Jesus said: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”(Acts1:8). And, “When the day of Pentecost had come…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1,4).
The Christian Church commemorates Pentecost as the day a group of disciples gathered together in Jerusalem and received the Holy Spirit which Jesus had promised to send them. On that day, they experienced the power of God which so filled and changed them, that they had the power and conviction to tell others about Jesus and proclaim his love to the world. They were so transformed, that their purpose and energy was no longer for themselves, but became Christ-like; now their purpose and energy was to care for others in such a way that it witnessed to the love Jesus has for the world. They eagerly proclaimed that the Christ who made a difference in their lives can make a difference in the lives of others. Those first Christians at Pentecost gained a sense of community, a sense of loving and sharing with others, and a sense of courage to tell the world about Jesus in their words and deeds.
Pentecost has been called the Birthday of the Church; it marks the beginning of the church’s mission to the world. I have been present at many of your church anniversaries at which we recalled and celebrated the “birthday” of your congregation and even the anniversary of your church buildings. On such occasions, I have reminded you that “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” These words come from a hymn by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh which some categorize as a Pentecost hymn. Some of you have even heard me sing that song to you; its refrain sums it up: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!” You have heard me describe the church as the people of God, the body of Christ. And now, it is especially significant to note that, in these past two months, we have been living as the church, the people of God all around the world who follow Jesus; people living, breathing, worshipping, praying, learning, caring, and serving Christ and each other without a church building. Our buildings may have been closed, but the church has always been open!
I have been following the ways in which your pastors and congregations have been faithful in providing ministry and being the church, the people of God, even as you have been physically apart from each other. You have been nimble and responsive in adapting to the challenges of the last two months. These challenges are real and have resulted in many adaptations; in fact, it has been said that our lives have made the kind of digital changes in the last two months that normally take two years to make.
Nevertheless, as some areas of the United States and the world begin a gradual reopening of our communities, businesses, and church buildings, I remind you again that the church is not a building; it is the people of God. And while we lament that our congregations have been limited in our physical interactions, and while we yearn to gather again in person, we must be mindful that each congregational makeup is unique, and each building and setting is unique; in other words, a timeline for safe in-person worship and gatherings will be unique and look different for each of your congregations, depending on your state and local setting, your building, and the makeup of your membership.
For many in our Synod, participation in in-person worship, whether for the individual or the congregation, is still months away. As you consider how your congregation will move into the future, I ask that you engage in prayerful discernment and, when necessary, err on the side of caution for the sake of the whole body of Christ, for Scripture reminds us that “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). St. Paul continues in his letter to the Galatians: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13). We are being called to be like those transformed followers of Jesus on Pentecost, who lived as one community and selflessly cared for others the way Jesus cares for us.
As you evaluate what it would look like for your congregation to return to in-person worship, please study your insurance company’s requirements and such resources as the CDC Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith and local health guidelines for safe reopening, and the ELCA Considerations for Returning to In-person Worship (which also includes links to resources from ecumenical churches). These resources will serve as guides and checklists as you discern when, why, and how to return to in-person worship. This is important and prayerful work, since it is imperative that you not return to in-person worship and gatherings until you are able to provide an environment that is safe for your congregation and all its members.
Since the pandemic is not over and a vaccine is not yet available, high-risk individuals are still vulnerable and may need to remain home as much as possible; therefore, please continue to provide worship and the other ministries you have been providing which don’t require physical presence and ascertain the best ways to integrate your worship and ministries so that you maintain the unity of the congregation as a whole and not fragment the body of Christ through lack of interaction among members. Continued online, digital, and social media worship and ministries is not only for the sake of those not attending in-person gatherings, but is for the sake of the relationship of all who share in the body of Christ; in addition, it is important to continue a digital platform for future outreach and ministry in the church, as well as maintain the ability to return to alternative platforms for worship and meetings in case a virus resurgence causes the re-closure of the church building.
These have been times of grief, lament, and intense challenges, both emotionally and logistically. The past two months have seen the tragic loss of lives, loss of livelihoods, and loss of certainty in our day to day lives. Yet, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” To the Christian, these words ring true; these many single defeats and losses we have been experiencing don’t mean a final defeat. What the disciples originally perceived as the defeat of Good Friday, was overturned by the final victory of the Resurrection.
Over the millennia, the human community has survived many trying times, and even now, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope and new life. We can see signs of hope on the medical and economic fronts, as well as in our congregations. You have shared instances in which, while adapting your worship and ministries under the current restrictions, you have found yourselves reaching people beyond those who were part of your traditional in-person worship gatherings. This is reminiscent of those days after Pentecost, about which it is written: “And the Lord added to their number day by day…”(Acts 2:47b). The resolve and fortitude to be faithful in the midst of adversity comes to us from God’s Holy Spirit; it is the Holy Spirit that assures us that we are not alone and that Jesus is with us even, and especially, in days of uncertainty.
We never imagined how much our lives would be disrupted in the past few months. Yet, even in the face of such significant and sudden change, you have been moved by the Spirit into new ways of living and ministering as a church and as a community. This crisis has revealed the best of you who are the church, the people of God, the followers of Jesus; this crisis has revealed the work of the Holy Spirit which has been stirring in you to address the needs of God’s people in the context of the situation at hand and to be the church in many and various ways.
I thank God for you and the ministry you are doing during these difficult and challenging times, and I am grateful to be serving Christ alongside of you as your bishop. As we face the challenges and uncertainties of the future, let us take comfort that we do not walk alone, for we walk with Jesus and each other; and let us remember that we are equipped, strengthened, and called by God’s Holy Spirit to proclaim the love of Christ in ever new and expanding ways to a world that is hungering for wholeness and meaning.
+Bishop Wilma S. Kucharek