‘In the C10th a ruler in Cairo issued a decree to close all churches of the Coptic Christian community in the land and to forbid the church bells to ring. The churches were closed, the gates grew rusty and the pigeons took residence in the sanctuaries. Some of the faithful Copts travelled across the desert seeking monasteries in the wilderness so that they could meet for prayer and worship. However the majority of the Copts could not afford the time or money to travel on foot across the desert, so they were forced to stay in their homes on Sundays. After nine years, the ruler decided to see for himself how the Coptic Christians were faring. In disguise, he set out on a Sunday and walked in the streets of their quarters in Old Cairo. As he walked in the narrow streets, he heard the sound of their prayers, Bible readings and worship from every house that he passed. His reaction was another decree: “Open their churches and let them pray as they please. I thought I had closed the church in every street, only to find out that I opened a church in every house.”‘
This speaks so deeply to our situation of a church alive under lockdown, talking to people via the internet or by phone, that’s certainly the impression I get, amidst it all, despite it all, God is working … and yet … there is also a sense of deep longing to be back together.
You see that’s because we are built for community – its in our ‘DNA’, we are all made in the image of God who is in one sense a community in himself. That’s what the Trinity is about, the three-in-one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit always together, always communicating, always enjoying each others company. We too desire company, even those who are highly introverted, comfortable with just their own company, need others to encourage them not to become overly introspective, everyone needs that community connection. So we seek company online or by phone, but it’s that meeting together that is something we are beginning to see as highly prized.
The Israelites in the Old Testament were exiled from the land they had been given, exiled from the temple which Solomon had built, the place where they met God, they too were longing to return. Now today, we can’t equate Temple with Church building. We know that the church has always been the people, not the building, God doesn’t need a house to live in. In fact the message of Jesus is that God came to earth in him and he left us his Spirit so that he can live in us. We, as Paul writes, are the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19) (Every time I say or write that I am awed and humbled by that statement – and a little frightened!). If we have become Christians and by that process been filled by his Spirit, God is always with us – whether we feel it or acknowledge it, that fact remains true. So here we are too, ‘a church opened in every house.’ It’s his Spirit that joins us and although we long to be together physically, what Peter writes in 1 Peter now takes on a new dimension – ‘Like living stones yourselves, you are being built up into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2.5 2018. The Bible for Everyone: A New Translation, London: SPCK.)
We are a spiritual body, not limited by physicality, when we meet our community is not shaped by the means of communication but by the God who holds us together. We are physical people and we never should forget that, so when one day we return from ‘exile’ we will meet and there will be a joyful reunion even though many will have met loss along the way. Like those disciples who meet the risen Jesus we will know the ‘amazement from sheer joy’ (Luke 21.41) when we break bread together. Until that time we remain God’s house, living stones, we remain ‘God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2.9). We might feel a little discouraged and despondent right now but breathe deep into the Spirit who lives inside of you and let the Spirit’s resources light up every street. Shine Church, Shine.