“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—“ Col. 4:3
Our Thursday Bible study meeting via Zoom has been going through the book of Hebrews. This morning the topic included the natural inclination we all have to drift away from the Church and from faith, and how we all need the mutual consolation and exhortation of the family of God. We concluded by talking about opportunities for evangelism to a society that has been drifting away for some time. St. Paul’s words from Colossians strike an interesting note. Our namesake prays for an open door for the Word, for the proclamation of the mystery of Christ.
Now, if I were prison, I think I would pray for an open door for me. The whole point of a prison is that the doors are closed to the prisoner inside. But St. Paul in prison urges everyone to pray for open doors for the Word of God to get into people’s hearts. His own imprisonment isn’t the issue. It is his inability to preach and teach in prison that concerns him, though he hopes that even in prison he will find opportunity. We learn elsewhere in his letters that his imprisonment provided an opportunity to share Christ with the guards, just like his shipwreck in Acts provided an opportunity to introduce sailors and merchants to his God and Savior.
We aren’t in prison, but it can feel like it during this pandemic. We certainly are not able to preach and teach the way we had been before. We need everyone praying for God to open doors for the Word.
One answer to such a prayer came in the mail this morning. I think you’ll find it encouraging, and evidence that what we think of as setback and problems, like Paul’s imprisonment, do not obstruct God’s plan. We got a very nice letter and contribution from someone who is not a member of St. Paul’s and whose church has not been able to offer services. This person has been participating with us via our livestream every week and wrote to express appreciation for all our church has been doing to proclaim the Word and make it available to families like theirs during the pandemic. Of course, before the pandemic we weren’t livestreaming the services at all. That was something we did because we couldn’t meet in person. But God had other ideas. The pandemic rendered us a church building with closed doors, but through it, God opened other doors. You get the impression that God isn’t bothered by worldly limitations.
Today’s was not the only such note we’ve received. Member and non-members have written to express great appreciation for what St. Paul’s is doing. But the timeliness of the letter that came morning was striking, coming as it did right after we had been discussing the drifting away of the society and the limitations and opportunities for building people up in faith.
Keep praying for God to open doors at St. Paul’s-- the literal, physical doors to the sanctuary and the opportunities to get the Word into people’s hearts in other ways. Keep your own doors open to such things as well, as we all exhort one another to remain steadfast in faith no matter what trials and temptations or inclinations to drift away may beset.
Your God and His love for you will not be thwarted!
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. Eccl. 1:8
Sigh. A gray, snowy morning, which would be such a welcome, exciting thing on, say, the day after Thanksgiving or the Friday before Christmas, can be just wearisome in the second half of April. It seems like this winter has been all length and no depth. We had snow for Halloween and All Saints’ Day, and now again almost six months later, but not very much in between, when people might have enjoyed it with Christmas lights or gone sledding. I’ve always been impatient with uncooperative, irksome weather. It seems like everything would go such so much better if I were in charge of such things. Sigh.
Sometimes the little things get us down more than the big things. Have you ever noticed that the moment when people finally get angry or start crying or give up is usually when some minor setback happens? In a movie, the heroin will endure unimaginable suffering and loss with stoic resolve, but start crying when her grocery bag breaks and everything falls out and makes a mess. Or the guy will get fired and find out his wife is leaving him and just grit his teeth, but then go nuts on the fast food employee that got his order wrong. It isn’t that the little setbacks add so much to the big burdens we carry. It is that such minor irritations added to all the big things make it seem like the universe is just taunting you.
So it is for everyone who is going through this pandemic. Some people are afraid for their lives. Others aren’t afraid at all, and wondering why they had to lose their jobs. Some are losing hope. Others are losing patience. People are enduring major, major problems and disruptions, compared to which crazy weather, or a broken dishwasher, or the internet going out in the middle of an online assignment, seem petty and paltry. But when added to all the big burdens, it is those little thing that might drive us anger or tears.
