“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord’”
The past few months have been quite challenging, to say the least. To many, they’ve been scary. We’ve experienced earthquakes, aftershocks, and tremors. We’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a lot of fear. We’ve faced mandated restrictions, drastically limiting our activities. Many businesses closed temporarily, others significantly altering how they conduct business to stay open. Health departments placed limits on how many people can gather together at one time. The limit of 10 people posed a tremendous challenge to many establishments, especially to churches. Most congregations average more than 10 worshipers per service, posing a problem for the Bride of Christ — namely, how best to take care of her members during the pandemic.
Christians the world over, clergy and laity alike, have had to make some hard decisions. Many elderly members are holed up in their homes since the virus seems to favor attacking seniors with ongoing health issues, and they, as a result, haven’t been able to attend worship services. Others opted to stay safe by staying home. Clergy have been unable to visit their members at home or in hospitals or nursing homes. Many churches have gone to holding multiple, abbreviated services, staying within the recommended guidelines. Others elected to suspend holding services altogether until the pandemic passes.
In the meantime, to best serve the Church under less than ideal circumstances, many congregations, if they hadn’t been doing so already, have taken to broadcasting their worship services on the internet. During this time, these sermons and services have been beneficial for those staying home out of fear of the coronavirus. But this technology is not to serve as a replacement for attendance at church services, where one gathers with his fellow believers to hear the Word of God. The life of the Christian is communal in this regard, gathering together in a common faith, sharing all good things with one another. This was true in the Old Testament, as the people of God came together at the synagogue to hear the Word read and taught by the rabbis. In the New Testament, the first Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. …Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common. …And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2). What’s remarkable is that these believers in Jesus met not in the face of a pandemic but of persecution, risking martyrdom for worshiping the Savior and not Caesar.
So what are we to do, two thousand years later? As far as our souls are concerned, we should be less concerned with the source of the virus and more concerned with the fact that the devil is using it to scare us from coming to church. Martin Luther wrote a letter to a fellow pastor on whether one may flee from a deadly plague, saying in part:
“When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart. He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil… tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles. We would sin thereby against God and man; that would be the devil’s glory and delight. Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.” How?
Luther encourages Christians to return to God’s house, that He would feed and strengthen them on His Word and Sacraments. From the aforementioned letter Luther encourages the Church:
“First, [a pastor] must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s Word how to live and how to die. …Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight. …In closing, we admonish and plead with you in Christ’s name to help us with your prayers to God so that we may do battle with word and precept against the real and spiritual pestilence of Satan in his wickedness with which he now poisons and defiles the world.”
Our best weapons against Satan are God’s Word and Jesus’ body and blood, through which He gives us forgiveness of our sins, strengthening of our faith, and calming of our fears. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Jesus says, “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.