The not-so-local church

What do you think of when you hear the word “church”?

If you’re a regular member of a local congregation, that’s probably where your mind goes first: to “your church,” meaning both the place and the people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

We just shouldn’t stop there. Because there’s more to “church” than any local congregation, and more than meets the eye.

It might be good to remember that as the questions, discussions, and controversies continue about when church can get “back to normal,” without all the restrictions of social distancing. To be sure, it would be nice to be together again. But the church, as a work of God, is so much bigger and more resilient than any collection of congregations.

At the beginning of Acts 20, Luke returns to giving us Paul’s travel itinerary: he left Ephesus, went north and then west through Macedonia, and eventually ended up in Greece (Achaia, probably Corinth). Piecing this together with Paul’s letters, this trip probably had to do with the collection he’d been gathering from Gentile churches to aid the poor and suffering among the believers in Jerusalem. He’d already sent Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia ahead of him, and planned to finish the collection in Corinth and accompany the gift back to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21-22).

His plans, however, changed when he learned of a plot by the Jews against his life. He had intended to sail from Corinth to Syria (presumably to visit Antioch before heading south to Jerusalem with the gift). Rather than risk being waylaid at sea, he decided to go back the way he came, through Macedonia (Acts 20:3).

Luke lists Paul’s traveling companions on the overland journey:

He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea, by Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, by Gaius from Derbe, and by Timothy, as well as by Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia. They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas; but we sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we joined them in Troas, where we stayed for seven days. (Acts 20:4-6, NRSV)

Luke, ever the historian, likes to include such details when Paul is on the move. These men traveled together through Macedonia to Philippi, where they met up with Luke (note the shift to “us” and “we”). Sopater and the others then sailed on to Troas; Paul and Luke remained in Philippi until after Passover, then also sailed to Troas to meet up with the rest of the group.

But the names of the men may matter less than the names of the places from which they hailed.

Paul and his associates had planted churches in all of these cities, even the ones in which Paul had faced resistance and persecution. The church in Jerusalem was, if you will, the “mother ship,” with apostles like James and Peter at the helm. But through Paul and others, the gospel had gone out to distant lands and foreign cultures, indeed, to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Paul’s collection had a dual purpose. On the one hand, there was a pragmatic purpose: the poor in Jerusalem needed help, and the Gentile churches in far flung lands could provide it. On the other hand, however, and just as importantly, there was a symbolic purpose. The message was: Take heart! We are all in this together, Jews and Gentiles. God is at work, far and wide. You have brothers and sisters you’ve never met, in lands you’ve never visited — and this money is their offering of love. 

We may experience a variety of challenges in “our” churches, and these can be difficult and discouraging. But we need more than just answers to our questions: we need perspective.

Our congregations are part of the so-called “church universal” which extends across vast stretches of not only geography but time. We are, in other words, part of a movement of God that spans continents and centuries. We are heirs to Luke’s tale of the Acts of God through the apostles; we are characters in its continuing story.

Our struggles are important; there’s no need to deny or minimize them. At the same time, however, we should see these struggles for what they are. In the larger scheme of things, they are but “momentary afflictions” that help prepare us for a glorious eternity (2 Cor 4:16-18). One day, the faithful of every time and place will be presented to the Christ, the Lamb, as his bride (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 19:7-8). What a celebration that will be!

With a future like that, perhaps we can find it within ourselves, with God’s help, to deal with the problems of the present.