Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What the Church is Called to Do in These Times

A Virginia pastor has died from coronavirus after insisting on continuing with regular worship services at the congregation he served.

Here's the deal.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, following His baptism by John the Baptist when His deity and messiahship were affirmed by both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, He went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus faced three major temptations then. One of them involved the devil taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil told Jesus: "If you are the Son of God...throw yourself down..." (Matthew 4:6) Then, he tried to push Jesus into jumping by citing a passage of Old Testament Scripture, Psalm 91:11-12: "He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." That is a beautiful and reliable promise from the God first revealed to Israel and now to all the world in Jesus. Generations of believers have found God to be a fortress through the adversities of life. I know that I have.

But Jesus wasn't having any of the devil's mangling of the Bible. God's promises are not insurance against our willful foolishness.

So, Jesus told the devil, also citing God's Word: "It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7, with Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 6:16).

This pastor's death is tragic.

But it is also the result of a seemingly intelligent man's decision to engage in foolishness, to ignore the wisdom of those who know what they're talking about when it comes to this unique virus for which there is presently no cure.

This is a time that requires social distancing and for group meetings, including meetings of the Church, to not happen.

To forge ahead with public worship or church activities for the foreseeable future is pure foolishness, like texting while driving, not fastening one's seatbelt, or failing to wear a helmet while on a motorcycle. People can do these things. But if they're counting on God to protect them from their foolishness, they're putting God to the test.

I would argue that it's not just foolish, it's downright sinful to expose people to a lethal disease that we can prevent on the pretext of being faithful.

God the Father didn't count it a sin when His sinless Son refused to jump off the temple. And as much as I miss being together in worship with God's people, it's no sin for us to forgo doing so out of simple love for God and neighbor.

The magazine First Things presented an article by Thomas Joseph White this past week. Among other things, it searches through the history of the Roman Catholic Church for circumstances like the Plague we currently face. One paragraph particularly struck me:
The first thing to be said about the suspension of public masses is that it is not innovative nor is there any evidence that it stems from undue influence of a secular mentality. In fact, there is clear evidence that in medieval and modern Europe, as well as in the U.S., this form of response on the part of the Church is a very traditional and time-tested one. St. Charles Borromeo has been mentioned much in these discussions. He closed the churches of Milan due to a plague in 1576–77. During this time, he arranged for masses to be elebrated outside and at street intersections so that people could watch from their windows. There wasn’t any question of distributing communion since it would have been rather unusual in this period for most people to receive regularly at mass. This lasted about two years...
Mass was suspended in Milan because of a plague for TWO YEARS. Clearly, St. Charles Borromeo believed that if the Church truly loves God and loves others, gatherings of the faithful could not happen in diocesan churches until the danger had passed.

White goes on:
There are many other medieval and early modern examples that could be cited, but much more recently, in 1918, the churches in many parts of the United States closed for public worship during the Spanish Flu. In New Orleans (hardly a Protestant city) the city ordered that churches had to close, which did prompt some outcry from Catholic pastors who said that this had not been done during earlier epidemics. They were in error.
Fortunately, unlike past generations of Christians, we have two blessings that can help the Church to (1) not become the means by which coronavirus is spread; (2) continue our mission of proclaiming the Word and being and making disciples (and, I believe, in sharing the Sacraments).

We have modern medicine, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, and a track record by which medical professionals have produced vaccines that have destroyed diseases that, initially, were lethal.

We have the Internet. Via the Internet this week, my congregation will be able to worship and hear the Word of God (and share it with others), hold Catechism class for our middle schoolers, have our church council meeting, conduct Bible studies on John and 2 Peter, have gatherings of our small groups for prayer, the consideration of God's Word, and, in a phrase from one of our Lutheran tradition's confessional documents, "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints," and host a channel composed entirely of bedtime stories read by members of the congregation for our children.

In a few weeks, lay representatives and pastors of the 60+ congregations of our Ohio Mission Region will gather in convocation, hear our bishop, and conduct business online.

Wouldn't I rather that we were able to worship and meet together in person? Of course, I would.

But if we are serious about following Jesus and living in His love, then the Church must be willing not to meet until we no longer will be testing God by doing so, until Jesus' great commandment to love God and love neighbor gives us leave to resume more normal activities.

I also think that while our church buildings are closed, we are seeing Christians reaching out to others in loving ways. Every day, I hear of people in our congregation checking on each other, checking on neighbors, and praying together on the phone and by other means. The blessing in this cursed time is a Church--laity and clergy alike--growing in their faith and sharing Christ with others as I haven't seen in thirty-five-plus years as a pastor and over forty years as a Christian!

The family of this Virginia pastor is in my prayers. I pray that God will comfort them.

And I pray that all churches will refrain from worship and all group activities until, by the grace of God and in answer to the prayers of the faithful, this scourge is forever destroyed!

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