April 2020

April 2020

An Empty Easter?

While the coronavirus was certainly all over the news when I wrote my last Pastor’s Corner, I think it’s fair to say that none of us had any inkling of how different life would be for us a month later. I’m sure that each of you is struggling in your own way, but of course the side of the struggle that has loomed largest for me is the effect that the current pandemic, and the necessary steps being taken to mitigate it, has had on our churches. Among other things, it’s been forcing me to wrestle theologically with the meaning of the churchly gathering itself. Why do we gather as Christians? How strictly does God command it? What are we really missing by not being together on the Lord’s Day? These questions become even more urgent as we approach the high point of the Church Year: Easter Sunday, the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. In all likelihood, we’ll have to join in this celebration without the bodily gathering of ourselves together in our lovely church building.

As I’ve pondered all this, a few points have risen to the surface. First, we have good and godly reasons for not gathering as Christians right now. Second, we still miss our gatherings, and our Christian lives are not as they should be until our gatherings can resume. Third, even if we cannot gather for a time, we still have by faith, if not by sight, the fullness of God’s blessings to us in Christ Jesus.

We have good and godly reasons for not gathering as Christians right now. These extraordinary circumstances are very different from the sorts of reasons that generally keep nominal Christians from going to church. Usually, such Christians avoid church because they don’t realize that church is important and divinely commanded, and they have earthly priorities that are higher than gathering in Jesus’ name. But that’s not what’s going on now. What we’re facing is a situation in which, if we gather for church, we stand a very high risk of furthering the transmission of an illness that has the potential to kill many in our community and overwhelm our healthcare system, thus harming many others who are not directly affected by the illness. It is not out of selfishness, laziness, or fear that we are staying apart, but out of love for one another and for our community. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, but that love of God is manifested in our love for our neighbor as ourselves, which is also divinely commanded (Matthew 22:37–39). Much as Jesus healed on the Sabbath and took for granted that the most scrupulous keepers of the Sabbath would not hesitate to rescue a beast of burden on that day (take a look at Matthew 12:1–14), we omit the divinely commanded gathering of ourselves together in order to protect our neighbors from harm—most of whom do not yet believe in Jesus. If we indeed have to stay home for Easter this year, think of all the things you love about that day, and reflect on how you willingly sacrifice all those things you love for the sake of your vulnerable neighbors, in obedience to His command of love. Stay home with a good conscience.

Nevertheless, we still miss our gatherings, and we dare not cease to long for our gatherings to resume. It’s true that we can be Christians even when we can’t gather (more on that in my next point), but our gatherings remain one of the very most important things we can do on this earth. God commands us to gather (Hebrews 10:25). Jesus promises to be with us when we gather (Matthew 18:20). We encourage one another when we gather (Romans 1:11–12). We receive our Lord’s holy body and precious blood when we gather. We’re missing out on a lot! However necessary it may be for us not to gather right now, we do well to remember that this is not as it should be. This is not God’s intention for the Christian life. If we have to spend Easter apart, we’re not going to celebrate that fact or pretend it doesn’t matter. It does matter, deeply, and we long for our gatherings to resume.

Finally, despite all I just said, it remains true that we still have by faith, if not by sight, the fullness of God’s blessings to us in Christ Jesus. Our gatherings nourish our faith. Some things we do in our gatherings are actually what create our faith (the Word of God; Holy Baptism). Our gatherings are the natural outgrowth of our faith. But they are not our faith. Our faith is the Spirit-wrought conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through His death and resurrection our sins are forgiven and we are freely promised everlasting life in His name. That remains no matter what happens to our gatherings. If you have to spend Easter in social isolation this year, take extra time to meditate on the glorious resurrection of Jesus. Remember that He rose again for your justification (Romans 4:25). Pray to God in thanksgiving for those blessed truths. The faith that is strengthened by such meditation and prayer is the core of your Christian life.

If we had to choose between genuine saving faith on the one hand, and the churchly gathering on the other hand, we’d choose faith every time. Faith is what makes us children of God. It is better to believe without being in church than to be in church without believing. But won’t it be nice when we can have both again? God grant it swiftly for Jesus’ sake! And God have mercy on all who are affected by this pandemic. May His mercy and love uphold, comfort, and save them. A blessed Easter to you all, wherever we are! Amen.

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf