You know it’s serious when even “church” is locked down! Giving new meaning to “And Can It Be?” Of course, worship itself isn’t being closed down. In fact—praise God!—there seems to be more worship than ever, even on network television which normally flees from faith as if it were a virus. Thanks to technology, we can still connect with fellow Christians, and even worship remotely. But how very disconcerting not to greet one another with handshakes and hugs, or have those lively discussions in our Bible classes, or share the bread and wine of communion that is so mutually infecting in an uplifting way. Can’t begin to tell you how much Ruth and I miss the sweet fellowship at Jones Chapel, a small rural congregation of some thirty precious souls who underscore the very reason for the shutdown. We sometimes kid that, to be a member at Jones Chapel, you must either be over 60 or have underlying health issues! So, we would never want to put any of our vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ at greater risk.
That said, can it be right to abstain from gathered worship, week after week? Is this what God would have us do? Isn’t this the very time we most need to join in mutual worship, prayer, and fellowship? That’s obviously the stance of a number of large urban churches getting media attention for defying government guidelines. None have been more vocal than churches that engage in faith healing. “Why worry?” they ask, convinced that they have access to a power greater than the virus. Part of me wants to say amen. Another part wants to say, “Faith healers of the world unite! March into the world’s hospitals and heal the dying!” Jesus and his apostles had the power to heal on command, and even to bring the dead back to life. Make that happen, and we can all return to assembling, not to mention dramatically get the attention of unbelievers!
“Obey God rather than man?” I agree. But we’re not talking here about, say, worshiping in defiance of official persecution. Fellow humans are suffering and dying! Potentially from those who insist that ordained worship ritual has no exceptions. Surely that can’t be. Biblical precedent for suspending normative faith obligations is never more highlighted than when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, drawing the ire of the pious “Sabbath police.” Saying elsewhere that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27), Jesus points to spiritual priorities in which human needs may trump religious exercise. It’s mercy over rule; the spirit of the law rather than the letter. The priest and Levite insisted on going to church despite the risk to the vulnerable. The “Good Samaritan” stayed home to protect the vulnerable.
When I was growing up, I often heard folks talk about being “providentially hindered,” a catchphrase justifying absence from worship, including everything from car accidents and tornadoes to sniffles and weekend company. I always wondered why God got the blame. Yet, if ever there’s a case for being “providentially hindered,” this virus shutdown is it. Not that the virus itself is God’s doing, but that the work of God is being done. The sermon being proclaimed is that we are giving up something extremely precious so that others might live. It’s a sermon we’ve heard before (Jn. 3:16): “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s not often the case—perhaps only once in a century—that to sacrifice in this way is better than to worship. Indeed, given the godly purpose in this crisis, our simple, loving sacrifice IS worship! Let us, then, lift our separated voices together in singing, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”