“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” Acts. 2:1
Wouldn’t that be nice? They were all together in one place. Of course, it couldn’t last. The church grew very rapidly beginning that very day of Pentecost, such that it soon became impossible for the Christians to gather together one place. The Christian Church’s ability to gather together in one place lasted less than one day. Not even an individual congregation like St. Paul’s can ever get everyone all together in one place at one time; we have different service times.
But there are different kinds of togetherness. Doing the same thing as other people is a form of togetherness with them even if we do them at different times and places. In more typical circumstances, we have multiple service times but not different services; whether people come to early or late service, they are “together” in what they did. When we use our hymnal liturgies in worship, we express a kind of togetherness with other congregations and with Christians in the Church Triumphant.
Any time everyone experiences the same thing, it brings a sense of togetherness, as in, “We’re all in this together,” even though we’re not all together in the same place. This pandemic has scattered us into our own homes, but in every respect except physical proximity it has brought the congregation together. People have been patient, helpful, appreciative of one another, caring, and in some ways really experienced the meaning of “church family” when they couldn’t be together with their church family.
Now things are beginning to open back up. The stay-at-home order we’ve endured and about which we have been “all in this together” begins a gradual process of loosening up for us this week. But before sharing the details that the pastors and Board of Deacons have planned out, I want to share a potential concern and ask for your help in nipping it in the bud. My concern is this: there is a chance that as we begin to gather together again, we’ll lose that sense of “we’re all in this together” that has been so beneficial. As we open the church back up (gradually), those who can come back to church sooner must remain “all in this together” with those vulnerable people who may not be able to safely come to church for many, many months. And those who continue to watch the services from afar must remain together with those who are attending worship in person and not resent the fact that some, but not all, will be able to partake of things that we’d all love to partake of.
When we’re all together in one place, togetherness is easy to feel. When we’re all enduring the same thing at the same time from separate places, togetherness is also easy to feel. As we make it possible for some but not all to come together, the truth of what brings us together—Christ—will remain the same for all of us, but the feeling of it might dissipate. We all need to go out of our way to focus on the unity we have in Christ and as members of the St. Paul’s family as move into the next phase of reopening.
This Sunday, May 10th, we will continue to do one, live-streamed service at 8:00 a.m. as we have the past several weeks. The difference will be that the church will be open for those who wish to attend in person. All social distancing guidelines will remain in place. We especially encourage anyone who has a particular vulnerability, or who lives with vulnerable people, to continue participating via livestream from home. Indiana’s guidelines strongly recommend that those 65 and over and anyone with any underlying health issues should participate in church remotely via livestream rather than in person during this phase. Everyone is free to make up their own minds about whether to attend, but we certainly encourage everyone to have patience and follow the published guidelines. We are not expecting a large crowd. Depending on how things go this week, we hope to go back to offering three services on May 17th with a very gradual increase in in-person attendance.
Please do not come until you are perfectly comfortable doing so and are willing to cheerfully follow all of the stringent protocols we will have in place for everyone’s safety. That means you’ll have to sit in a designated place, possibly not of your own choosing, wait for the ushers to release you afterward, and go straight back outside without any of the normal greeting and chatting with friends.
The service this Sunday will include communion (again, following all distancing guidelines, which will be explained at the service) for those attending in person, but the livestream will conclude with the Service of the Word as usual. We continue to offer communion by appointment to those who feel a desperate need. We will never deny communion to anyone who requests it. But we hope most people can wait until the gradual reopening makes it possible for them to attend worship or to receive one of the pastors into their home for in-home communion.
We remain all in this together. We remain united by Christ and united as congregational church family. The gradual transition means some people will be further down the road to the new normal than others. It is important that such people not forget about the unity they have with one another and, most importantly, with our mutual Lord Jesus Christ.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matt. 6:34
April showers bring May flowers. On the other hand, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” After yesterday was such a surprise nice day to be outside, I have to admit it was a bit depressing to wake up to gray skies and rain that looks to be settling in to stay all day. It is amazing how much the weather can affect moods, especially when there is really no place to go. If we had a choice about the weather, we’d have to weigh the benefits of May flowers tomorrow against having a nice day today.
