As a football fan, this summer promises to be special. With the European Championships pushed back to 2021 and watching Liverpool’s rather sorrowful title defence unravel, I am gearing up for Grealish, Foden, and Sterling lining up behind Harry Kane against the best in Europe. What could possibly beat a Covid-free full capacity Wembley Stadium hosting a semi-final? Could this be the year football truly does come home?
We all know what happens next; we qualify with flying colours, struggle through the group stage with a last gasp draw against Estonia, and then the inevitable disappointing quarter final shoot out loss to Poland. A summer of dreams, years in the making, ends in heartache, crushing disappointment, and the inevitable promise of future glory.
The hope of a restriction-free summer is obviously not just exciting news for football fans. Holiday companies have reported an increase in flights booked, we all long to hug our families until our hearts are full on long summer evenings under clear skies with the smell of bbqs lingering.
Of course, as Christians, more than any of these things, there is the hope of meeting as the Church. We long to be together, we long to sing, to take Communion as a united body, to open the Scriptures together and sit under the Word, to eat and pray and live as a family. June holds a trembling hope for everyone, a tantalisingly close promise of the end to one of the most difficult seasons many of us have faced.
June Is Not Our Ultimate Hope
Yet, while we long to see the end of restrictions what happens if the promise of June becomes a similar picture to England’s lacklustre quarter final exit? What do we do when friends without Jesus realise the end of restrictions might not solve all the problems and heartaches of a broken world?
What do we do as Christians when, after a few Sundays back, we don’t experience that keen joy we were hoping for? When singing our hearts out corporately for the first time in over a year is followed by that argument in the car on the way home?
Now please don’t misunderstand me, I can’t wait to be together with my church family and I am thrilled by the thought of football and bbqs too. But I know my own heart strays from looking at Jesus far too quickly and often looks for satisfaction and hope in all the wrong places. Fixing my eyes on June, on summer, on church, on songs, on religion as the founder and perfecter of faith will only ever lead to crushing disappointment. As Christians we must remember that June is not our ultimate hope, Jesus is. Meeting together again is not our ultimate hope, Jesus is. June is not the finishing line to the race, Jesus is.
There are two promises in Scripture I have found particularly moving and exciting in the last year:
Jesus has Promised to Build His Church (and Absolutely Nothing is Going to Stop Him)
Matthew 16; “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.
The emphasis here and throughout the New Testament is clear – Jesus promises to build His Church personally. Yes we know He used Peter mightily and the history of the Church has shown He uses all sorts of people to accomplish this aim. But this statement shows it is the power, majesty and authority of Jesus that accomplishes this ultimate goal of redemption. He emphasises this again at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me. Therefore go…".
Paul is careful to remind the church in Corinth of this: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants from who you believed as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth" (1 Corinthians 3 v 5-6).
God has Promised to Transform His People (and Absolutely Nothing is Going to Stop Him)
Romans 8 v 28-29: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers".
We often hear verse 28 in times of immense suffering, and indeed it is always a tremendous encouragement to know the Lord is at work for good. Yet we cannot read verse 28 without delving into what that good actually is as revealed in verse 29. That good is to transform us into the image of His Son, into the image of Jesus Himself. The good that we are promised is not an end to suffering, it’s not a summer holiday in June, it’s not even that everything will make sense when we’re back together. It’s the promise that God has redeemed us, and will make us continually more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face.
Jesus Is Our Ultimate Hope
Why have these promises been so helpful to me in lockdown? Why do I think it’s vital we remember them as we look forward to meeting again? Why do they give us hope and purpose and the ability to keep going in such strange times? Because Jesus has not stopped building His Church and our Father is still working in your life to make you more like Jesus until you see Him. Until you are beside Him in heaven these promises will always be the same.
If we are left disillusioned by such a long time away from the gathered church, if we are wondering why congregations are smaller than we hoped for – the answer is to remember Jesus’ promise. He is building His church and will continue to do so. It is our job to be faithful to His commission and to trust Him.
If we are left wondering why, after the first few Sundays back, we feel stale again, why those songs we have been longing for didn’t quite hit the heights of euphoria we were expecting – remember our hope is not in hymns but in Jesus. You are being made more like Him until you meet Him. He is our end goal, our ultimate hope.
Personally, I cannot wait to take Communion again with my church, and perhaps here we are reminded of our goal more than anywhere else: "for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes" (1 Corinthians 11 v 26).
Here, at the most precious and intimate worship we experience as a church body, is the reminder that this is all ‘until He comes’. Let’s be excited for the promise of a restriction-free summer full of fun, hugs and hopefully sun. Let’s be bursting to be back together with our brothers and sisters as a gathered church. But let’s set our minds on things that are above. Our worship, from singing to prayer to communion to proclamation, are all a pale reflection of the glory that will one day be revealed to us, they are not our ultimate goal, but point to the One who is.
James (Jimmy) Thomas