ON STAYING OPEN:
THOUGHTS FROM PASTOR YURI
November 9th, 2020
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
"Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind [...] let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother [...] For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."
Romans 14:5,13,17-19 (ESV)
Since very early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Christians have disagreed about how to apply the Scriptures to the situation. The vast majority of churches complied with the lockdown measures that were imposed by governments around the world. Some suspended services with a sad but willing heart. They felt strongly that "flattening the curve" was the best way to demonstrate love for their neighbours. But others did so uneasily. Unconvinced by the prevailing wisdom, their love for their neighbours was manifested in their concern for the consequences that such drastic measures (taken on a global scale) might bring.
Since then, the situation has only grown more complicated. As perception of the threat level by local health authorities has ebbed and flowed, so have the regulations that have followed in their wake. In some places, public gatherings of any kind remain forbidden. In other places, like Manitoba, exceptions have been made for places of worship. In most cases, Christians are committed to the biblical injunction to "submit to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1), as are we. That said, there are many in the broader Christian community who criticize the government (and many of their brothers and sisters in Christ) for not going far enough to protect vulnerable lives. In the opposite camp are the handful who are not only intent on defying any restrictions but ridicule their brethren for their timidity.
The situation calls for wisdom on the part of church leaders to grapple with the ethical and theological questions the pandemic raises. How far does our duty to help keep people safe extend? Are there other factors to consider that are as compelling as the threat of COVID-19? Why exactly do we gather in person for worship? More pointedly, are those who gather right now demonstrating a callous disregard for the lives of the vulnerable? Conversely, are those who choose to stay home putting their faith in jeopardy? Even thoughtful answers to these provocative questions may come into conflict even though they seem to have strong scriptural support.
The apostle Paul faced similarly explosive questions. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, he did not rule on all of them. In fact, judging from his remarks in the 14th chapter of his letter to the Romans where he peers into the powder keg, it seems that when we disagree about matters that are not easily settled by Scripture we have a duty both to remain true to our strongly held convictions as well as to show love and grace to those whose opinions we have difficulty accepting. This is not a suggestion that Paul thought the Scriptures were in any way contradictory. It is, rather, an acknowledgement that we are sinful and finite. It is also a tall order. But it's one to which we must commit ourselves if we want to demonstrate the supernatural, unconditional love that characterizes all those who are filled with the Spirit of Christ, As Paul insists, we Christians are all servants on an equal footing before a sovereign, transcendent God. He writes, "Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.' (Romans 14:4)
It is in this spirit that I offer the following positive explanation of Bethesda's decision to stay open in the midst of the pandemic. We have no interest in condemning anyone who comes to a different conclusion. That said, we feel it could be helpful to articulate a biblical vision of the Church that points out her eternal transcendence, as well her essential usefulness in the here and now. I hope that it will help you to "consider how to stir one another up to love and good works" and "encourage one another", pandemic or no pandemic, "pursuing what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" in "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" as citizens of the kingdom of God!
Christians of every stripe should be able to agree with the idea that what we see and are able to measure is not all that there is. We are more than the sum of our parts. The material universe, glorious though it is, is just one aspect of a far more glorious reality. We believe that to focus on one aspect without understanding its place as part of the greater whole inevitably leads us to miss the forest for the trees. The Bible puts it this way: “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6) The “flesh” represents the reality that we can perceive through our senses, the material reality that, as far as we can tell, ends in death. The “Spirit” refers to that greater reality which can only be perceived via revelation. In other words, we can only know it if God reveals it to us. By his grace, he has done so through the person of Jesus Christ and the Bible. (Significantly, both are known as God’s Word.) They are mediated to us by God’s Spirit, hence the claim that to have one’s mind governed by the Spirit leads to “life and peace” with God, the Ultimate Reality.
We believe the Church to be The Kingdom of God on Earth, not merely one-way-to-god-among-many-others. To put it another way, the Church is the Beacon of Ultimate Reality to beings who tend to only affirm what they can see and touch and reason their minds into perceiving. Minds “governed by the flesh” (to use the biblical phrase) might be hostile to the idea that what we are is more, potentially far more, than what they can perceive. Yet that is what Christians universally profess. Thus, Christians prioritize their spiritual wellbeing. That is not to say that we ignore or downplay physical reality. In fact, a "mind governed by the Spirit" will understand that the body is not to be set in opposition to the spirit, but is an integral aspect of being human. The body is inseparable from the spirit until death, and at the end of all things the restored body will ultimately be re-paired with its spirit, as Christ in his resurrection -- "the firstfruits of them that sleep" -- displayed! (cf. 1 Cor 15) "Glorify God in your body" we are told in 1 Cor 6:20, a striking challenge who anyone tends to see the body as unimportant or unnecessary.