Balancing the need to live for today while planning for tomorrow has always been a mysterious task. Just because we aren’t supposed to anxious about tomorrow doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to take tomorrow into account at all. Planning for tomorrow is part of today’s to-do list. The difference is that St. James tells us all our plans should contain the tacit caveat “God willing,” since we don’t know for sure what will happen. And Jesus says not to let tomorrow gnaw at you with worries and fears, but to plan for it, wait for it, and takes whatever it brings in full confidence that somehow it will be full of God’s grace. We who sow seeds do so in view of the harvest down the road. Today we focus on today’s work of plowing and planting.
Those of us in charge of planning the near future at St. Paul’s have been frustrated by our inability to know what the laws and health recommendations will be tomorrow. Indiana’s stay at home order expires tomorrow, but there has been no indication yet as to whether it will be extended, modified, eased, or cancelled. Obviously, such a situation makes it hard to answer any questions. Our Board of Deacons has been meeting weekly to consider the situation. We’re looking at how and when to being the process of opening things back up at St. Paul’s. When we do that, we will do it with all the proper safeguards in place to ensure that we’re being good neighbors to our members and our community while putting first things first in our earthly lives.
We’re all getting antsy to ease back into normal life. For now, though, answers to specific questions will have to wait for the May flowers. I do not know, for example, whether Confirmation will be able to happen on May 31, but I do know families need more than a moment’s notice to prepare for it the way they’d like. I’m not sure yet when we will be able to have a communion service in the sanctuary. Today we will continue receive God’ gifts with thanksgiving. Those gifts include the rain that waters the earth and makes it fruitful, the time we have to work, read, and pray, the church family we have at St. Paul’s, with whom we remain one in heart even as we inhabits different homes, and especially the Word, which bids us not to worry. Tomorrow will worry about itself.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Rom. 13:1-5
Of all people, Christians have good reason to know that the governing authorities can be good or bad, but remain the governing authorities either way. Jesus stood before Pilate and died unjustly. St. Paul appealed to Rome and died unjustly. Luther’s Catechism includes “…devout and faithful rules, good government…” in the list of things that constitute the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But, like other things in the list such as good weather and health, we pray for it, then take what God gives us gratefully whether it was what we were hoping for or not.
When to obey or disobey secular authorities has always been a matter of some debate among Christians. In Acts 5:29, the Apostles explain that they disobeyed the order not to preach the Gospel (even after having been arrested for it) because “We must obey God rather than men.” But we also have the 4th Commandment telling us not to anger the authorities but to obey and honor them. Throughout Christian history it hasn’t always been clear when to disobey or submit to unjust authorities, or even when the authorities were really being unjust. From the book of Acts to the Reformation to modern times, the relationship between church (God’s eternal, right hand kingdom) and the secular authority (the temporal kingdom of the left) has been a matter of strong debate and disagreement.
In these strange times, more and more controversy has surrounded state governors issuing edicts about the manner in which churches may or may not offer Holy Communion. This, to say the least, has sparked a fair amount of debate among clergy charged with administering the Sacrament. Who does the governor think he is to tell me how distribute spiritual, eternal things? That’s the kingdom of the right, and none of the governor’s business! On the other hand, who does that pastor think he is disobeying laws about physical, temporal things like eating and drinking? Public health and preventing the spread of contagion are clearly matters of the left hand kingdom and therefore the governor’s God-given task to oversee. If our spiritual practices put other citizens at physical risk, that clearly falls under the governor’s responsibility to the public.
The Sacrament attaches the spiritual and eternal Word and promise of Christ’s body and blood to the physical, worldly elements of bread and wine. That connection between the spiritual and the biological means that the left and right hand kingdoms can’t help but collide when a spiritual practice causes a bodily danger. The Church must obey God rather than men when it comes to shepherding souls with God’s Word and Sacraments. But the secular authority is still the authority when it comes to public policy concerning temporal lives and the spread of contagion. So we’re trying to be good Christians and good citizens. But again, it isn’t always self-evident how to do that. In this case, the dual spiritual/biological nature of the Sacrament itself brings together the two kingdoms that govern spiritual/biological Christian people who are citizens of an eternal kingdom and various earthly realms.
What can you do? First, be patient. I, frankly (and I know Pastor Stock shares this sentiment with me), have little patience for governors telling me how to administer Communion. I feel like telling them they better back off. But I also have to remember that they are trying to do their job of keeping people safe, that this pandemic is a new thing for them, too, and that they are doing their best. If anyone thinks being governor is an easy job or that they could do it better, I suspect such people are kidding themselves. We all need to put the best construction on things, endure difficulties, and not let disagreements spiral needlessly out of control.
