- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: April 30 2020 April 30 2020
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Schools closed for the rest of the year, church doors shut, businesses closed, a state lock down and weeks of stay-at-home orders. None of us in a million years would have imagined the current response to the global pandemic that we are currently living through.
Many of us, if not all of us, have vacillated through the emotions of fear, anxiety, disappointment, frustration, anger, loneliness and despair. And when the words “isolation fatigue” are brought up, we can all relate!
Even for those who don't go out much and are not very social, these have been long and hard days. For those of us who are used to spending our Sunday mornings in the Lord’s house, these have been unusual and difficult days.
My heart was warmed and at the same time broken when one of our own children said to me a few weeks ago, “I just want to go back to church!” They have been, like you, watching the services every Sunday online and receiving God's Word and Absolution. Thanks be to God that we are able to do this through the use of modern technology. But even a child knows, “it's not the same!”
God did not create Adam and Eve to live in isolation. God has never willed His people to live in seclusion or separation from others, but in community and relationally. Even those outside the Church with no faith in their Creator understand this, maybe more now than ever. People of all ages are yearning and pinning to get back to seeing their family members, their neighbors, their friends, resuming their social calendars and lives.
In a greater way, the people of God yearn and long to be back together in the Lord's house. The Church, of course, is not just another civic group or organization. It is more than a gathering of people, it is the very living and breathing body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23; Colossians 1:18). As members of His body, we are connected in a real life-giving way to our risen Lord, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19). Christ, who is our Head, is the source of our life and the power of all our growth (John 15:1–17).
As members of Christ's body, we are also connected in a real way to each other. We who have been baptized into Christ were “baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Our union with Christ and with each other is so strong, real, and vital that when “one member suffers, all suffer together” and when “one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Thus, St. Paul can say “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). As the body of Christ, the “community of saints,” as Luther called it, we live together one life. No one lives for themselves, but each one lives for the other; sharing, supporting, encouraging, even bearing the troubles and burdens of the other (Acts 2:44–45). This is not simply the desire and command of our Lord (John 13:34–35), but the very reality of being part of His body (Ephesians 4:4–6). The Church is more than this, but it is no less than this.
While it is not impossible for God's people to live as the body of Christ, the community of saints, in isolation, it certainly makes it quite challenging as separation and seclusion starts to unravel the very fabric of the Church's fellowship.
The visible and physical Church is also “the assembly of saints” where “the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” 1 As Luther himself wrote,
God’s church is where God’s Word resounds, whether it is in the middle of Turkey, in the papacy, or in hell. For it is God’s Word which establishes the church. He is the Lord over all places. Wherever the Word is heard, where Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and Absolution are administered, there you must determine and conclude with certainty; “This is surely God’s house; here heaven has been opened.” 2
The Church is the place where God distributes His life giving and life sustaining gifts of Word and sacrament. “For where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church, apart from which no one can come to the Lord Christ.” 3
The Church then is both the place where God doles out His gifts of Word and sacrament and the very living and breathing body of Christ. The stay-at-home orders and closure of church doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic has not and cannot eliminate these vital organs of the Church, but it has certainly changed the way they function for a time.
The Word of God, the good news of Christ, is still being proclaimed, and the body of Christ is still living and breathing even when the church building is empty. Holy Absolution is still being proclaimed to those who confess their sins, prayers are still being offer up for the people of God and the Lord's blessing of Benediction is still being placed on God's people even though it be through the vehicle of computers and screens.
What is missing however, and what the body of Christ longs and yearns for is be connected to these things and to each other in a real, physical way. This longing and yearning, of course, is amplified and intensified in being separated from the real physical presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
As the body of Christ, we long to be together at the Lord's Table and receive His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation! The idea of going without the Lord's Supper for an extended period of time seems unthinkable to us who are accustomed to receiving it frequently. The inability to commune at the Lord's Table is no small matter, but a true hardship.
Since questions have arisen with respect to the possibility of receiving the Lord's Supper in a different manner and since some congregations have resorted to extraordinary measures to offer the Sacrament of the Altar to the body of Christ, a few thoughts on Holy Communion and its reception are warranted.
