For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Rom 1:11–12)
In his introduction to the church in Rome, Paul communicates with deep, familial emotion that he longs to be present with believers there. Among myriad reasons for his hopeful future visit, he desires to impart “some spiritual gift” to strengthen them.
What is this spiritual gift?
Some have argued it is preaching the gospel, the sign gifts (tongues, translation, prophecy), or the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6). The problem, of course, is Paul does not say this. One thing is clear: giving the gift is tied to Paul’s visit. He is the conveyer of the gift, and it cannot, therefore, be given by letter or proxy.
One passage that may help to shine light on this esoteric gift is 1 Thessalonians 2:1–16. Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his ministry among them. In verse 8, he tells the church they were “affectionately desirous of you,” translated differently, “they longed for them.” He goes on to say: “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thess. 2:8). In verse 17, Paul laments being “torn away” from the Thessalonians and tells them he has a “great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17).
This, I think, is the key to understanding what Paul means by “some spiritual gift” in Romans 1:11.
Paul Is the Gift
The reason Paul doesn’t specify the gift, and why it cannot be received apart from his personal visit, is because he himself is the gift. He longs to be with them in the flesh. He’s ambiguous as to the form of the spiritual gift because he doesn’t know what they need. As always, he’s willing to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22), but he needs to be present first to determine how best to serve them.
But why does embodied presence even matter? What’s the difference between a letter and a face-to-face conversation?
This is a terribly relevant question for us now. Everything feels backward. I had to chide my parents for going out, my wife wants me to go fishing, my kids wish they could go back to school, and I’m telling our church the best way to love one another right now is by physically distancing themselves.
This isn’t another hot take on COVID-19. This is a hopeful lamentation that the embodied bride of Christ will learn: while digital connection can serve as a great tool, it can never replace physical presence. Based on the fact that Paul feels unable to give the church in Rome this spiritual gift by letter or messenger, I think he, too, understands the importance of face-to-face interaction (2 John 12; 3 John 13–14).
While digital connection can serve as a great tool, it can never replace physical presence.
I’m grateful that I can call, text, email, FaceTime, or Zoom my small group, members, and accountability partners. It’s amazing that though we cannot meet in person, we can still conduct productive and necessary meetings of deacons or elders. I’m thankful for the ability to record a service.
But without a physical gathering, it’s just not the same.
I miss the technical difficulties: hissing mics, lagging slides, unpolished announcements. I miss the sight of the greeter extending her hand of hospitality to welcome a guest. I miss the out-of-tune voice behind me belting out that our God is a mighty fortress through the pain of loss. I miss the verbal responses that come at the most dramatic points in the sermon.
I miss hearing God’s Word read as we prepare our hearts, his Word prayed over us as we calm our souls, and his Word preached. I miss the audible, visible, and tangible ministry of the Word enacted for us in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Double-Down on Assembling
By all means, do not forsake the assembly in this time of isolation. Join in the praises of God’s people in whatever medium they’re available to you. But when this is all over, I’m encouraging us to double-down on physical presence.
Read the Gospels a little closer, and you’re bound to notice how often Jesus touched people. When socially insignificant children come to Jesus and his disciples try to dismiss them, “he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them” (Mark 10:16). When the unclean leper who was required to live in total isolation—deprived of all physical interaction—kneels before him, Jesus could’ve pronounced him healed from six feet away. Instead, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matt. 8:3).
As members of Christ’s body, we’re charged with physically manifesting his invisible attributes. We serve an incarnational God, and he has charged us with an incarnational mission. It’s why we’re called to greet each other with a holy kiss (2 Cor. 13:12), not a socially distant wave.
Physical presence is a spiritual gift. Let’s not take it for granted.