Second, pray. If nothing else, Governors Holcomb and Pritzger and President Trump and the other authorities under them need and deserve our prayers. There are so many people and situations to pray about, but please include the leaders of both Church and State in your prayers. All of us are making it up as we go along in this unforeseen situation, and we’re all bound to make a few mistakes.
Third, make sure we keep our priorities in order. Presidents, governors, and health commissioners are legitimate but not ultimate authorities. We must, like every generation of Christians in the history of the Church, make clear that when it comes to pastoral practice and spiritual matters, we will gladly take into account but not be ruled by secular leaders. Spiritual matters are outside their authority and competence. We can accommodate much for the sake of good order, but what the congregation does is more essential, not less so, than any business or government.
Lastly and most importantly, be not afraid, but rejoice and be glad in this joyous Eastertide! Don’t worry about things outside your control, because your Lord is risen and nothing is outside His control. No temporal, worldly situation can matter more than that. Be assured that you will be served, by hook or by crook, with God’s Word and Sacraments. Maybe not in the manner or frequency you’d like, but still adequately. We will figure it out. We are in good hands.
Easter means there is nothing this world can do to you. You are a citizen of an eternal kingdom. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), because it is in doing those things that you most meaningfully shout to the world, “He is risen indeed!”
When [Jesus] had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed His place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him. . If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” John 13:12-17
Today as we celebrate Maundy Thursday we focus on how Holy Communion connects us to the death and resurrection of Christ. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday Easter Vigil are usually designed to be one long service focusing on the whole of Salvation History as fulfilled by Jesus and alive in us via the Word and Sacraments.
As promised yesterday, today’s service focuses on preparation for Holy Communion as we wait for when we can receive it again. So this update will focus on a separate aspect of Maundy Thursday. You might want to read the Gospel of John, chapters 13-18 today. Amazingly, that’s 6 chapters, about a third of the whole Gospel of John, all recording the events of Maundy Thursday. Instituting Holy Communion was of primes importance, but certainly not the only amazing thing Jesus did on that night. It was Maundy Thursday when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
As Teacher, He taught by example. He modeled for His disciples (same root as discipline—the disciple is supposed to mold himself to the master via imitation). As Lord, He demonstrated what it means to rule. It means to serve. Jesus’ followers, including us, cannot claim that any service to anyone is beneath us. Otherwise we’re saying that the servants are greater than the Master.
What it means to learn from Jesus and to have Him as our Lord is easy to forget. We talk about being baptized into His death and resurrection. We preach Christ crucified and risen. We receive the fruit of His sacrifice in Holy Communion. But we ought always remember that we’re baptized into a foot-washing Christ. We preach a Christ who gave Himself up and lived and died for others. We are given life by Him in order follow Him. He promises blessings to those who serve others as He served—in humility, meekness, and self-sacrifice.
We still have opportunities during this national time-out to think of ways of serving other. While such acts of service cannot replace the forgiveness and grace we receive in the Word and Sacraments, they can still be a source of tremendous blessing from the Lord this Maundy Thursday.
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus Christ, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. I Cor. 11:23-24
St. Paul was not in the upper room where the Last Supper took place. He wasn’t a Christian at all until much later. Yet he still received the gift and promise of Christ Himself, from Christ Himself, with a commission to pass it on. That gift and promise is Holy Communion.
As a church named after St. Paul, it makes sense that we have been focusing lately on passing on what we received. The whole Rededicated Campaign to the next generation has been our effort to say to people forty years from now, “What we received from the Lord through St. Paul and across all these generations, we also delivered to you.” It also makes perfect sense that regular Communion is at the heart of what we’re all about. But it also makes sense that we might not always receive that gift in the normal way at the normal time. After all, St. Paul didn’t.
The times we live in—call them odd, terrible, confusing, unique, frustrating, interesting, whatever they might be in your mind—have interrupted the normal flow of things here for all of us. The Board of Deacons met last night (via Zoom) to discuss how best to proceed as a congregation in terms of offering communion during Holy Week and Easter. Pastor Stock and I have looked at what other congregations and church bodies have done, and indeed, there is a wide array of approaches out there, with many pros and cons. We looked at all of them and at the specifics of our own context.
