The Lord can teach us at least two lessons in this extraordinary time of death and separation. One is that he can sustain our faith in and through the pandemic. He can show himself sufficient. Our Lord can freshly validate, in a certain sense, the oft-repeated Christian claim that Jesus is enough for us. All we need is Jesus.
But a second lesson is crucial because it completes and clarifies the first one. The sufficiency of Jesus Christ involves no impugning or minimizing the place of gatherings in his purposes. Our God is not only the great life-giver but also the great gatherer of his people. The pandemic has altered this divine purpose not one whit. Neither death nor social distancing shall secure a permanent foothold within the redeeming purposes of God. Both shall be taken down. Both banished. Hurled together into the pit of hell.
In this fallen world, all of us, believers and non-believers alike, suffer deprivations of divine blessings we were meant to enjoy. Such deprivations teach us not that God has abandoned his original plan to heap upon us these great blessings. Deprivations, including this one, remind us that all is not right. Life here below is shot through with suffering. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. All is not right. The good news is that all shall be put right—it is not that the putting right does not matter because we have Jesus.
Philip Melanchthon was right, to know Christ is to know his benefits. No minimizing the blessings or of a single benefit, such as that of believers gathered in his name, honors the one who purchased these blessings for his children, each and every one, at the cost of his shed blood.
True, another benefit believers enjoy is the sustaining power of the Spirit in the midst of suffering, in the midst of deprivation. He helps us to bear-up, to not despair. But how? Not by demonstrating to us that the joys of being gathered together with one another to work and to play and to pray and to worship never really mattered. Not to teach us that all we really needed is our own individual personal relationship with Jesus plus nothing else. Jesus died to give us this personal relationship and what a precious blessing it is.
But Jesus is zealous for all the blessings—for our enjoyment of them. Because that enjoyment gives rise to fit and full worship. To God be the glory for the things he has done. What has he done? He has called us, his sheep, by name, one by one, and has gathered us together into his flock. He has adopted us, each of us, one by one, into his family, making us the eternal siblings of brothers and sisters who, by his prompting, cling to one another and together to our shared heavenly Father in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. No, our gathering together has never been and can never be a small or non-essential thing where the good will of our God for us is concerned. Gathering belongs to the permanent purposes of our perfect Lord.
In cahoots with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus is the great gatherer. Will he who did not spare his own Son for us not give us all things? Yes, he shall. Sin, death, and the devil shall not succeed in snatching away forever a single blessing earmarked for the joint-heirs of Jesus Christ. “Oh how I would have gathered you like a hen her chicks, but you would not,” Jesus lamented. But a bit later, after the grave failed to hold him, he said, “all power is given to me in heaven and earth.” How does he wield that power? And to what end?
A bit later still, at Pentecost, a divine gathering power was unleashed upon planet Earth—the gathering of believers into churches. Flesh and blood, face to face communities of faith. This divine gathering together has never ceased and remains the great wonder of world history. No wonder we believers are so pointedly commanded, “forsake not the gathering together of yourselves.” God does the gathering. Attempted human defiance or neglect is doomed. Better to cooperate for our own good and his glory.
Oh yes, Jesus sustains us in time of suffering, including this COVID-19 plague that mixes death and deprivation of gathering into an insidious cocktail of horror and loss and threat. But we do not despair because Jesus sustains our faith. He bears us up. How? By reminding us that neither death nor social distancing shall have the last word.
Survivors shall gather together once more, week by week, in this vale of tears—in this time between the times. When that time comes, on the far side of the waning of the plague, perhaps we shall come together more keenly aware than before just how precious is our physical presence with one another to our enjoyment of God.
Those who succumb to the virus but sleep in Jesus shall be awakened with a Lazarus-recalling summons, “Come forth!” But this time with their own name on the death-defying and gathering-capable lips of Jesus. For survivors and victims alike, new life and re-gathering are coming, the one promised to us in the City of God. This sure hope, not resignation in the face of suffering or pretended imperviousness to deprivation, nurtures and sustains our faith.
Mark DeVine is associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches history and doctrine.