A Message from Pastor Hale
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1).
Our Lord is not panicked or upset by what is going on, even if most of the world is. Baptized into Christ, we are no longer the foundation of our own lives or hope. But this pandemic has revealed long-standing doctrinal and spiritual weaknesses among us: the attempt to practice online virtual communion, those calling preaching the Holy Gospel to real people wrong despite reasonable safety measures, the equation of man’s safety practices with sanctity, Scripture, and God’s will, and the new discord evident between Christians and even pastors.
It is shocking, to be sure, but these things are not really caused by a virus. But Satan can use it and the fears it conjures up to frighten, disturb faith, tempt the weak to fail to confess Christ faithfully, and even move some believers to fall away. These spiritual dangers we face are actually much greater than physical death, no matter how high the death toll rises. For to lose Christ and faith in Him is to lose eternal salvation. And the spiritual problems will not go away if restaurants and schools reopen. Satan’s damage could easily outlast the ramifications of the world’s shutdown.
Regarding the “online administration” of the Lord’s Supper, Communion is communal – it has to do with people gathering together to receive the undivided Christ’s body and blood. A surprising number of Lutheran pastors and churches, though, are trying to redefine the Supper, against Christ’s will stated in Scripture. While Communion is a comfort, it is not a necessity. There is much false emotionalism in Lutheran circles over receiving Communion. It is seen as greater and more powerful than the Word preached, taught, read, and trusted – perhaps because it involves our actions and looks more impressive than just listening to and living in God’s Word. But the act of receiving the Supper can easily become a cursed work of the Law, if preaching does not preserve it, so it is administered correctly. The bare act of physically receiving the elements does not make one a Christian or grant faith – quite the opposite – it requires (besides faith) self-examination and some knowledge of Christ to benefit from this specific gift of forgiveness, whereas Baptism does not (See 1 Cor. 10-11).
So no one needs Communion, nor is it necessary in any scriptural sense. To make it required, is to impose a law upon the Gospel. Even the idea of weekly Communion can be an idol – a legal mandate and cursed law. The forgiveness of sins must be free, it cannot be compelled or shoved down anyone’s throat. Communion by itself, without faith, does not help, instead it harms. But the push in high church circles to commune very young children, without full instruction, and even infants in some cases, is somewhat parallel to virtual attempts at communing in separate meals, while pretending to be together by linked computers. Both sides miss the point of the Supper: to promote faith in those who already believe – it is not for everyone and it is certainly not the center of our religion – Christ has not limited His help to a meal. Forgiveness is not limited to the Supper. It can always be desired, but it does not have to be received at every instant for you to have comfort.
The Lord’s strength will vindicate us, whether we are participating in His Holy meal or not – at the moment. We should not despise it, but it is not wrong to hunger a bit without eating. God is not confined exclusively to bread and wine, nor the church altar. He is the God of heaven and earth – all things which He made.
The gift of the Supper is for the strengthening of our faith, through its promise, which is always to be exercised by trusting in the Father’s grace through Christ and walking in the Spirit. We can always count on Christ’s strength, whether together or alone. And faith is not bound to ceremonies or church services, even receiving the sacrament, as important as they are on their own. The Christian lives in Christ, our mighty fortress, against all enemies, even the unseen. And Satan is the most dangerous enemy – not a virus. The promise God made to you in Baptism remains steadfast, giving us life by Christ’s resurrection from the dead, even if we are not currently being doused with water. So those who fall away from the faith do not need to be rebaptized, they simply need to repent and believe the promise God made in time and still keeps. Our Lord is faithful to us.
So also, the strength of the Supper is not for a moment, just while we are eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood. We are to live by faith in His forgiveness, even when we are not doing this particular religious action. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5).
Church is not redefined by pandemic or public menaces to our health. The internet can be a useful tool, but it is not a replacement for gathering together in Christ’s name. Our Lord did not say: “where two or three share bandwidth for a certain video stream, there I am with them (but physically divided).” No, the body of Christ is not divided, even if we are – and neither has the divine institution of the congregation or the call of Christ given to pastors to proclaim Him been annulled by divine right. Internet streams can deliver the Word, which is always effective, but being physically separated can never be a full replacement for the congregation publicly joined in the Lord’s name, just as video teleconferencing is a poor substitute for a couple’s wedding night in person. Yet we suffer gladly, safe with Christ when we must.
Yet, God is with us in His Spirit, even if we are alone. Christians have freedom, because we have the true God and His salvation, so nothing else is truly needed. The Lord’s protection is enough. Communion is very important, yes, but it is false doctrine to say that something is missing, if it cannot be received. To uplift the Supper so highly sounds spiritual, but it makes Baptism and God’s Word to be powerless. God is rich in His means, but if we are without some of them, God is not suddenly powerless to help us. Our limitations do not limit the almighty Lord Jesus. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction ... For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
So changing the essence of Communion, to give people the appearance of normalcy and some emotional comfort, is simply wrong and un-Lutheran. It also dangerously overlooks the power of Baptism and the Word itself – to make Communion some essential activity God requires for comfort. Christ left the frequency of its administration open-ended for a reason. “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me … for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Cor. 11:25-26). It does always forgive, but it gives no other type of forgiveness than found in the Gospel itself. This is why it has been called the visible Gospel. Thankfully, the Gospel, God’s grace and holy calling in Christ, is not limited to any activity or place. It is to reign in your heart, wherever you are at and in all circumstances.
Also, although preachers have a divine call and duty to proclaim the Word of Christ, no matter the season or supposed pandemic (which is always less dangerous than sin), no layman is to be compelled to do what they consider unsafe and unloving (2 Tim. 4:2). “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Pastors are called by Christ and His call does not contain fine print to stop serving Christ in dangerous times, but no one is to be guilted to come to church. Our Lord is not confined to a building or set time we choose to meet together. Our religion is not about our actions, but Jesus who confronted our sin in the flesh and loosed us from the slavery of death. Rely on the Lord’s might, even if you can’t carry out your religious actions. In the same way, our shut-ins are not without comfort – we believe the Maker of heaven and earth is with us for our good at all times and in all places.
The God who sustained Abraham, parted the Red Sea, brought water from a rock and quail from the sky, fed the 5000, healed the blind and deaf, and raised the dead, is with us. Trust the risen Lord’s promises, and you have all the power of Christ, who promises to raise you from the dead. Faith in Jesus is not an action and no one can suspend it or take it away by force.
The pandemic has revealed shoddy and sandy foundations of believers and trust in flimsy, earthly elements. “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). The people and leaders who were attracted only to the outward forms of church and the sacraments, have had their false foundations removed. The power of Christ is not removed, though. Our God remains seated in heaven, ruling and filling all things, still forgiving sins and protecting us with His angels.
This pandemic has been purifying, in a way, by showing what hearts are really resting on – as all suffering does. No one believes fully or without some element of fleshly unbelief, so now is the time to repent. The Lord – His doctrine and promises have not changed – so why have we? Jacob said to His God and ours: “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (Gen. 32:10) Our Lord is steadfast, and so should we be steadfast. No tribulations, sufferings, or dangers we endure change Christ and His loving attitude toward us.
The Lord, we pray, will give repentance to those who have wandered from the truth and also time to encourage one another in person freely and without restriction. But Satan must be dealt with head-on. Now is not the time to slink away from the power of Christ. Believe in the Lord Jesus, knowing your God will not forsake you—on earth or eternally. Rest in Him alone. Amen.