Our goal is to keep everyone safe, keep Christ at the center of our personal and congregational life, keep our confidence in the efficacy of the Sacrament absolute, and keep everyone in the congregation connected to Christ. In order to balance all of those competing goals, we have decided to offer Services of the Word online until such time as we can come together again as a congregation for Word and Sacrament. (We will not deny the Sacrament to anyone who asks out of desperation due to a crisis or emergency situation, but that would be on a case by case basis.)
Maundy Thursday without Communion? It seems like if there was ever a time to focus on the Sacrament, it would be then. And Communion will still be the focus, but as a matter of preparation. We have been doing a Lenten series about eyes and seeing, and Maundy Thursday’s theme is More Than Meets the Eye. The eyes of the world simply see a ritual with some bread and wine. Only the eyes of faith see the truth of the matter, that in, with, and under that little ritual with bread and wine is Christ giving Himself for the life of the world and His Church being nurtured in faith.
Tomorrow’s service, therefore, will focus on the importance of those eyes of faith. We will not waste this unexpected pause in the normal flow of services. We will embrace it, using the “down time” to focus on preparation. Normally I do that on the Wednesday of Holy Week with all the confirmands and their families in preparation for their first Communion. We use Christian Questions and their Answers from Luther’s Catechism.
Tomorrow’s sermon will take the confirmands and the whole congregation through that preparation as we focus on Communion while receiving the gift of Christ another way, building up the eyes of faith. Unless you call with an emergency, the next time you take Communion will be some weeks from now; hopefully not many, but we cannot know quite yet. If we use this time wisely, then the day we do come together again for worship will combine the best aspects of two things that otherwise are nearly impossible to combine-- first and familiar. It will be much anticipated and well prepared for, like a confirmand’s first Communion.
But for most of us it will also comfort us with the familiarity that only years of faithful repetition brings. But most importantly of all, whatever it feels like, it will be Christ for you, the same Christ who is with you even now, and who invites you to pick up a cross and follow Him. That cross-bearing includes, for the time being, the cross of not receiving every blessing He has for you (at least not yet). But in spiritual yearning and with the gifts He does give us, we view the events of Holy Week, the Sacrament, St. Paul’s, your life, this day, and even the disruption of this pandemic through the eyes of faith.
The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. Ex. 12:13
As we enter Holy Week it is good to go back and read the account of the first Passover, when God announced He would kill of the firstborn son of every household in Egypt, except those households that sacrificed a lamb died in the place of the firstborn son. God told Moses, and through him all Israel, that blood of that lamb would take the place of the blood of the firstborn son. Thus, death passed over the households of those who trusted in God’s Word and promise.
The blood on the doorposts and lintel was the effective sign. It comforted the people because it held God to His promise. Notice the verse above says it is a sign “for you,” but continues “when I [God] see the blood…” It is there for God to see and be bound to his gracious promises.
Everything comes together, the meaning, the gift, and the effectiveness of the gift, in that blood.
Salvation wasn’t just a matter of getting blood on the doorpost, though. The blood was the main, effective thing, of course, but it did not stand alone as some magically significant thing apart from the rest of the Passover ceremony. The whole Passover preparation played a crucial role in making that blood what it was. You couldn’t just skip all that other stuff and put some blood on your doorpost and call that a covenant from God.
Sometimes in confirmation class we consider goofy questions, like “What if the dog licks the blood off one of the doorposts? Will I still be safe tonight? What if our lamb had a defect we didn’t see? What if our doorpost is already red and blood doesn’t show up?” There are a million such potential questions. But if the promise is to be a sign for the household, everything has to be done, to the degree it is possible, according to God’s institution, with trust that God is faithful. The selection of the lamb, the preparation of the house, the slaughter at twilight, etc. all matter to the purpose of the blood comforting the anxious heart.
We know that Passover, along with all the OT rituals, was “a shadow of the things that were to come; the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col. 2:17) In the first Holy Week, Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, which had been going on annually since that first Exodus about 1,500 years prior. That what the “Last Supper” in the upper room was all about. The rich meaning of the firstborn son, the sacrifice, substitutionary atonement, salvation from death, and the final revelation how Jesus would fulfill his role as “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”-- it all comes together when Jesus, at the Passover meal, identifies Himself as the lamb of the new covenant, instituting Holy Communion. He gives Himself to His followers in His last will and testament before He dies to put that will into effect the next day.
