For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:5)
Absent But Present
When Paul was in a Roman prison writing a letter to the saints at Colosse, he did not know that two thousand years later his words would strike a deep chord among the saints of God all over the world. The apostle of Christ did not know what COVID-19 was and trying to imagine one the hardest working missionaries of God being subdued with social-distancing and wearing a face mask as impossible. He would obey the laws of the land but what grief that would have been to his energy, determination, and desire to teach all men Christ Jesus and Him crucified.
Paul’s work had been interrupted when they arrested him but he continued to work from his imprisonment. Letters were written, charges given to the disciples to carry out the work of teaching, and no doubt every person the apostle came in contact with he taught them the gospel. His work would lead to some in Caesar’s household learning the truth of salvation. The prison epistles of Paul are not filled with despair and discouragement. They are some of the most joyful, uplifting, and exciting letters of the New Testament. He may have been absent from those he longed to be with but he stayed connected either through letters, personal greetings, prayers, and the knowledge the family of God shared in the covenant of fellowship. He was absent but he was present with his brethren.
It is hard to see Paul locked away in a prison. He was full of energy and wanting to go all over the world if he was able. When he wrote a letter to Rome he spoke of his desire to go to Spain and preach the gospel. It seems the apostle never saw that desire come true but it speaks to the heart of a man who was hindered often in what he wanted to accomplish. He languished for more than two years in Caesarea while Felix, Festus, and Agrippa tried to decide what to do with him. His trip to Rome was fraught with the danger being stranded for three months on Malta. Arriving in Rome he would be imprisoned, released, and then imprisoned again before being executed by the sword. Throughout his life as a Christian, Paul never stopped working for the Lord regardless of where he was. He was absent from many brethren but he made the saints fell as if he was with them all the time.
The COVID-19 epidemic has changed the face of the body of Christ. It seems incredulous that assemblies have needed to be closed and for many places in the nation, reassembling will still be a slow and painful process. There is grave concern on how the absence will impact the spiritual lives of many members who may not bear up well during this present distress. Children are unable to be in Bible classes that for the large part gave them spiritual life. Elders are struggling to maintain the work of the local church in a spirit of unity. Going into homes to teach the gospel plan had been curtailed. These are serious times for the church. If one thing is needed it must be the spirit of Paul that while absent, saints find ways to be present with one another.
Many avenues can be used to keep connected with the brethren. Local church leadership should avail themselves of every means possible to find a way to be present with every member. Paul’s purpose in writing to Colosse was to express his love for their good example of living as they should and that their faith in Christ was strong. There can be little doubt when the letter was read among the brethren, it uplifted their spirits. Tychicus came with the letter to tell them about the work of Paul (in prison) and to fill their hearts with joy. The letter to Colosse was to be shared with the church at Laodicea and Paul’s letter he wrote to Laodicea was to be read to the church at Colosse. What was Paul doing? While Paul was absent he reached out to be present with his brethren.
This year will be marked by the impact of COVID-19 on every fabric of life. There are concerns about the impact of the economy and for good reasons. A greater concern is how this will impact the local congregation and its work. Without the fellowship of brethren one for another the church may be in trouble. God’s work must continue and it is accomplished through the diligent efforts of the whole body doing its own special work, helping the other parts grow so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. We may be absent but let us be present with one another.