Beloved in the Lord:
As we find ourselves in these challenging and anxious days of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us find ourselves sheltered in our homes and without the face-to-face gatherings which people of faith find comforting especially in times of stress. At the same time, we understand that physical distancing and the suspension of in-person gatherings must happen for the sake of our communities, ourselves, and especially those most vulnerable among us.
The intensity of these recent days reminds me of the story of the First Passover. The faithful, both young and old, were directed to stay in their homes for their own well-being, so that God could deliver them from the impending disaster outside their doors; it was a matter of life or death. We can identify with their fear of all the unknowns confronting them and the invisible destruction unfolding outside their doors. Nevertheless, we are reminded that the threat of death lurking outside passed over them and they were delivered from darkness and the shadow of death (Cf., Gospel Canticle: Morning Prayer; Lk 1:79).
Here the assuring words of Psalm 91 (vs. 5-6) can be helpful for us:
“You shall not fear any terror in the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that stalks in the darkness, nor the sickness that lays waste at noon.”
The Easter narratives tell us about how the disciples hid in fear behind locked doors after the crucifixion. And Jesus, whose presence closed doors cannot prevent, appeared and said to them, “Peace be with you,” which is the same word our Jesus comes and says to us as well.
Scripture tells us that before that first Palm Sunday, as the ugly horrors of Holy Week and the Passion of Christ were about to unfold, Jesus “went on ahead of the disciples, going up to Jerusalem” (Lk19:28). Here the Gospel Word reminds us that Jesus goes ahead of us, so that there’s nowhere we can go and nothing we can experience that Jesus hasn’t been there first. He came to us, for us and our salvation; Jesus knows us and understands what it means to be truly human. Even the words of the angel to the women on Easter morning, was that they should tell the disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead and is “going before you to Galilee” (Mt 28:7).
People of God, we are in the season of Lent. In the early church, this was the time of spiritual discipline, learning, and reflection – a time when people prepared for their baptism and entrance into the community of faith. How wonderful it must have been for them when this period of Lent was over and they could be baptized and partake in the Lord’s Supper for the first time!
During this time of coronavirus, we have had to experience Lent physically separate from each other. Yet, we must remember that the body of Christ, the church, has always been connected in ways that go beyond our physical location or geography. And while the suspension of church worship and public gatherings also occurred during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, modern technology has made it possible for us to stay connected to each other through the use of digital, virtual, and electronic means, in addition to our prayers. You have been intentional in your congregations to stay connected and care for each other in such non-geographic ways, through such things as streaming worship, social media, email, and telephone; I have heard examples of how you are looking out for each other and staying connected, and for that I thank God for your faithfulness and commend you.
Like the early church, we have been experiencing this Lent as a period of deep spiritual reflection and reliance on God, with fasting, Bible study, prayer, intercession, and caring for each other and the most vulnerable among us. Lent has always been an appropriate time for us to focus on the gift we have in the Word of God in all its forms and on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism which our Lutheran confessions point out is necessary for salvation in a way that Holy Communion is not. (It’s also interesting to note that Luther, and Lutherans, have always recognized emergency baptisms by the laity, but not emergency communions.) I encourage you to immerse yourselves in the many enriching ways the Word of God comes to us, and to reflect on the meaning that baptism has in your life, as you live out your baptismal calling to pray for and care for others. In order to enrich and support your worship and devotional life, resources from the ELCA, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and other articles may be found at the end of this message.
In addition, as part of our Lenten discipline, many of us have had to observe a time of fasting from the Eucharist as we prepare and look forward to the time when we will once again gather face-to-face and receive the Lord’s Supper together.
The practice of less frequent communion is not foreign to us, since less frequent communion was a common practice which many among us still remember. In fact, more than one of our congregations has had less frequent communion for many years; they have shared with me that they were taught that communion is so important and special, that they need to spiritually prepare, so that their reception of the Lord’s Supper is even more wonderful! Similarly, when those of us who are not receiving communion, during this time in which in-person services have been suspended, are able to gather in our churches once again, how wonderful and profound that celebration of the Lord’s Supper will be!
At the same time, the threats and uncertainties of the coronavirus, as well as directives from the CDC and government leaders that gatherings be suspended, means that it will not be possible for our congregants to gather face-to-face in our churches for worship together on Easter. And while it is perfectly appropriate to lament not being together, this year may have to be an extended Lent for us, as we experience our Easter observances still physically separated from one another. It will be a time of continued spiritual preparation and time to reflect on the significance of the Resurrection, while we are mindful of the continued well-being of all in our communities.
Nevertheless, I encourage you to be faithful in staying connected to each other and attending to spiritual and pastoral needs via telephone, email, social media, worship streaming, virtual meetings, and your websites. Also, remember that, while our ministries may look different during these challenging days, the expenses of our ministries and churches do continue, so please also be faithful in sending your offerings to your congregations, as you are able. Please remember in your prayers all who are affected by this pandemic in this country and the world, especially our global companions in Central and Eastern Europe; may the global nature of this pandemic remind us of the interconnectedness of all human life and how God holds us all in the mercy and love of Christ. And be assured that, as you live into being the church together even though physically separate from each other, you will continue to be in my prayers, that God may keep you safe and give you strength and purpose as you carry out the mission of Christ in these trying times in new and different ways.
Let us remember that for Christians every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, so that when the time comes for us to gather again, it will be a glorious celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and a reminder of our resurrection too, for “because Jesus lives, we too shall live and walk in newness of life” (Cf., Jn 14:19 & Rom 6:4b). In fact, even Pentecost this year will have new depth and meaning for us as we recall the words from the book of Acts (2:1): “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”
In the meantime, let us draw comfort from the words of Jesus spoken at his Ascension: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20b), and let us be guided by the words of St. Paul: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
+ Bishop Wilma S. Kucharek
ELCA, Worship in the Home, March 29, 2020
ELCA, Prayers for Times of Public Health Concern: Covid-19/Coronavirus
ELCA, Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns: Covid-19/Coronavirus
ELCA, Guidance for Funeral Practices
WELCA, A Call to Prayer in the time of a pandemic
LWF, Intercessory Prayer in the midst of the spread of Covid-19
LWF, Intercessory Prayer in exceptional times
LWF, Coronavirus letter
LWF, Dr. Dirk Lange essay
Dr. Timothy Wengert, Dr. Gordon Lathrop essay