Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25, NIV
It looks as if it was risky for the first readers of the letter to the Hebrews to meet as a church. Risky enough to put some off from coming. Some of them had experienced reputational damage, insult, persecution and the confiscation of their property as a result of their faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:32-34, 13;13). In such a situation, it would be a risky step to turn up and meet with your fellow Christians – you might be identified as “one of those”!
Why, then, would the writer of this letter, with his caring pastoral heart, still encourage his readers not to give up meeting together? Even if it meant them taking such risks?
The answer he gives (in the verses at the top of this post) is that they urgently need each other’s mutual encouragement. In a world which didn’t like Jesus, they needed each other, to spur one another on. This encouragement would come through hearing the Word of God (which the writer describes in 13:22 as a word of encouragement), and the mutual boost they would gain from seeing each other.
And they need this for more than just a warm glow. The letter is written to people who are actually being tempted to give up on Christ altogether. They need to run the race with perseverance (12:1-3), and to do that, they need to be with other runners. Without that encouragement, they may drop out. Putting it starkly: there may be risks attached to meeting, but in the long run the risks attached to not meeting are far more serious.
Since the start of the pandemic we have been wonderfully served by live streaming. The Word of God has gone out, and, I pray, nourished many. We have been joined online by some who for good medical reasons will never be able to join us on a Sunday. We must be thankful for all who have worked so hard to make this possible.
But the live stream cannot give us the encouragement of seeing each other, of singing to each other, of keeping up with each other. The live stream cannot convey adequately the boost of being with many others in whose lives Christ is working. On our own, we can end up carrying burdens alone, not recognising the drift in our lives. We are less able to fulfil our own obligation to encourage others. And your pastor may know much less about how you are. (This is why, when there are people who have no choice but to stay at home, we need to ensure they are visited or communicated with.)
This summer I had the joy of being at Keswick Convention on the first day (Monday 19th July) any congregation in England was allowed to sing. It was glorious! It has also been a huge encouragement to see more and more coming back together on Sundays.
We have been able, once again, to experience the reality of church as the Bible understands it: the very word translated church actually means ‘assembly’ or ‘crowd’.
Our staff team is working as hard as possible to mitigate any risk of Covid infection, and so far God has kept us safe. For nearly all of us, any public meeting (or going to the shops, or pub, or bus, for that matter) inevitably involves a marginally increased risk. But I doubt it is as serious as the risks that faced this letter’s first readers.
As vicars say, “Hope to see you on Sunday!”