First, Holy Communion is a public event, never a private one. It is for the community of saints, the whole body of Christ, not simply part of it. Our Lord Jesus said when instituting His Supper, “This is my body, which is given for you … The cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19, 20). Both second person pronouns (you) are plural, literally "you all" or as they say in the south "all y’all." Shut-in or home-bound celebrations of the Lord Supper are always an extension of the public communal reception of the gathered congregation. St. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for the way they conducted the Lord’s Supper including neglecting the communal aspect of the meal (1 Corinthians 11).
Second, while there is emergency baptism there is no emergency Lord's Supper. In the early 20th century during the great influenza epidemic of 1918–1919, many Lutheran congregations were not able to meet together for any services during that period of time, and hence did not celebrate the Lord's Supper. When a congregation is without a pastor to institute and distribute the Sacrament, that congregation does not celebrate the Lord's Supper sometimes for a very long period. Speaking to such occasions Luther wrote, “the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it. The gospel and baptism are sufficient, since faith alone justifies and love alone lives rightly.” 4
It is the Word of Christ that makes Baptism and the Lord’s Supper what they are—sacraments. Indeed, “God's Word is the treasure that makes everything holy … At whatever time God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read or pondered, there the person, the day, and the work is hallowed, not on account of the external work but on account of the Word that make us all saints.” 5
Faith in the Word of Christ alone is necessary for salvation, and even in turbulent times of plague or persecution the Church is never without the Word. “To receive God's Word in many ways is so much better” as Luther puts it, but it is not absolutely necessary for salvation. 6 This by no means implies that the Lord's Supper is optional, unnecessary or unimportant! On the contrary, it is the clear command and institution of our Lord to receive the gift of His body and blood “often.”
However, since under these extraordinary circumstances were are not able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together as the body of Christ in a public service, we are undergoing a Eucharistic fast until we can safely meet together again. Fasts are never easy and this fast is not by choice. There are times we choose to fast in order to discipline and train ourselves in godliness (Matthew 6:16) and there are times that God brings a fast upon us as He did with Israel in the Babylonian exile.
As we receive then this loving discipline of the Lord, it is a time for repentance and faith, a time to be immersed in God’s Word and prayer. It is a time to wait with patient hope, as so many Christians before us have done in times of trial, persecution, plague or exile. It is a time for us to be the body of Christ in ways that maybe we have not been accustomed.
In this time of isolation, I encourage you to pick up the phone and call someone one you haven't talked with in a while. Check in on them and see how they are doing. When you do, encourage them in the Lord and ask how you can pray for them. Pick up the church directory and pray for someone you know and someone you don't know. Pray for our church, our community, our nation and our world. Pray for God's kingdom to come and God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Beloved children of God, as we wait patiently with hope in the Lord, do not lose heart and do not let this momentary affliction drive you to despair. The Lord is with us even as His hand of discipline is upon us. Even as Israel waited to return from exile, the Lord promised, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Finally, as one sage pastor reminded me last week, “we may not know exactly what lies ahead, but Christ Jesus has got this!” He who is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity is Head of His Body the Church and therefore nothing can prevail against it, not even the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18) and certainly not this or any virus. We will in due time be back together in a real physical way in the Lord’s house gathered together around His table to receive Him who comes to us in a real physical way. Until then, rejoice in the Lord, give thanks in every circumstance, and the let the peace of God which transcends all understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
With joy and hope in Christ,
- Phillip Melanchthon, The Augsburg Confession (1530), Article VII.
- Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30 (1541)”, Luther's Works, Vol. 5 (CPH, 1968), 244.
- Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, II, 46.
- Martin Luther, “Concerning the Ministry (1523)”, Luther's Works, Vol. 40 (CPH, 1958), 9.
- Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, I, 92.
- Martin Luther, “A Short Order of Confession Before the Priest for the Common Man (1529)”, Luther's Works, Vol. 53 (CPH, 1965), 118.
Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at nettleton@StJohnsFC.org or at 970-305-2420.