We gathered. It was online. Church was real, but different

This morning Eternity gives you a Psalm of encouragement, and reports on where we went to church online. We’d like to hear from you too. From modest online set-ups to massive internet builds, God’s people gathered.

A Psalm for a “city under siege” 

Psalm 31

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, Lord, my faithful God….

21 Praise be to the Lord,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
22 In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

23 Love the Lord, all his faithful people!
The Lord preserves those who are true to him,
but the proud he pays back in full.
24 Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the Lord.

John Sandeman, Eternity Editor, attended St James Anglican Croydon

“Jesus is in the boat with us” was the message at St James Croydon. Al Lukabyo, our senior minister, reflected on a storm in pitch darkness at night. But Jesus is in the boat. On a cushion. With us. (From Mark 4)

There were things that were true all the way along, but suddenly we become more aware of them.

“It’s a moment when the disciples come to a new understanding of Jesus in the context of a crisis.” Lukabyo said. “So it is not a bad fit.”

The story reveals “several things, that were already true, become enormously obvious: the mortality of the disciples, the fact that they didn’t have ultimate control of their circumstances, the power and authority of Jesus. And that is how all crises work. There were things that were true all the way along, but suddenly we become more aware of them.”

Reflecting on conversations with St James people, Lukabyo described “…people barred from seeing see elderly relatives in the precious last months of their lives, people soberly and rationally expecting their jobs to be made redundant.”

“We are in a storm. The waves are real. For people who follow Jesus we know what it is like to have him in the boat with us.”

But the story as Mark continues is “inverted – Jesus surrenders his power and authority,” and is put to death by anonymous soldiers. Ultmately, we see his power and trustworthines in his resurrection. We understand that his power and trustworthiness was true all along. And being more evident by being willing to accept mortality and powerlessness for our sake.

“You might prefer a different sort of Jesus,” Lukabyo said. “You might prefer the sort of Jesus that doesn’t allow distressing situations to enter your life. A Jesus that intercepts you as you are about to enter the boat ‘Don’t. A  storm is coming. It will be really bad.’

“But we have a far better Jesus – a Jesus who watches us get into the boat and gets into the boat with us.

“In the middle of our current situation … Jesus is in the boat with us.”

Thinking of how we should react …”We behave in ways that only make sense because he is in the boat. We don’t, for example, fight with our fellow passengers over life preservers. Or the beef mince. Or the toilet paper.

“Instead we are generous to those who are in need. We care for those who are anxious. We stay connected to our sisters and brothers in Christ. Because we need aeach other. We need each other’s reminders that Jesus is in us win the boat.”

Later at nighttime in my house  … “Remember there will be stressed people at work tomorrow,” my wife said to my daughter, a child care worker. “Don’t you remember what the sermon was about?” she responded. “Jesus is in the boat with us.”

Kylie Beach sat in Hillsong Church next to her connect group (via Zoom)

On Friday, Hillsong Church released a new online platform designed to host a range of online church, youth and kids’ services from all different countries across different online platforms – YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, etc – that is desktop and mobile friendly. All these services are available on demand but also run as a live services at the usual times to enable people to “gather” with their church community as per usual – albeit online.

Basically, what that means it is that Hillsongers from across the world can click on their usual local service and see their usual local pastor welcoming them to church, engage in worship and pray together for the congregation’s prayer requests. Then they are able to chat online with others who attend that service whilst they listen to the message.

Translations were also available for those who spoke Mandarin, Spanish and Auslan (for hearing impaired). And the service’s usual volunteer teams met together pre-service to pray for the service and responded to people who made a decision to the appeal given at the close of the meeting for those people who wanted to make a decision for Christ.

All in all, it felt like a usual hang out with my church family

Whilst joining our church’s 6pm service, our Connect Group – the group of people who make our big church feel like a small church to us – decided to “sit together in church” by adding our own online video meeting via Zoom.

