And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
– 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20 [ESV]
The last two years have been challenging in many ways. Churches have suffered from the lack of in-person worship opportunities, government-mandated shut downs, fear, masks, and even the illness of church leaders and pastors. Many churches switched to online worship experiences. Some did outdoor worship. Still others stayed open in the face of fear and mandates to the contrary. Some offered people the opportunity to join in with others online in prayers and even in participating in the Lord’s Supper.
Add to all those external challenges were the conflicts from within. Some refused to wear masks. Others would not come to worship unless masks were mandated. Churches that offered the opportunity for their families to receive the Lord’s Supper at home were sometimes censured. Churches that refused to do so were largely not.
It wasn’t only the church that suffered. Families and friends suffered as well. While it was a novelty to play games online with our grandkids, it’s a poor substitute for being present face to face. A dinner with friends via ZOOM was a bit of a reprieve from isolation and loneliness. But it just not the same.
The negative impact of all this has also been seen in our schools. Students have suffered learning setbacks because of remote learning, a general malaise of fear, and social distancing limitations.
There’s nothing like being in person for learning, dining with friends, enjoying your grandchildren, and gathering for worship.
The ancient near-eastern equivalent of social media and virtual reality was letters of correspondence. That’s what we have here. And Paul laments his being hindered from being present with these people face to face. He chalks it up to Satan that they are kept apart. Part of that may have been his imprisonment. Part of that may have been the persecution he endured. Whatever tool Satan used, it kept him from visiting these people face to face.
Face to face is far better. It’s the mid-level of intimacy. Neighbor-to-neighbor is the first level. Face-to-face is the second level. Heart-to-heart is the third level. The only deeper sense of intimacy is that enjoyed properly in marriage. And in every case the real thing is far better than any substitute.
That’s why gathering for worship is so important. You can relate to people in all three levels: as neighbors, friends, and as close friends. God’s gift of the Lord’s Supper is a further extension of this, for in that we experience a deep intimacy with Jesus and all the company of heaven, together with all the saints who join us at the communion rail.
Sometimes we must resort to some sort of virtual experience. But there’s nothing like being there, face to face, and is appropriate, heart to heart. May Jesus allow that for us all!