Every Communion service, therefore, is, among other things, the fulfillment of the Passover ceremony. The main thing, the effective thing, is the body and blood of Christ given to us in, with, and under the bread and wine. That is the crucial part, the focal point. But like the Passover, the focal point isn’t the entirety, it is part of a larger ceremony. God gives us this new covenant of Christ’s body and blood with physical elements (bread and wine), His Word of promise (the words of institution), someone to speak for Christ (the celebrant) and at least one other person (the congregation) to eat and drink. The whole ritual goes together as one thing.
Normally, this is not a problem at all. Every Divine Service includes the proclamation of Christ in the Scriptures and preaching as fulfillment of the Law, and the distribution of the fruit of His sacrifice according to His institution of Communion. But what if, like now, we can’t get together? How can we have communion? If we start down the road of asking what “works” we end up in goofy places like our experimental classroom discussions of Passover.
“What if the pastor just consecrated the elements and mailed them to the parishioners? What if he said the Words of Institution online while I have bread and wine in front of my computer screen at home? What if I just ask God privately in prayer to give me Christ’s body and blood via whatever food I have?” The short answer is that anything that separates the eating and drinking from the consecration undermines the purpose of the covenant. Instead of building up faith, it invites uncertainty. Even when we take communion to the homebound, we have the bread and wine, the consecration, the celebrant, and the congregation of one or two eating and drinking all together.
We all desire to receive communion, especially in Holy Week. Not having our usual services is especially painful. I realize churches are doing all kinds of things, some a bit “out there” to try to offer communion during a shelter-in-place order. I have called a special meeting of the deacons for tomorrow evening (via Zoom) to discuss how we will be proceeding in the coming weeks concerning Holy Communion. Wednesday’s email update should fill you in.
In the meantime, please know that your yearning for communion is a healthy spiritual sign, that your salvation does not depend upon receiving it at any particular time, and that God does not limit Himself to only that one way of nurturing your faith. Please also know that offering communion to those desiring it is of utmost importance to us. We will do our very best to find faithful ways to feed the flock with all of God’s gifts no matter the circumstance. As the Passover pointed to Christ, Holy Week reminds us we have a God who died that we might live. He isn’t going to forget about you or neglect you. He paid too much for you for that. That Good News permeates this holiest of weeks.
Thanks to those who participated in the Bible studies via Zoom. My apologies to those who tried to log in but were unable; the error was on my end, not yours. But I eventually got it squared away, and we had a good discussion. It should be much smoother going forward. The pandemic is making this rapidly aging dog learn new tricks when it comes to pastoral practice and use of technology.
Lenten greetings to the St. Paul’s family,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We should thank God for the technology that allows us to stay connected somewhat during a time a separation. As we temporarily try to worship together without being together “in the flesh”, so to speak, we rejoice at the gift of electronic communication. But I want to highlight the importance of the physical and some of the pitfalls of online worship, so that we all get the most out of the opportunity to worship remotely without falling into any spiritual snare.
Most obviously, watching worship is not the same thing as worshiping. Please don’t tune in to our services the same way you would to a tv show. This will be harder than it seems. Speak the words of the creed, don’t just listen to them. Pray, don’t just listen to the prayers. Sing the hymns and liturgical parts aloud, don’t just have them in the background like a radio. (Again, make sure you have a hymnal in your home—you can check one out from church.) It will seem strange doing this out loud in your house, especially with other people sitting on the couch or across the room. But so be it. Unlike watching a movie, in worship, you are a participant, not an observer. In fact, making a point of this will help us all even when we can be back in church, because we all have a tendency to lapse back into the role of observer even when we’re sitting in the pews.
More importantly, doing things remotely can give us the mistaken impression that the Church is an abstraction, a mere idea, rather than a concrete reality. If we mistakenly believe that worshiping remotely is the same thing, basically, as worshiping in person, then we’re missing out on one of the great mysteries and gifts of Christianity. In the Church, you, that is, your flesh and blood, are being incorporated (note the root of that word!) into the Body of Christ and therefore God.