Some of us sat on our couches with laptops, others propped up iphones in the kitchen as they prepared dinner. Together we worshipped, listened to the message by Robert Fergusson about the Diaspora, prayed and chatted occasionally throughout the message, directing our cameras to show our friends how cute our babies and fur-babies were.

And, when the service was over, we had a quick catch-up chat to hear about each other’s weeks, discussing a range of topics from dealing with self-isolation as a mum on maternity leave, to university and Bible colleges going online, to the challenge of finding tomato paste and which shops had not yet been cleaned out by the panicking hordes.

All in all, it felt like a usual hang out with my church family – just with less make-up, no shoes and lots of extra dogs!

Anne Lim attended St Andrew’s Cathedral Sydney

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” said Kanishka Raffel, Dean of St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, as he began its livestream service at 10.30am yesterday with an introduction in Sydney Square.

“Many people are feeling anxious or uncertain,” Raffel said on the Cathedral’s streamed service on YouTube.

“It’s not only a health challenge that confronts us, it’s a social and personal and economic challenge as well. People are worried if they will keep their jobs, keep their businesses open, if they’ll be able to look after elderly parents, if they’ll be able to hold it all together.  Where can we turn when government and business and nations seem to struggle to cope with the challenge? In the face of death, in the face of disease, in the face of uncertainty, in the face of fear and anxiety, there is only one to whom we can turn, one to whom we must turn – Jesus Christ.”

A handful of musicians and readers – observing social distancing – then conducted the 40-minute service to an empty cathedral. A musical highlight was the choir’s splendid rendition of the moving song Do Not Be Afraid by English sacred music composer Philip Stopford, which is based on four verses from the book of Isaiah.

The lyrics are:

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are mine.
When you walk through the waters,
I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
You are mine, O my child,
I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love.

Preaching on Mark Gospel’s account of the raising of Lazarus, Raffel gave two reasons why we must turn to Jesus in any challenge in life.

First, he weeps – he is able to comfort and sympathise. Second, he speaks – he is the mighty conqueror of death.

He noted that, surprisingly, Jesus wept at the tomb, even though he knew what he was going to do in raising Lazarus from the dead, because he is our companion in sorrow and grief.

“He is God become man … he walks in our shoes, he is the God who weeps with us,” he said.

Raffel suggested that Jesus became enraged at the tomb of his friend because he was indignant at death itself.

“We were not made for dying, but we will all die … Every death is a sneer in the face of God,” he said.

“Disease is an intruder; death is an intruder. It entered through the gate of our sins. Jesus is indignant because it was not meant to be so.”

Second, we must turn to Jesus because he speaks – he commands the dead man to come out – and he does!”

Raffel then pointed out that there was a direct line from this miracle at the tomb of Lazarus to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where Jesus was laid after his crucifixion.

“As he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus chooses to enter into the tomb himself.

“We sin, he dies. He dies, we live. He lives. Through faith in him we shall never die. He has power over death and power for life.”

Ben McEachen was in Village Church Annandale, virtually

Amy got emotional in the opening songs with the ongoing realisation that we won’t be physically gathering with our church family for a while

My wife Amy, our two young daughters and I sat on the couch and watched a properly spaced smattering of church friends via livestream. Our church – Village Church, Annandale – has been livestreaming for a while, so we are blessed as a church community to have all the gear, know-how and ability to flick the switch to virtual meetings. We feel for other churches and Christian gatherings which have to scramble more to meet the incredible needs of the times we now live in.

Amy got emotional in the opening songs with the ongoing realisation that we won’t be physically gathering with our church family for a while, as our daughters tried their best to not pester us about morning tea. I was surprised at how intimate and not weird the whole “loungeroom church” experience was. The girls were keen for Sunday School to kick off quickly which, um, their new “teachers” had poorly planned. As our pastor Dominic delivered a timely message from John 15 about our being branches needing to remain connected to the vine – Jesus – I went to the “classroom” (back room) to read the Bible with the girls. No songs, no craft, no creativity were demonstrated at our first home Sunday School. But no matter. The best bit was that we were still able to prioritise some family time with God and remain connected with our extended church family.

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