“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.”
1 Thessalonians 2:17
Letter writing has become a lost art in this era of texts and Snapchats. But for thousands of years, the letter was a vital form of communication. In the absence of smart phones and computers, it was pen and paper (or perhaps quill and parchment) by which people who were separated could communicate with one another. For four years of college and four years of seminary, my grandmother wrote a letter every week. Her letters would include details about family, but also the weather, the trees and flowers and especially the squirrels. But the closer that the letter would be to a break, the more her letter would include her looking forward to seeing me soon. St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians twice communicates such yearning (also 3:10). Letters are a blessing, but they are no replacement for being with someone face-to-face.
As a pastor, one of my favorite monthly visits was with a couple who had moved off the family farm and into town, just a few blocks away from the church. They lived close enough that the husband would listen to the early service through a “hearing aid” that the church had for members that would amplify the sound so that they could hear it. It was intended for people attending church, but after this man could no longer physically attend worship at the church, he tried it out and found that they were close enough that it worked at home. His Sunday routine was to listen to his home congregation’s service, then the Lutheran Hour and then one of the other LCMS church services on the radio. He had a greater zeal for God’s Word than most, but he still longed to be with his fellow saints in worship. Listening to the service was a blessing, but it was not the same as worship face-to-face with children and grandchildren, classmates, and friends.
Thanks be to God that we are facing this crisis at a time where the Word of God can be delivered via a multitude of platforms. While the letter to the soldier during World War II was a great blessing, it was not the same as being swallowed up in the arms of loved ones upon safe return home. Though the great-grandparent marvels at the image of the newborn child on the tablet, it is not the same as being able to hold the child. The delivery of God’s Word through electronic means has been a great blessing to Christians, but it is not the same as coming together with others from within our family of faith. Here are some of the things that happen when we gather together on Sunday morning – Tom, the head usher opens the door and greets everyone, Pastor makes a beeline to talk to Chris who is home from college, Margie orders something that she doesn’t need from the youth group because they are raising money for their summer trip, the newlyweds Alex and Anna, who grew up in the church, share a hymnal as they sing, teen-age usher Kyle, helps Esther down the steps from the chancel, big, burly Jim takes a break from the soundboard to hold baby Pete, while the parents go up for Communion, and seemingly everyone goes up to Stacey after the prayer of thanksgiving that she is now in remission.
When we come together for worship, it is for the purpose of receiving God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament and responding in praise and thanksgiving. But it is also for seeing one another face to face for the purpose of encouraging one another in the faith, spurring one another on in love and good works, and ultimately being the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God for the blessing of electronic means of proclaiming and receiving the Word during these difficult times. But we are able to say with St. Paul, “since we were torn away from you, brothers [and sisters], for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.”
Prayer – O Gracious God, let us not neglect meeting together, but for our own sake and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in the faith, let us come together to stir up one another in love and good works and as we encourage one another as the final day draws near.
Fraternally in Christ,
President Lee Hagan
Thanks to Dr. Mark Seifrid for his insights into Paul’s letters and his desire to visit the churches.