It’s a strange term. So let me introduce to you a new-sounding activity in well-known words: being there for each other, or better: serving one another.
It’s a distinctly Christian activity, rooted in and modelled by what Christ Jesus did for us in his sacrifice on the cross. This activity characterizes the Christian church.
As I watch developments in our community in the last half year, I see one anothering diminishing in the church community. That loss worries me. That’s why I take a moment to flag this topic.
You see, before COVID hit, we as congregation assembled habitually Sunday by Sunday in church to listen together to God’s Word, pray together, sing together, give our offerings together, use the sacraments together. O, and to talk together, be faces to one another, and so remind ourselves and each other that we actually belong together as members of one body. I know, not all of us were as habitually together with the same frequency and the same intensity, or even with the same pleasure, as the next person. But on the whole we understood that there was something essential about together; it contributed to one anothering.
Then, quite suddenly, we could not assemble in church anymore. We livestreamed instead, together. It was a funny “together”, though, for we didn’t see each other as we listened and prayed, and we didn’t hear each other sing, and we didn’t drop our thank offering into the same collection bag – and didn’t get to talk to each other before the service or after about how we were doing and what the sermon might mean for the coming week. Me on my couch and you on yours: one anothering couldn’t happen. The fellowship was lacking.
That’s why coming back to church last June was such a huge relief; seeing each other, talking together, the fellowship of saints in church, before church, after church – we enjoyed it exactly because we one anothered each other again! Even if it was only a percentage of the congregation that we were seeing…. And now, with 4 services each Sunday, the context is set to allow for even more of this one anothering to occur, for we can get more frequently in each other’s presence, remind each other more regularly that we’re still around, listen together, pray together, sing together, fellowship together, and so keep relations sufficiently open so as to be able to share our joys and sorrows for our own and the other’s benefit. I’m deeply grateful for the progress the Lord has granted in restoring things to something of the old ‘normal’.
But I think we need to be honest and admit that we’ve lost something over the last 6 months that isn’t, I’m afraid, going to come back easily. I mean this: we have learned a bit better how to do life on our own. I grant that for marriages and families those first weeks of COVID has generally been good, simply because the family didn’t have to go a dozen directions each evening to meet the numerous social, sporting and committee commitments that held us ransom in the previous era. And I want to think that we’re never going to commit ourselves and our children to that hectic pace again; we really do need lots of family time and marriage time.
We do, though, need to acknowledge that we need more one anothering than is available in a marriage or a family. We actually need each other! I say “need” deliberately, because the Lord calls the church a body (1 Cor 12:12ff), and we all know that a body is an integrated whole where each member needs the other for the entirety of the body to function well. Well then, given that the church in Smithville is one body, we all need each other – and that means that we need to connect meaningfully, need togetherness, need one anothering for mutual and congregational health. And that’s my concern: in the last months we’ve gotten used to less of one anothering than we had, and gotten used to doing life more on our own. A body adjusting to life without the full cooperation of two healthy legs will make adjustments – but the adjustment may well produce a bad back some months or years down the track. In similar fashion, the spiritual body of the church adjusting to less or limited fellowship will invariably produce the spiritual equivalent of a bad back in years to come. We don’t want that.
What, then, does one anothering look like? The Scripture would have us know that you cannot experience the riches of the gospel when you delete the notion of “one another” from your activities. Throughout Scripture the concept of together is a given. God’s people in the Old Testament were not separate individuals who each had a relationship with God but not with people; rather, Israel was one people travelling together to the Promised Land and living side by side in order to help and support and encourage each other in the questions and challenges of life (cf Pss 122, 133). The Son of God came to this earth in order to relate to particular people, lay down his life for another, and make the redeemed his family (Mt 12:50), his church, his body. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles colored in what one anothering was to look like with a lengthy list of instructions: “be at peace with one another” (1 Thess 5:13); “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10); “encourage one another” (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11); “build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11; Rom 14:19); “welcome one another” (Rom 15:7); “instruct one another” (Rom 15:14); “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col 3:16); “serve one another” (Gal 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10); “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2; Eph 4:2; Col 3:13); “submitting to one another” (Eph 5:21); “be kind to one another” (Eph 4:32); “forgiving one another” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13); “seek to do good to one another” (1 Thess 5:15); “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24); “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16); “show hospitality to one another” (1 Peter 4:9) – and so many more such texts. These are all, of course, practical illustrations of Jesus’ words to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
But surely this much is obvious: to be there for one another, you also need to be with one another. In plain English: if you can’t be with one another you can’t be for one another. And that’s the problem: today being able to be with one another is restricted on account of COVID. That’s why I say that being there for one another is diminishing; the one anothering isn’t happening as it ought. And there will invariably be a price to pay for it.
We need to be creative to find new ways to one another each other in step with the action words Scripture requires of us in the list above. What am I thinking of? Consider these options:
- Maximize being in church. In some subtle way we have gotten somewhat used to couch church and so the temptation surely exists to leave going physically to church till another time. Not only are we then in danger of falling for the North American habit of going to church only once (or not at all); we’re then also in danger of shrinking our one anothering – contrary to God’s express command and contrary to the basic rules of maintaining a healthy body. We need to be physically in each other’s space.
- Maximize the possibilities of existing social bubbles. That bubble may be a mix of family and close friends -or perhaps also fellowship group- but in the circumstances is likely to be smaller than the circle with whom we used to relate. We need to maximize the opportunities within that circle so that more of one anothering happens in that bubble than used to be the case. I say “more” because all of us have experienced a pinch in some form as a result of COVID and so need encouragement and/or have developed new lines of thought from which others could benefit.
- Reach out carefully and wisely to others outside our circle to re-establish (or establish) a relationship that makes one anothering possible. Yes, care and wisdom are needed in today’s context. But we may not let today’s context (“We’re in this together; stay at home”) negate the Lord’s command to one another each other and so we need creatively to find ways to overcome the limitations COVID sparked. This would be especially true in relation to those whom we suspect may not have a flourishing circle of brothers and sisters with whom they one another.
In plain language: Satan is not about to let a good crisis go to waste. He’ll happily use COVID to scatter the saints, to destroy the one anothering the Lord desires for the good health of his body, the church. We may not sacrifice physical health for spiritual health. For what does it profit a man if he preserves his health, and loses or forfeits his soul? (See Luke 9:25) Precisely because we are one body in Christ, we are in this together – and so we need to spend time with each other in order to be able to be there for each other.