Consider God for a moment. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess, “I believe that God has made me…” How? Did he just imagine an idea of you? No. He made you a flesh and blood thing, and used physical means. Spoiler alert for any young children who may be reading this, but there was icky, physical contact and biology involved in God’s work. Babies are not abstractions, nor are they begotten in the abstract. Yet we confess that the making of every human being is/was a holy act of the Creator with eternal, spiritual ramifications.
And consider Jesus. He came in the flesh. That is of crucial (literally) importance for the faith. There is no Jesus apart from flesh and blood. God became a Man. We don’t put our trust in the abstract idea of God being nice and loving and merciful. We put our faith in the concrete, fleshly manifestation of the Truth. Countless ancient heretics have tried to get around the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, but to no avail. There is no Christianity or Church without it.
So far so good. But now consider the Holy Spirit. How does He work to create faith and give us new life? In purely spiritual ways unconnected to the flesh? No! He works through means. One of those means, the spoken or written Word, can be communicated remotely via electronic media to flesh and blood eyes and ears. But that is not the extent of the Spirit’s activity. C.S. Lewis, in his famous book Mere Christianity expressed the gist of the idea this way:
“And let me be clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean something simply mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps this explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like Baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution* [*meaning gradual transformation, not the theory of origins]—a biological or super-biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not. He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
This is why we treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul says any individual Christian’s sexual immorality is a sin against the whole Body of believers. This is why we put so much emphasis in funerals on the resurrection of the body, not just souls going to heaven. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Life Together book we went through last fall, said Christians in isolation quite rightly long for the physical presence of other Christians, who bring with them in their person the presence of Christ.
This is one reason the writer to the Hebrews instructed Christians not to stop meeting together. This is a big part of the problem with Christians trying to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is the main reason we bring communion to the homebound even though they can worship regularly via some electronic format. Christians have long struggled to understand how Christ can offer us His body and blood in the Sacrament, but it has always been obvious that the real presence of our own body and blood is a prerequisite for receiving that spiritual gift.
So, again, we give thanks for the opportunity to be fed with a Service of the Word via electronic media. It is a huge blessing, especially on a temporary basis in a time of necessity. But it can never be the ideal, or even an adequate solution in the long term. Our efforts will remain a work in progress. Every way of doing this – Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, etc.—has its pros and cons. There are copyright issues, sound quality issues, access issues (e.g. not everyone uses Facebook), etc. So please be patient as we find our way, and please help one another participate. And really participate, don’t just watch.
We look forward to the day when we can gather as God’s family in this place and receive all the gifts He has for us. Until then, let us receive the Word gratefully and resolve to be Christ to our neighbor however God enables us.
March 24, 2020
Dear St. Paul's Family,
In consultation with the Board of Deacons and Pastor Stock, I have decided to suspend our worship services, both Wednesday and Sunday, for at least the next two weeks. Instead, we will make services available via our website, with instructions for accessing them to follow in the coming days. We will then re-evaluate, and hopefully be able to have at least Holy Week and Easter services.
Please know we do not make this change lightly, but we do make it voluntarily. No secular law can prevent us from offering Word and Sacrament ministry. But in weighing the many pros and cons of any course of action and what ultimately has the best chance of keeping the flock fed and unified without distraction, I think this is our best option for the time being. I’m sorry to those who disagree, and reiterate that the pastors will bring communion to people in this time by request. We will be constantly re-assessing as events unfold.
We will continue to provide daily updates, links to other services and Bible study resources, and will work toward doing as much preaching and teaching as we can via the website. As usual, please help those who do not have access to the website or the daily emails. In some cases, helping them might mean printing off copies and delivering them to your friends’ mailboxes. We want our church family staying connected. One silver lining in all this disruption is that it will ensure that we have good contact information.
Considering the possibility of going even a short period without gathering for worship is a difficult prospect for Christians. I offer the following thoughts on communion and separation in the hope that it helps us all reflect on what is truly important.
C.S. Lewis wrote a science fiction story called The Great Divorce, which opens in a place where everyone lives in their dream house but everyone also lives alone, and further and further apart, so as not to have their dream bothered or interrupted by someone else’s. “I won’t be a bit player in someone else’s dream; they must be bit players in my dream.” So everyone is the center of their own little universe, all alone. That place turns out to be hell. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously expressed this approach to life when he said, “Hell is other people.” Other people impose on us. Our interactions with them must be voluntary, and cut off whenever they cease to be enjoyable.
