I’m the pastor of small church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Last Sunday, with great reluctance, we had online services for the first time. It was not an easy decision. I read and wrote articles in First Things and other places on why the churches must stay open. I was inspired by Martin Luther’s famous letter “May A Christian Flee A Deadly Plague?” Luther answered that question with a definite “maybe, but first and foremost we must have faith in God and love for our neighbor.”
I was pushing harder on the faith in God part than the love for my neighbor part. I wanted to take a more daring course. But an old friend wisely observed: “The time for polemics is past. We lost the argument. Now we must heal the wounds in the church and repair the damage done by the shutdowns.”
I was fired up by the example of the Apostles in Acts 5. After many signs and wonders by the Apostles, when the Sanhedrin jealously ordered them to cease and desist all Word and Sacrament ministry, the Apostles answered: “We must obey God rather than men.” They were punished for that, but rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of the name. I was ready to be equally defiant.
But a faithful laywoman in my congregation wrote me a long and thoughtful email and followed it up with a phone call. She argued that Acts 5 didn’t apply to our situation as much as Romans 13—which tells us to obey the governing authorities (especially when you may disagree with them)—and I Corinthians 8—which tells us to watch out for the weaker brother and do nothing that might harm him or her.
She pointed out that in Acts 5 the authorities were trying to destroy the Church because of hatred for the message. But our government is not trying to harm churches, but to save lives. We may disagree with the methods, and we may suffer some spiritual harm thereby, but we owe it to God and to our authorities (who have a tremendously difficult task) to be good citizens, to obey and support them.
A WHO official said, “Maybe the worst thing about the virus is how it turns us against each other.” I wholeheartedly agree. Looking at our neighbors as sources of contagion instead of children of God is terrible. But antagonizing fearful mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers with actions that seem to them reckless does that very thing.
I Corinthians 8 plays an important role here. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the “strong” members are indeed correct: Eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol does us no harm at all. But the weaker brothers who see in our action an endorsement of idolatry can have their weak consciences destroyed, and thus are grievously harmed by our freedom. Sometimes we have to sacrifice freedom out of love for the weaker brother. The First Amendment protects our freedom to freely exercise our religion and to peaceably assemble. But if that causes actual or imagined harm to our neighbor, if we destroy their peace with our freedom, God is not pleased.
Fear makes us weak. It is one of the devil’s chief weapons, especially our innate fear of death. Only faith in Christ gives us freedom from fear and the devil’s terrorism. But those who are fearful in the face of death we must serve in love. We must not destroy them by actions they fear are reckless. In Christian love, sometimes we give up some of our freedom, willingly, to ease their burden, to bring peace and healing to communities fractured by fear.
This was my parishioner’s argument. It moved me. I saw I was being a little reckless myself, and while my faith was strong, my love for my neighbor needed to be stronger. John suggests in his first epistle that faith and love need to work in tandem. To John I was tempted to say: “If my neighbor hated my faith a little less, I think I could love him more.”
But two weeks ago, while I was preaching at our last regular Divine Service, I saw anguish and fear on the face of my parishioner as she peered in our church’s windows. My grinchy heart maybe grew a size or two. I realized that for her, I was part of the peril she feared. I felt the need for change.
Now is the time to be strong in faith and love—especially the love for our neighbor. The time for arguments has passed. It is time for the Church to take the lead in showing love, especially to the most anxious among us, being cautious, even being weak for their sakes. By taking on weakness, we will allow others to see the love of Christ—who, for our sakes, died on the cross in weakness this Holy Week to save a world scared literally to death.
So I had my first online service. I felt pretty silly (and I’m sure I looked ridiculous, as everyone does live-streaming on a cell phone). But the emails of thanks and appreciation started pouring in. Members of the congregation I serve were relieved to worship without fear. They appreciated the concern for our neighbors and respect for the orders of our government. And I learned a new aspect of what St. Paul means when he wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Jesus’s death on Good Friday on Golgotha is the true medicine of immortality. It is not lost on me that it is, in many ways, a frightful thing to hide away in silence during the most Holy Week of the year. But it also struck me: This is exactly what the first Christians also did, from fear—hiding behind locked doors with the Apostles. But when hiding, they discovered an amazing thing: Our Lord Christ passes through even locked, barred doors—to comfort, to bless, to raise; finally, to heal and save us all.
May we all be instruments of that holy, hidden, healing love—especially in plague-times.
Kevin Martin is a parish pastor serving Our Savior Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Raleigh, North Carolina.