These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
On June 15, Governor Murphy set forth the guidelines for indoor gatherings. Now we, provided certain safety measures are met, can gather for worship once more. While we can reopen, the question remains if we should reopen. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that it is the best thing to do - see I Cor. 6:12
While we have measures in place to reduce the rate of viral transmission, there is no way of eliminating viral spread. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, and it will do what a virus does, which is to mutate and spread until it has infected every person it possibly can. Even if we were to mask at all times and stay home for weeks on end; the virus would still find a way to get to you - that’s just what viruses do. We saw that the infection rate (# of positive test results, hospitalizations, and deaths) continued to skyrocket even after businesses were closed and people told to stay in their homes. If the corona virus is still “a clear and present danger”, why then are we gathering for worship?
Well, it really boils down to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper and what it means to be the Church. I know of some churches in our area that already have reopened, others (like Redeemer) that are opening soon, and others which will not reopen until much later. Those that are holding off reopening until August or September (or later) are doing so, in part, to see if gathering for worship leads to a “spike” in Covid-19 cases or not. Also the guidance for reopening seems to shift from week to week and many are waiting for “the final word” of which mitigation measures are effective and which were wishful thinking. One of the unifying traits of all the churches that are delaying reopening is a Calvinistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper - be it Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, or other.
In these church bodies, the Lord’s Supper is seen as merely a memorial meal; it is an “object lesson” given to help us remember what Christ has done for us. This is due to a magisterial use of reason which says that “is” must mean something other than “is” because Christ’s physical body and blood could not be present in, with, and under the earthly forms of bread and wine. This bread and wine (or grape juice for Methodists) cannot be Christ’s body and blood because that wouldn’t make sense. Since it is not Christ’s body and blood, the words of John 6:53-59 do not apply and God’s gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are not given through the Lord’s Supper. Thus skipping the Lord’s Supper is no big deal.
It’s entirely different for we who hold to God’s Word as infallible and doing what it says it will do. When Jesus said, “This is my body”, He meant this IS His body - we don’t know how it is His body, but that is what He said. If He meant that it only “represents” His body and blood, He would have used words such as like or as - this bread is like my body, which is given for you. That’s how He did it with the parables and many other teachings, but not at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Here there is no like or as or metaphorical speech, so we must accept that what He said is true or make Him to be a liar.
If this really is His body and blood, and, according to John 6, only those who eat of His flesh and drink of His blood have eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and salvation from everlasting death, then we would have to physically eat and drink of His body and blood to obtain those gifts. Simply watching it on Zoom or remembering His Passion is not enough; we must “take and eat, the body of Christ, broken for you.” and “take also and drink the true blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” This is the primary way that the forgiveness of sins becomes real to us. Yes, we also receive the forgiveness of sins through the pronouncement of absolution by Christ’s representative, but it is through the Sacrament of the Altar that we can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear the forgiveness of sins given to us through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Given the importance of this Sacrament and the fact that it cannot be live streamed or delivered in any other way than in person, we gather to receive the gifts of God. How long can one go without receiving the Sacrament? That’s going to vary person to person. There were times in our LCMS history where once a month was considered enough. Other times in our history we opted for quarterly or every other week - as we did with our drive through distribution. But if we open up our Bibles and Small Catechisms we’ll find that the Lord’s Supper was the central point of God’s people gathering together and Luther instructs young and old to partake of the Sacrament as often as it is offered. In Luther’s time that was daily! So we make the decision to resume gathering, in part, due to the necessity of offering the Lord’s Supper to souls in need of God’s grace and mercy.
The other reason to reopen has to do with our understanding of worship as a participatory event. Worship is not passive, where you just sit back and absorb what’s being “performed”. Bible reading and prayer can be done alone, singing of hymns and songs can be done solo or in small groups, but worship requires the body of Christ to assemble at a set place and time. We looked at this is past blogs and there explained how Zoom services and podcasts and other “stay at home” worship-like events aren’t really worship at all. We are commanded to worship in the 3rd Commandment and other places in Scripture.
Worship is not optional for a Christian. Those who claim to be Christian but say they do not need to join with others for worship “deceive themselves and the truth is not in them”. (I John 1:8b). While we were forced to suspend gathering in person for 3 months, some congregations in the mission field often only gathered for worship on a quarterly basis- usually for the great feasts of the Church year; Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week / Easter, and Pentecost; but this was always seen as less than ideal and the model of gathering on the Lord’s Day was to be preferred. We cannot simply disregard the Third Commandment and think that there are no consequences to us as individuals and as a congregation.
While these are the two primary reasons why we reopen earlier rather than later, there are many other reasons why we should pause and ask “Should we reopen?” Is this corona-virus and the changes wrought by it the final “nail in the coffin lid” and so is it time we consider closing out church doors for good? We’ll look at these next week and President Steinbronn will be coming to Redeemer soon to further explore these issues. Until then let us take advantage of the fact that we can gather for worship still to receive the blessings of Almighty God and know His peace. Amen.
- Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.