Christians know better than that. We don’t live for ourselves, or at least we aren’t supposed to. But sometimes our lifestyles conform to the world’s ways without our even realizing it. Sometimes the patterns of our lives reflect the world’s assumptions and priorities more than is befitting followers of Christ. It is then that we need our loving Father’s correction.
Sometimes God’s toughest discipline involves letting people have what they want. He “gives us over” to our rebellious ways, forsaking the artificial punishments that might have corrected us, and instead lets us see what life is like when our choices go unchecked. Thus, in the Old Testament, God warned the people about wanting a king, but the people demanded one anyway. And God, knowing they would regret it, let the people have a king, and even let them choose make the foolish choice of King Saul. And they did regret it. But God didn’t give up on them. Ultimately, He incorporated even their foolishness and rebellion into His gracious plan by making Jesus, descended from King David, the final King of Kings.
We know the phrase “Have it your way” as a promise, which might be fine when applied strictly to hamburgers. The problem is that we don’t apply it strictly to hamburgers. We demand that the same concept be applied to everything. But in the mouth of God, “Have it your way,” means harsh discipline is coming. He knows that His way, not our fallen, sinful way, is the only way that gives us life and true freedom. The book of Proverbs constantly extols the benefits of a well- timed rebuke and wise correction, and constantly warns that folly ends up being its own punishment in the end.
Even prior to this outbreak, our society has long been walking very deliberately toward realizing Lewis’s vision of hell, mistaking it for heaven. It isn’t just the physical things, like smaller and smaller families in bigger and bigger houses, further and further apart, as though hell were other people. It’s also our private schedules and demand for more and more options. Not even 100 channels is enough. Isolation and loneliness have become among the chief problems facing people who get what they want. Not wanting to be bound by anything or imposed upon, we have for many generations been relaxing, chaffing at, and cutting all the ties that bind, seeing them as curses rather than blessings. And then we find ourselves adrift.
Take meals, for example. They are necessary for nourishment, of course, but also have always been about fellowship. To break bread together was a meaningful act, not just a matter of convenience. Two years ago when we did the 10 Commandments of Table Meals during Lent, we talked about the recent invention of drive-through meals to illustrate this general drive toward isolation and away from fellowship. It is not a good direction, but we follow the same path in some many areas of life.
We’ve farmed out to institutions the rearing of the young, care for the elderly, helping the poor, and anything else that might be considered a burden on our individualistic lifestyles. We’ve refused to be formed by the Church, but have insisted instead that the church conform to our schedules and tastes. We barely even know our neighbors anymore, living as we do in our cars and behind our garages, and if we love them at all, we do so purely in the abstract by supporting whatever faceless program is supposed to be taking care of them, not in any concrete action that makes demands on our time. Sad.
This quarantine just gives us more of what we’ve demanding. The restaurants are all drive-through, no sit down. All home-theater, no real theater. All virtual classroom, no real classroom. And now, for a time, even church must follow suit. We’ve struggled mightily never to be inconvenienced, to make sure we can do whatever we want without having to leave our own bedroom. And now we see it all realized and think, “Wait a minute; where is the community, the human contact, the sense the belonging? Have we simply been preparing a place for ourselves in our own, isolated hell where everything revolves around our own convenience and nobody else ever comes?”
Perhaps this time of forced separation can prove to be a cautionary tale. God might be using this to show us the folly of the road we’ve been walking, perhaps as individuals but certainly as a society for a long time by giving us a glimpse of where that path leads. Maybe being forced not to visit with our neighbors will make us question why we always avoided visiting with our neighbor in the first place. Maybe all the days we sat dreaming of the chance just to stay in bed and watch Netflix were not visions of heaven after all.
Jesus promised that He was going to prepare a place for us. He never promises to let us go and prepare a place for ourselves in the Father’s house. It will be perfect, but only because He prepared it for us rather than letting us do it the way we really want. And it will be in the Father’s house, a place of community, of love and togetherness, of singing together, of a common table and feasting. Pray that this unexpected and difficult time of dealing with separation will make us yearn ever more strongly for the gift of weekly worship together in communion with heaven and all the Saints.
Pray that it opens our eyes to any wrong roads our lives might have been taking and gives us the chance to change course. May we emerge from this temporary crisis with renewed faith and an even stronger congregation due to God’s gracious guidance and discipline. In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana