How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?
Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.
America’s list is rather long these days.
Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.
I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.
Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.
For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.
Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).
At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).
For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.
One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.
The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”
It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.
If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.
I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.
Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.
The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.
But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.
Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.
Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.
And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.
In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.
He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.
A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.
We heard God’s opinion.
Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.
That’s ironically fitting.
In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.
And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.
As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.
It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.
In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.
But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?
It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)
All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.
I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.
This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”
Enjoy the break? Go fishing?
Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.
Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.
On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.
I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.
I’m talking about Death.
We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.
Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:
It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”
And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”
All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).
And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.
“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).
Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.
It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”
These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.
Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!
But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).
No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.
Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.
What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.
Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.