We have just celebrated a unique Easter, one tainted by social distancing directives which have kept the Chapel Hill Bible Church and churches across the world from gathering together. The uniqueness of this Easter prompted me to consider the Easter celebration in a new way. More than anything, I have reflected upon Christian love as practiced in the local church.
I want to focus this article on the idea of celebration. It seems to me that all celebrations have at least three main components: a cause, a community, and an activity. For example, my wife’s family celebrates Christmas by gathering together on Christmas Eve for a feast and fun, often hilarious family games. The cause for our celebration is Christmas. The community is my wife’s extended family. The activities are feasting and playing games. Likewise, for the church, the celebration of Easter has a cause, a community, and an activity. I’ll try to define each of them.
Our Cause, Community, and Activity
The obvious cause of our celebration on Easter is Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, individual Christians may be inclined to emphasize singular benefits of Jesus’ work over others. Some celebrate Jesus’ work because it accomplished their individual salvation; others because it accomplished the salvation of his Bride, the church universal, which spans time and place. Both of these are worthy of celebration. But, celebrating just one in isolation is incomplete. Celebration of individual salvation alone leaves no one to celebrate with. Celebration of the salvation of an invisible entity is almost impossible to enjoy because this entity has no personality.
Fortunately, God has provided for us. These causes for celebration come together in the local church. Here, the individual must reckon with corporate salvation because he or she gathers with many saved sinners. Likewise, the universal church is made tangible in the faces, stories, and personalities of the local church’s members.
As the local church joins these two causes for Easter celebration, it also defines the community of celebration. The church universal certainly celebrates Easter together, though it is separated by time and space, simply because it is one body (see Col. 1:24, Eph. 1:22, among many more). Even so, I maintain that the physicality of the local assembly celebrating together is a blessing from God. John Onwuchekwa illuminates this idea well in his book Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. He writes, “the local church takes the theory of Christianity and makes it tangible – in love, in deed, and especially in prayer” (62). In other words, the Christianity that we cannot feel, see, touch, or otherwise sense – ideals of brotherly love, transforming grace, servanthood, and more – becomes tangible in the local church.
This notion of tangibility is crucial for the third component of celebration, the activity. What is the activity that characterizes the celebration of Easter? I think Onwuchekwa is on to something when he highlights love, which summarizes our active celebration of Easter. This seems apparent from the New Testament. In 1 Peter 1:22, we’re told that brotherly love is the purpose of our purification from sin (“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart”). Similarly, Jesus tells us that our distinct mark as Christians I our love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Today, love has become a nebulous concept. We must understand what Jesus means when he commands love. I find the final two words of his command – “love one another” – especially instructive. The kind of love Jesus has in mind is meant to be shared throughout the church. Love that is shared must have a personal object – a human being who can receive charity with gratitude and extend it with cheerfulness. True Christian love is never impersonal or abstract. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book The Brothers Karamzov illuminates Jesus’ command to love:
The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience…But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity (61).The Brothers Karamzov, Page 61
I hope the reasoning is clear: it is quite easy to trumpet one’s love for humanity – an invisible, impersonal entity. It is quite hard to act in sacrificial love toward a real person. Dostoyevsky’s logic, I think, is biblically sound. Consider for instance 1 John 4:20 – “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Authentic Christian love is neither cheap nor easy. We must guard against Dostoyevsky’s “love for humanity,” which merely says “I love the church” and yet fails to love its individual members. Instead, we must pursue the personal love that Jesus commands. To do this, we must recognize that Jesus’ command is only actionable with the proximity and personal relationship that the local church affords.
Our Easter celebration should not end on Monday. Celebration of the resurrection is way of life. We celebrate because Christ is risen, having purchased us individually and as a universal body by his blood. We celebrate with our local assembly, the Chapel Hill Bible Church, because here the individual and corporate benefits of Jesus’ saving work are brought together. And we celebrate in active, earnest, sincere, brotherly love for one another, recognizing that the local church is the venue for such love.
But What About the Coronavirus?
I may be choosing the wrong time to emphasize the necessity of proximity and relationship to true Christian love because of the strict social distancing measures in place. Though this mandate deprives us of opportunities for encouraging conversation, physical service, and other charitable deeds, it does not exclude praying for one another. We have an opportunity to rediscover and recommit to loving one another through prayer.
If Jesus’ command to love one another assumes a personal recipient of love, then prayers offered in love should focus on particular people. While prayer does not require physical proximity with the one we pray for, loving prayers thrive when they focus on particular people, complete with stories, needs, wants, shortcomings, and suffering. Therefore, I propose that we use the present circumstances God has given to form habits of offering rich prayers to God on behalf of the specific brothers and sisters in our assembly. We may find a role model in Epaphras, who in Colossians 4 is said to be “one of you” – that is, a member of the church at Colossae – who is “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). We would all do well to emulate him. Epaphras is not an exception – he illustrates the rule of the Christian life. According to James 5:16, all Christians ought to share his disposition, praying for one another fervently.
While we cannot downplay the fact that charitable deeds make the “theory of Christianity” tangible, as Onwuchekwa argues, I want to use his emphasis on the special quality of prayer to suggest a practice that we adopt together. Recalling that our celebration of Easter involves active, earnest love for one another within the local church, my burden is that we celebrate by struggling in robust prayers for one another, like Epaphras for his church.
The Activity of Prayer
If you are like me, the mere suggestion to pray does little more than induce guilt. I will be the first to confess that I do not pray as I ought. But, I have found certain practices and commitments to be helpful as I attempt to follow Epaphras’ lead. I’ve shown thus far that prayers offered in love should have particular people in focus. So, in the spirit of this idea, I commend the practice of praying, name by name, through the CHBC membership directory.
The directory is a simple tool for prayer. It fills in our conception of the non-personal “congregation” with names and faces of real people living real lives. It affords an opportunity to lovingly pray for specific individuals. My goal is to pray through two pages of the directory each day. Your daily goals will vary. But, we may have this question in common: what do we pray when we pray for individuals, especially people that we don’t know? I’ll conclude with seven suggestions for formulating robust, Epaphras-like prayers, even for those you do not know personally.
- Pray Scripture. This suggestion is foundational. The Bible is full of examples of and prompts to prayer. As God speaks to us, he instructs us on how to speak to him. And because God is a loving God, he teaches us how to speak to him in love for other people. I have found that my prayers, apart from the saturation of the words of Scripture, are feeble, weak, and often undefined. “God, be with my brother who is suffering” is a fine prayer to pray. But, a prayer that recounts God’s promises to your brother has weight that the former prayer simply does not: “God, you have promised never to leave nor forsake your children (Heb. 13:5). You have revealed yourself as a God abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6). Please, lavish the abundance of that love upon my brother, whom you know is suffering gravely.”
- Pray for the specific prayer requests of those you do know personally. This suggestion is obvious, but I often fail to pay attention to the prayer needs of those I know personally, so I need a reminder. As you develop the habit of regularly praying through the membership directory, remember to ask how you can pray for your brothers and sisters.
- Pray requests commensurate with one’s life station. You may find as you pray through the membership directory that there are many people and families whom you know but haven’t spoken to for some time. Though you may not know their prayer requests today, you may know some details about their lives. As you pray the directory, perhaps you come a couple whom you know was recently married. Naturally, you might pray “Father, please strengthen their marriage, bind them together in unity, and increase their affection for one another.” Next, you come across a family with two young children. A natural prayer for this family is “Father God, grant these parents wisdom and patience. Enable these children to obey cheerfully.” Then, you come across a family whose mother works at the university. “Father, please bless the work of this sister. Free her from all temptation to work for worldly honors, and instead cause her to work as unto you, giving you glory in all that she does.” I wager that for a large proportion of the congregation you can find suitable needs for which to pray, even if you don’t know the member’s or family’s specific prayer needs at this moment in time.
- Make requests to God with common circumstances in mind. As I have prayed through the membership directory during this unique time, I have regularly asked God to cause my brother or sister to run to him, their rock, fortress, deliverer, and refuge (Ps. 18:1). However, it doesn’t take a virus to produce common experience among Christians. We all suffer, we are often assailed by temptation, we could all love others better than we do. There are many common prayers one can authentically make for all Christians.
- Pray two or three points from your daily Scripture reading. A few weeks ago, I was studying 1 Peter 2:1-10 in preparation for teaching in the YARD. As I prayed the membership directory on those days, I found myself regularly asking God to cause the brothers and sisters for whom I was praying to “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it [they] might grow up into salvation” and that this brother’s or sister’s life would “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” As you read Scripture each day, you’ll likely notice many potential prayers for your brothers and sisters that apply broadly, even those you do not know these people personally.
- Pray the points from the sermon text for the upcoming week. Look ahead at the sermon text from the upcoming week. Use the points that the text communicates to form your prayers. I write this the week before Easter. As I pray through the membership directory this week, an appropriate prayer may be the following, considering the main thrust of 1 Corinthians 15: “Holy Spirit, cause the hope of the resurrection to become increasingly real to this brother (or sister). May he (or she) rejoice because Christ is risen!”
- Pray that members who occupy specific church offices execute their roles well. Our elders and deacons occupy unique positions as teachers, leaders, and servants within our church. Scripture gives us language to pray for those in these offices. You can find the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 and the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. We should pray that our elders and deacons maintain the necessary qualifications so that they may continue in service and honor God. Also, we should pray that they execute their roles with wisdom and humility, acting like Christ in every way.
If you want to reflect further on prayer, I encourage you to read and pray the Psalms. This section of Scripture gives much rich language for expressing praise, devotion, thanksgiving, and requests to God. Furthermore, if you are curious about Paul’s example of prayer for the churches to whom he ministered, see the following verses: Ephesians 1:16-19, Ephesians 3:14-19, Philippians 1:3-10, and Colossians 1:3-12. These are just a sampling of prayers recorded in Paul’s letters. You’ll be able to find additional examples with some searching.
Brothers and sisters, let’s pursue the rhythm of praying regularly through CHBC’s membership directory. Let’s do so not under compulsion, but with celebration, remembering as we do so that Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins for earnest, brotherly love. By God’s grace we have the privilege and joy to “struggle in prayer” for one another.