Today the Confirmation class is finding out that their big day is being rescheduled and remains tentative. Today someone is trying to celebrate a birthday without any friends able to come over. Today someone is cancelling the family reunion they’ve been planning for years. It seems a tad crass to compare such things to the major suffering people are enduring out there. But such things are still crosses to bear, even if they aren’t so dramatic. Yours is the only life you can live. Your happiness and sadness matter as much as anyone’s.
Nothing is too little or too big to pray about. Pray for an end to the Coronavirus. Pray also for a good spelling test or for a good meal together with the family. If it matters to you, it matters to God. He is your loving Father. Never be ashamed to take your little burdens as well as you big burdens to the foot of the cross and lay them down, or lift them up to the throne of grace in prayer. God won’t necessarily give you your way, but He will remind you that what you are enduring, be it little or big, is not the universe taunting you, nor you being forgotten about. He knows your hopes and disappointments, and He loves you more than you know.
All things are wearisome? On their own, maybe. But not in the context of redemption and the victory of Christ. Today is a gift. It is an opportunity. Your Lord is with you even as this frustration grows and the shutdown drags on. Take everything, no matter the size of it, to the Lord in prayer. He would give anything—He did give everything—to have that relationship with you! Secure in that knowledge, you can handle anything with His help, even another day like this.
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!”
March 31, 2020
The ongoing pandemic brings three things together that might not have much in common as topics-- new technology, prayer, and every Christian’s sense of being a stranger in a strange land. I want to share with you some of the good things going on here at church today that show how those three things interrelate.
First, new technology. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on our recorded church services, along with many good suggestions on how to improve them. Today we recorded a school chapel service for tomorrow morning. We used a new camera and recording system that looks extremely promising. Tomorrow morning we’ll be recording the Lenten service, and we will know how to do it with better sound and more versatile and interesting viewing.
For me, this was encouraging. I found it amazing how much potential this new system offers in terms of remote services and teaching. As I’ve aged, I’ve become less and less inclined to keep up with all the new technological innovations; we all tend to get comfortable in a groove with what is familiar. But this time of separation forced us to look at new ways of doing things, and some of those improvements will outlast the virus and the time of separation. Being forced to learn what I wouldn’t be otherwise inclined to learn has been humbling, to be sure, but also exciting. It takes away some of the helpless feeling we might get when it seems like the world is passing us by.
Which brings me to the topic of prayer. Technology certainly does amaze, but it has its limits. While it is a tempting mistake to just let the world of technological innovation pass you by, it is an even bigger temptation, and even more disastrous mistake, to look to technology and science for answers to the human condition in the long term. This is where prayer comes in. It became fashionable in recent years for people in the media to mock prayer as a do-nothing approach to our problems. That mockery, I’ve noticed, is gone. When a disaster strikes, people realize our essential helplessness. Yes, we look to scientists and technology for vaccines and cures for this virus. But dealing with the problem forces everyone to realize that there is no vaccine or cure for death itself.
Too often even Christians fall into the habit of thinking of prayer as a last resort, something to do when all else fails. It is really the first course of action given to us. I suspect and hope that this time of isolation has cause many members of St. Paul’s to refocus on prayer even as we focus more on technology. Whether we had to be forced into it or not, the fact remains that a Christian congregation filled with people active in prayer is a tremendously good and powerful thing. And I think we are one such congregation now even more than we were before this all hit. If nothing else, just that improvement can illustrate how God brings good out of evil.
The feeling of helplessness that inspires even the disinclined to learn new technology, and drives even those who don’t normally pray much to a healthier, more active prayer life, also strengthens every Christian’s yearning for home. No one will keep up with rapid changes of the world indefinitely. Everyone will at some point be able to sing “change and decay in all around I see.” And with an active prayer life, they can then sing the next line with confidence—“O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”
You are a pilgrim in this world. The pageantry of history—pandemics, terror attacks, recessions, wars, elections, dangers and victories—continues to unfold in all of lives, no matter when we’re born and die. But we know this world and the whole story of it as centered in Christ and as something we pass through on our way to an eternal city. So we serve the Lord today, we take up our cross, but we always do so secure in the knowledge nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana