True to its name, the thrill of Zoom burned out about as quickly as it took off, leaving most of us tired, exasperated, and feeling more disconnected.
The longing we feel to gather together in person is not new (it’s as old as mankind), but the coronavirus has refreshed and deepened that longing for many of us. We are certainly more aware of the face-to-face needs embedded into our humanity. But the last two months didn’t create that need; they have only exposed what humans, and especially Christians, have always needed.
As the very first churches were born and began spreading and multiplying, they had to say a lot of hard goodbyes (Acts 20:37–38; 2 Timothy 1:4). Not only did they not have the kind of technology we enjoy now, but the dangers of following and preaching Christ were real and severe. People were dying for believing what we believe (Acts 7:58; 12:1–3). So goodbye was a serious, painful word. The social distance they experienced was all the more tangible, difficult, and sometimes permanent — at least until death reunited them.
So when the apostles say, over and over again, “I long to see you,” we know their longing was deep and acute. Now, two months into a coronavirus quarantine, we feel more of what they might have felt for one another.
‘I Would Rather Not Zoom’
The apostle John wrote to a church he loved and knew well, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). Writing can say an awful lot (this is an apostle speaking, in the very word of God). But even in the inspired, inerrant, infallible, sufficient writings of Scripture, there is a longing for more than writing. For more than words.
John and the other apostles likely learned this dynamic directly from Jesus. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus “went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:13–15). Even the God-man longs for with-ness — not just shared theology or even shared mission, but shared space and shared life.
God has given embodied flesh and blood an irreplaceable power and potency in relationships, and he has embedded a need for that kind of experience in every human, and in every church. Some things were meant to be said in the same room. Closeness matters. Love was meant to meet. When we gather together in one place, neither audio lags nor frozen videos, nor mute buttons nor push notifications, nor internet connectivity, nor any other technical hurdles or hiccups, can separate us anymore.
Smartphones and Zoom calls are extraordinary gifts, gifts the early church surely would have treasured and leveraged, but still gifts that fall short of what we (and they) have longed for. John may be saying as much when he writes, “I hope to come to you and talk face to face.” So not just face to face (we can almost reproduce that today), but actually with you.
The joy of fellowship can only be so full from far away. Notice why John wants to be face to face: “so that our joy may be complete.” Social distancing means less joy. We sacrifice a fuller, deeper delight — in God and in one another — when we cannot be together. Many of us feel that shortage of joy now more than we have before.
Longing for Strength and Courage
The apostle Paul expresses the same refrain of longing throughout his letters. He says, “I long to see you” (or something like it) to the Romans, the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and Timothy. He writes to the Corinthians, “I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul knew that the flesh-and-blood, day-in, day-out presence of Timothy would communicate Paul’s ways in Christ even more than Paul’s own words could.
His longing for the church in Rome, though, feels especially relevant and enlightening. Paul believes something will happen when he sees them that will not happen in the same way or at the same level through his letter (in this case, arguably the single greatest letter written in history). He writes,
I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Romans 1:10–12)
Paul says, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift.” We don’t know what spiritual gift he had in mind, but we do know that his presence would “strengthen” the believers in Rome, and that both Paul and his readers would be “encouraged” in a way they could not be otherwise.
Paul uses the same two Greek words together when he writes to the Thessalonians, “We sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish [strengthen] and exhort [encourage] you in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Physical presence allows Paul and Timothy, and you and me, to strengthen and establish, encourage and exhort in ways we cannot through media, however advanced that media may be. Paul made the extraordinary effort to be with his fellow believers because he knew the extraordinary potential of being face to face. He knew the potential joy of truly being together (2 Timothy 1:4; Philippians 2:28).
So, we are right to long to see one another and to strengthen, encourage, and enjoy each other, as the church. Zoom alone is not enough. For now, like John and Paul, we use the technology we have, and continue loving one another as creatively, intentionally, persistently as we can. But God wants us to long for more, to eagerly anticipate that great reunion some Sunday, when we’re truly together again.
Walk with Us
God also wants us to anticipate, all the more, the even greater and sweeter reunion to come, when Christ returns to gather all the saints from our homes and bring us to our final home.
One way God might have us lean into the loneliness and trials of isolation is not only by longing to be with one another again (we should!), but also by longing for the months, and years, and centuries when we will walk with him. When he makes all things new, rids the world of all viruses and corruption, forever removes any stay-at-home orders, and unleashes us, without temptation or sin, on all he has made, he will not call in from afar, but he will dwell and walk with us.
The same John who preferred bodily presence to paper and ink saw the wonder of what we will experience:
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:3)
Could John have been any clearer? The dwelling place of God will be with us. He will dwell with us. God himself will be with us as our God. Days of social distancing are especially good for savoring promises like these, for dreaming of all the days we will one day spend with God.
John wrote about that great hope and future from exile, while he was isolated on an island (Revelation 1:9). And yet, as alone as he was (far more than we are today), he not only took heart in the promise of heaven, but found ways to strengthen others’ hope for what’s to come. His isolation became the reason for someone else’s perseverance. For our perseverance. How might God use us — a letter, a phone call, a text message — to do the same for someone struggling to believe?