Another way of putting this is that spiritual flourishing is impossible without a proper understanding and use of the body in all its created beauty, in all its givenness of gender and form, in all its vulnerability, in all its sensitivity, in all its rootedness to time and place. These are not mere problems to be overcome by technology or post-human philosophy, unless we find them embarrassing reminders of the fact that we are not God. The body's attributes are not something to feel ashamed about. They are aspects which ought to help us to understand our place in the cosmos, and drive us to the worship of our Creator. They also hard wire us to depend on and draw close to one another, and to interact with the world. A key element of the proper use of the body includes the way we relate to other human beings and to the rest of the created universe. We are to deploy our bodies in ways that recognize not only that every other human body bears the image of God, but that as fellow image bearers we are called to steward the earth in partnership with one another. We are interdependent Keepers of Creation (see Genesis 1:26-30). Thus, we can't fulfil our purpose, we can't render to our Creator what we owe him (i.e. our lives in worship and service) as effectively on our own as we can together.
So when we gather as a congregation, we are not doing something merely for ourselves. We don’t come together primarily to “get” something, nor even merely to “give” something to others. Of course, giving and receiving are essential to the life of any church, and -- barring the threat of a pandemic -- it would undoubtedly be good for us on many levels to come together if all we were doing was that! But meeting one another's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs is actually not the main reason we come together. We are participating in something larger than we can fully understand. If we, as the gathered people of God, reduce physical assembly to what we can measure in terms of needs being met (in other words, if we accept the claim that what we can perceive is all that there is), we not only impoverish our humanity, we misunderstand and misrepresent the Church’s identity and purpose.
So why DO we assemble? We do it because God has commanded it. It's as simple as that. That may seem disappointing. But think of it: just as we cannot perceive all of reality unaided, we can’t understand the fullness of what God is accomplishing as we, lost and broken embodied souls miraculously redeemed and restored in Christ, meet in person. Again, what he is doing in and through us in unity -- both of place and purpose -- can’t be totally apprehended. That said, we do know that in the local, physical assembly of his people, he is employing "means of grace" (communion, baptism, fellowship, etc.) that are impossible to replicate virtually. More globally, we know that the goal of all of Creation is to worship its King: the heavenly picture the Bible paints of that worship is a joining together of all of Creation, raising voices in eternal songs of praise. So we contend that God is doing something vastly greater than we can understand as we faithfully, and physically, assemble. Whatever measurable threat we may be facing, it pales in comparison to the infinite, immeasurable value of what happens as a physical space reverberates with voices intoning (by faith, not by sight) the praise of their Creator King! This is what prompted Paul and Silas to sing in a dark Philippian dungeon. It is what fueled the tenacity of the Reformers as they insisted on the priesthood of all believers: the inclusion of every saint in the divine festivities, every one partaking of the wine and the bread, every one lending his or her voice to the congregation, even as they stared down persecution and even death for the privilege.
A proper understanding of the Church’s identity and purpose puts the ethical questions of gathering in a clearer light. When the Church considers whether or not to it is too dangerous or irresponsible or culturally compromising to meet it has to weigh this eternal, holistic perspective in the balance. We may face hostility because of it, because the rest of the world does not accept our mission, which to them appears dangerously arrogant even at the best of times. To them, we are at best just "one-way-to-god-among-many-others." We must of course take all reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, as long as it doesn't contravene the clear teaching of Scripture. And we must absolutely continue to work to alleviate suffering in the world, alongside our Lord who showed us what it means to suffer. For some of us may get seriously ill or even die. “To this [i.e. suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pet 2:21) We must never forget the fact that we are always called to lay down our own lives. Throughout history the people of God have often met under circumstances that have been life threatening, and the leaders of the Church have encouraged their flocks to take their lives into their hands to do so, because they have understood what is at stake in the Church, the ekklesia, The Gathering: to lead all of Creation in the adoration of the Creator.
To him be all glory and honour and praise, now and forevermore,