This Just In: Coming Together Again

William M. Cwirla
By the grace of God, many of our congregations have begun, or are planning to begin, gathering again for Divine Service. Some in urban areas are still waiting patiently on the Lord; others have been able to open again for worship. Local health restrictions can have a noticeable effect on our gathering. We may not be able to sit as close as we once did, or shake hands or hug, though Lutherans traditionally have been good at "social distancing" long before it was required. We may not be able to sing as freely as we would like. The Sacrament may not be distributed in quite the same way as to which are accustomed. We may be asked to wear masks in church. Coffee and doughnuts probably won't happen. But we will be together again at long last. Thanks be to God!

So What Does This Look Like?

What should we be thinking about as we prepare to return to our gathered congregations? The apostle Paul gives us a good framework in his letter to the Philippians: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV).
Paul is speaking to those who are in Christ, baptized believers who share the mind of Christ and His humility. We are servants of the Servant of all, the One who bends down to wash His disciples' feet and who laid down His life to save the world. We have the mind of Christ; now it's time to think like Christ.
What does this mean for our return to church? Speaking as a pastor, I would say it means this: Be obedient to those who are over you; look to the needs of others.
Obedience is an act of humility; it crushes the pride of Old Adam. In our obedience, we are admitting that we don't know everything and we are not always given to decide what is best. We are all under authority—in church, at home and work, and in society. God has given us leaders in all three Orders—pastors, parents, and princes—and we are to obey them in love. They must give an account to God for the stewardship of their authority.

Threat of Division

Many things threaten to divide us these days. Everyone has his or her own opinions on virology and epidemiology, matters of economics and public policy, the best ways to manage a pandemic, and even whether or not there actually is one. We have all become self-educated experts and our own authority.
God has established order and authority for our unity and blessing. Things are taken out of our individual hands and put into the hands of those who lead and guide us. This is as true in church as it is in society and the home. We may have picked up a few disobedient habits in the past few months, and we need this biblical reminder: "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:17).
If your pastor says to wait a few more weeks before the church can open safely and responsibly, then wait a few more weeks. Don't go running off to some other church that decided to open early. You are a member of a body; support the body of which you are a member.
If the pastor says, "No singing in church," don't start belting out hymns at the top of your lungs. That's not faith but instead reflects self-centered pride and arrogance. Corporate worship is not up to the individual. You may not like it or agree, but in obeying the authorities God has put over us, we remain together as one, whether speaking or singing.
If your pastor asks you to wear a mask in church, then wear a mask even if you think it's dumb or an infringement on your liberties. It's not for you but for others. There are people who are afraid, people who are weak, people who are vulnerable. Think about them and leave your personal opinions and politics at the church door. Let the strong take care of the weak.
Subordinate your needs to the needs of others. Look out for the interests, health and well-being of those around you. If you live with Grandma or Grandpa, if there are people in your home who are vulnerable or weak, you might be hesitant to come back to church. That's an act of humble submission to others. You yourself may be afraid to come to church with so many people gathered together. Continue to pray and worship at home and ask the church to come to you instead.
There will be empty pews, more than you are used to. Remember your brothers and sisters in Christ who are not able to gather with you in those pews. Pray for them. Church isn't a mall or grocery store where you go to stock up for yourself.  Church is the visible Body of Christ gathered around the Word and Sacrament to be the gathered Body of Christ. We are there for each other.

Return and Rejoice

Return to church with thanksgiving. Hopefully, we all have come to recognize what a privilege it is to be able to gather. Many of our fellow believers throughout the world are forced to meet in secret and fear. Thank God for the privilege of gathering freely and openly as a congregation.
Return to church repentantly. This is not a time of triumph. The church has a duty to intercede and to model repentance. God disciplines us through sword, plague, and famine. He seeks our repentance, turning from our idols to Him. This time of isolation has hopefully revealed some of our personal idolatries as so many things we loved have been taken away—sports, celebrities, culture, entertainment, shopping, parties. Only Jesus Christ remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. And it is this same Jesus Christ who is with us in His gifts of Word and Sacrament, no matter what fears or frustrations we encounter.  
"Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster" (Joel 2:13).
Rev. William M. Cwirla  is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, as well as president emeritus of Higher Things.

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