Christians all across the country are asking, “Is it safe yet to go back to church? Has the governor given us permission to meet? What do the CDC and Dr. Fauci have to say about reopening our churches?” Way back in March, with the support of the elders and church councils, I made the decision to suspend normal services at St. Paul and First Lutheran. We did so, not because the government said we had to, but out of love for our neighbors. At that time no one knew much at all about coronavirus. We didn’t know how quickly it spread, or how deadly it would be. So in order to help keep our hospitals from being overrun, we followed the government’s suggestion of limiting our services to ten people or less: “Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread.” Then fifteen days turned into thirty days, and then a month turned into several months. Now some experts are saying things may not go back to normal for several years, if they ever do.
This Sunday is the tenth week since we suspended normal worship. Since that time, although there is still much we don’t know, we have learned some things about the coronavirus. It is not as deadly as it was predicted to be. Our hospitals are not in any danger of being overrun. The vast majority of those who were infected have recovered. But now the media and many officials are moving the goalposts. Instead of staying home to “flatten the curve” there is talk of extending the quarantine until we “eliminate the curve.” In Minnesota, bars, restaurants, and salons are being allowed to reopen, while churches are ordered to remain closed. The governor of Indiana declared that Christians could only receive communion if they used individually-packaged kits, the kind that come with grape juice instead of wine. Mendocino County, California, banned pastors from singing or playing wind instruments in church when recording a video service.
If you are wondering when the government will declare it safe to return to church without risk, I can save you some time and suspense. Going to church is not completely safe. It never has been. And it never will be. Jesus said, “They will drive you out of the churches. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2). For two-thousand years Christians have boldly gathered around Christ’s Word and Sacraments, knowing that it may cost them their lives. Our fathers and mothers in the faith gladly gave up their reputations, their jobs, their possessions, and their lives for the kingdom of God. What would you give up for Christ?
Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith upon the earth?” That’s a good question? Will He? Or will He find instead a people who are willing to be called Christians only as long as there is a guarantee of safety and a life of ease without suffering or sacrifice. What does your faith cost you? What is more important: your reputation among friends, or your faith in Jesus? If you had to choose, would you give up your health or the Word of God? Would you gladly suffer the loss of all things, as St. Paul writes, for the sake of knowing Christ? Do you actually mean the words that we sing, “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our victory has been won; the kingdom ours remaineth”?
There is nothing wrong with taking sensible precautions to care for our lives and our possessions. We should not unnecessarily put ourselves or others in danger. That’s why we choose to suspend regular services ten weeks ago. But we must be careful that in seeking to protect our health and wealth that we don’t make these gifts an idol. Our trust is not in the experts, in the medical professionals, in politicians and the government. Dr. Fauci can’t save you. Your stimulus check won’t buy what you really need. All the masks and all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t protect you from the sickness that already infects every human heart. Only Jesus, the Lord of life, is able to save, and protect, and cleanse. He alone has the words of eternal life. There is no other source of true safety, true peace, true comfort. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
So let me ask you this: In the midst of all the hype and all the panic, has your hope and trust been in Jesus, or has it been in someone or something else? Have you valued His Word, His Body and Blood, above all earthly treasures, or have you been more concerned with protecting your health and life? Have you found security in the words and promises of Jesus, or have you allowed the fear of death to steal away your comfort and peace? Repent, and trust in one who conquered death. Repent, and believe in the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.
As your pastor, I cannot make promises beyond what Jesus tells us in Scripture. I can’t promise that you won’t get sick if you leave your house. I can’t promise that coming to church will be 100% safe now or ever. Jesus never promises that. In fact, if anything, he promises that we will be persecuted by a sinful world that hates Him and hates His followers. Being a Christian may very well cost you your life. You may lose your goods, fame, child, and wife. But here is what Jesus does promise: You may lose all, but He will lose none. Nothing will separate you from his love—not persecution, sickness, not death. Nothing can snatch you out of His hand. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing. How much more then, does he care for you, his dear child.
In the midst of this epidemic, I can promise you this: No one gets to heaven a moment early. When God calls you, when your times comes, then you go—not before, and not after. It’s as simple as that. Jesus said, “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” No one can. So either our trust is in Jesus and his promises, or we have no hope at all. For this reason, I can tell you that the safest place on earth is at the communion rail hearing the words of Jesus. It’s not safe because Jesus promises you won’t ever get sick and die. Every one of us will die, sooner or later, unless He returns first. It’s safe because your eternal future is in the hands of Jesus. Those who hold fast to the words of Jesus, those who receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins, those who trust in Him alone, are built on a foundation that can never be shaken.
Many state governments don’t consider church an essential service. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Of course, they don’t. But we know that the Divine Service, where our Lord serves us, is the only essential service. They can take everything else, but the Word of God shall remain. We chose to suspend normal services out of love for our neighbor, not because of a government ordinance. (For the record, gatherings of up to 50 have been permitted for the last ten weeks.) And when the time comes, and I think that it has, we will gather again in the name of Jesus with or without the approval of the earthly authorities. No governor can tell us how to have communion. No county ordinance can keep us from singing the doctrine of Christ. They have no jurisdiction over his Divine Service. That’s why there are no flags in the chancel. This is the sovereign embassy of heaven. This soil belongs to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus says that the hour is coming when we will be put out of the churches and even killed. That hour has come upon countless Christians before us who died with the name of Jesus on their lips. We have enjoyed lives relatively full of peace and freedom. But let us not become too attached to these comforts. The hour may soon come when we must give up every earthly treasure for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. And if it does, we will stand unmoved upon the words and promises of Jesus. In Him alone we find safety, lasting comfort, and eternal life. Amen.