and to the world."
Many in the early Church believed, with Cyprian (d. 258), that a person "cannot have God as his Father who does not have the church for his Mother." This does not mean that one must attend church in order to "be saved" -- as though salvation can be earned by church attendance -- as though all God requires of someone in order to experience His salvation is to belong to a local church -- but that anyone who claims God as Father would also, very naturally, mind you, desire the Church for one's Mother. The Church is, after all, the Body of Christ Jesus, God's Son. If someone wants to claim union with the Father, he or she needs to go through the Son, and through the Son enters the Body, which is the Church universal.
The Church as the on-going and tangible presence of Jesus often appears a foreign concept in our post-postmodern age where selfishness, individualism, and narcissism is commonplace. Being Jesus to and for others takes a great bit of intentional work; it does not happen by accident. Yet, in and through the Church, we often experience the manifest presence of our faithful God. Charles Ringma underscores the fact that our appreciation of God "seldom comes by way of doctrinal formulation." We do not experience God's grace, mercy, love and faithfulness merely by reading words on the pages of a book. We read about His ways; we understand and glean from them; but we experience Him in real-time -- in real-to-life relationships with other brothers and sisters.
Can each one of us experience God's presence and goodness while being alone? Yes, we certainly can, while in prayer and praise and study of His word. We are called to quiet solitude at times. But Anglican John Donne (1572-1631) was also right when he noted, "No man is an island entire of itself." Remember how the early believers conducted their lives at the birth of the Church: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people." (Acts 3:46, 47, emphasis added)
 Robert E. Webber, Journey to Jesus: The Worship, Evangelism, and Nurture Mission of the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 106.
 Charles Ringma, Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen (Colorado Springs: Piñon Press, 2000), 159.
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