Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.
(Psalm 122:1-2, 6-9)
Thanks and praise be to God! Recently Governor Pritzker lifted restrictions on churches and how we may assemble for worship. While this is wonderful news, some thoughts of caution and care are in order. There is sometimes a difference between what we can do and what we should do. The fact that we can now gather without restriction does not necessarily mean that we should gather as we always have before. We are called to care for the vulnerable and the weak around us, and any steps the church takes to reopen should keep the needs of those least able to protect themselves in mind.
It is also important to remember that any time of change is an opportunity for Satan to sow the seeds of anger and dissension. Due to a large amount of changing and contradictory information about the risks of COVID-19, the mortality rate, the degree of infectiousness, the means of transmission and the like, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ within the church will have very different ideas about what should be done and when. One person may be in favor of an immediate return to what church looked like three months ago. Another might think that it is best for most members to continue watching services online for the foreseeable future, while keeping only a small number of people in the church building for the services. Others might feel comfortable with assembling in person while wearing masks and sitting in alternating pews, while others would not be comfortable with that arrangement unless the service included no singing or responsive readings during the service. All of these opinions, and many more, almost certainly are sincerely held by members within the same congregation. This situation calls for a tremendous amount of patience, understanding, and Christian love as we share our lives together in Christ.
Thanks be to God, He has blessed His church with a tremendous asset in the collective wisdom of her leaders! At the local congregational level, pastors, elders, church council members, and other leaders will be working together to establish local plans that are appropriate and tailored to each local situation. It is virtually guaranteed that not one of these plans will please everyone (including the very leaders who put the plans together)! They represent the best efforts of fallen, sinful human beings who, nevertheless, as they seek God’s guidance and blessing, are His chosen instruments to bring God’s people together. Again, most likely not a single person will agree with every decision that a congregation’s leaders will make. However, it is absolutely vital that we respect and support the congregational leadership that God has provided during this difficult time. Please support, encourage, and thank your congregational leadership as they try to do what they see as best for God’s people. Remember, it will be impossible to please everyone in the way churches reopen. Please be a force for reconciliation and peace in your congregation, rather than a voice of dissension and division. Pray for unity in the body of Christ, and then act to bring that unity into reality. We say with the Psalmist, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). Thank you in advance for your help in making the transition to returning to worship a smooth and peaceful one.
Finally, it is important to remember the hope and confidence that we have in Christ. Most of the disagreements about how to reopen society have been driven by fear—fear of becoming sick, fear of infecting others, fear of dying. As Christians, we do not need to be slaves to fear. Christ has set us free! Rejoice!
Our recent fear has been driven by news reports that COVID-19 is highly infectious and can in some cases be fatal. This is true. It is possible that someone could contract COVID-19 from being in worship with an infected person. People could die from catching COVID-19 at church. These are true possibilities. However, we must keep in mind that we have never been able to completely guarantee our health and safety, at church or anywhere else. In previous years, it was possible that someone might have gotten a flu virus from someone at church, and later died. In this way, the risks of getting sick with the Coronavirus are nothing new. We cannot, and never will, be able to guarantee with 100% certainty that nobody will become sick with COVID-19 after attending a church service. In the same way, we cannot guarantee that during worship an armed gunman will not break into church and open fire. We cannot guarantee that an earthquake will not strike during worship and cause the church building to collapse on worshippers. We cannot guarantee that you won’t get into a car accident and die on the way to or from church. We cannot absolutely guarantee the health and safety of anyone in worship, and we never could. All of life will involve a degree of risk, and it always has.
But please keep in mind, while we cannot guarantee that you will not face some kind of harm in worship, such as being infected with COVID-19, there is one thing that we can guarantee. We can guarantee that in God’s house, you will be pointed back to the waters of your baptism, and the promise of life that those living waters give. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:4-5). We can guarantee that in worship in God’s house, you will be blessed with God’s gift of forgiveness which leads to life with Him. As Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We can guarantee that in the Lord’s house, you will be offered the risen and living body and blood of Jesus Christ which join us to His eternal life. While we cannot guarantee that you won’t become sick at church, we can absolutely guarantee that church is the one place where even death itself will be defeated for you.
We do not need to be slaves to fear, because we know that Jesus is risen. Death did its worst to Jesus, and He defeated it. Christ lives, and in Him, we too will live. As St. Paul says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). St. Paul points out, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Christ has indeed destroyed even this last and greatest enemy! So, we conclude with St. Paul, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
Thanks be to God indeed! He has given us the opportunity to return to church to receive His precious gifts of the Word and Sacraments. He has given us faithful and wise local congregational leaders to guide our transition back to in-person worship. He has given His people an abundance of patience, love, and understanding to encourage one another during this time of transition, rather than tear each other down. And most importantly, He has given us life—eternal life, untouchable even by COVID-19—in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Fear not! Thanks be to God!
In Christ’s peace,
The Southern Illinois District - Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Presidium
Rev. President Timothy Scharr
Rev. Vice-President Mark Nebel (1st VP)
Rev. Vice-President Dr. Kirk Clayton (2nd VP)
Mr. Jeffrey Fick (Schools and General Executive)
Rev. Secretary Peter Ill
Mrs. Julie Johnson