I rolled out of bed this morning and went to church. It was a frosty morning, and I had to scrape the windshield of the car before pulling out of the driveway. It is good to see where we are going.
The church building, of course, is empty. It’s always empty now. The worshippers are staying home. The government has commanded it. And the broader church has commanded it, too. It’s not safe for us to get together to worship. If we do, COVID-19 might spread. We love our neighbors by staying home. We can sacrifice at least this much.
But I’ve decided to be that fool who risks his life – and maybe yours, too – to come to church on the first day of the week. Is it actually “church” if you’re alone? Not really. But someone should be in the church building on Sunday mornings. I just couldn’t bear for it to sit empty, vacant of souls, on the Lord’s Day.
The doors, of course, were unlocked already. They always are unlocked – one of the genius things the Redstone church people decided to do years ago. So I turned on the lights. I even turned up the heat in the sanctuary. No one was coming to church. It would just be me. But the lights and the heat – somehow they give a place a little life, even if the room is empty.
The Sunday church gathering, boiled to its essence, is a place of life in an otherwise dying world. At least that’s how I see it. We gather on Sunday to proclaim to the world and to each other that death has been defeated.
Sunday church is where people who have been gifted with eternal life gather. They are people of different backgrounds and personalities and ethnicities, different levels of intelligence and wealth and natural talent. It doesn’t matter who they are. They are all the same in this way – they have eternal life through Christ. And they come to church on Sunday to build up one another even further in the eternal life they’ve been given. They show up in bodies that are perishable and slowly breaking down, and they can quietly note that perishability. And yet they rejoice anyway – because death has been defeated. For Christians, in the church on Sunday, the message is all about life in Christ.
And so I came to church, turned on the lights, and adjusted the thermostat. I can’t help it. Someone should be here.
And I read our Gospel of Matthew passage for the day. It starts like this, from chapter 12, “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.’ …”
I laughed out loud. It’s startling to laugh out loud in a big, empty room.
I laughed because I felt like they were saying it to me. “Look, your disciple is doing what is not lawful to do on Sunday.” (Of course, the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, but we Resurrection people set apart Sunday to honor the Jewish Messiah. That empty tomb, on the first day of the week, is important.)
The Pharisees had good reason to be concerned about Jesus and his disciples. God had commanded the Sabbath be kept holy. The Sabbath is a gift from God to humanity. There’s a lot that can be said about it. It’s a reminder to us that we exist in time. Our days are numbered. But we number them in a blessed creation, made by God. God set aside one day as holy. And we set it aside week after week acknowledging its holiness and honoring God. Our Sunday “sabbath” honors not only creation but the new creation that we have become in the risen Christ.
And the Pharisees knew the need to protect the Sabbath – to protect the Law. “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” God promised retribution against the nation for breaking his commandments. No one wants God’s retribution. Plus, the Pharisees liked their power – and Jesus in some way was a threat to that.
And I could hear that in my ears. You are NOT allowed to go to church. You are NOT allowed to gather for worship. It is NOT lawful right now. It’s not the government that I’m hearing that from (although the government is saying that). Rather, it’s our fellow Christians.
I suppose church is not “lawful” because it violates the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. That seems to be the prevailing message from the larger Christian community today. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors, and we can love them best by staying away from them and all other people, including other Christians. We want to stop COVID-19, “flatten the curve,” prevent an overburden at our hospitals. Besides, what would the world think of us if we gathered? And so church is not “lawful” right now on multiple counts. We should sacrifice church for the sake of our neighbors.
The larger Christian community is right. Probably. Maybe.
I can’t help but wonder whether we are loving our neighbors (and loving God, which is the great and first commandment) by canceling our worship services. I wonder, when we refuse to gather, whether we are living out the reality that death is nothing that must be feared. I wonder whether we are missing opportunities to witness to others about the toothlessness of death (thanks to Jesus!) when we do what the world does and hide indoors.
The church is fundamentally different than the world. I’m not sure we look fundamentally different right now. We actually may be allowing ourselves to be molded in the world’s image by silently affirming the world’s fears. And we may be missing a grand opportunity to witness about the power of Christ by hiding ourselves from the world and from each other. Satan has to love this.
What if someone contracted the coronavirus and a fearless Christian came and witnessed to him or her – and that person became a Christian, too? But where can you find a Christian these days? Normally, you could find them on Sunday. Not today.
I picture a faithful Christian being condemned, perhaps even by another Christian: “You are risking everyone’s health and safety – even lives – by going to church (or gathering with other Christians anywhere). You don’t care about our lives!” That Christian could respond by saying something like, “I do care about your life. I don’t fear death, and you don’t have to fear death either. The gift is for you, too. Let me tell you about Jesus.”
Maybe you’ve puzzled over these things yourself. I will continue to puzzle over them.
In any event, our church services still are canceled. We will continue to be lawful. It would be peculiar if we did anything else. (Of course, I’ll be here. I can’t help but be here.)