Theologians will write whole books on the great loss we are experiencing. We have seen the sudden disappearance of what we have known, for at least a century, as church life. This is a mournful time. But that loss — as with any loss — need not be singularly tragic, especially for those of us who serve and follow a crucified Messiah. Our churches may find that there are lessons to be learned and directions in which we might grow. Over time, we will discern more of those lessons and find more of those directions. I am in the position of a theologian who serves not in the chair of a professor, but on the staff of a church. From where I am serving I can see four directions in which I think the church should be walking. So here, I will offer a theological agenda for churches during the COVID-19 pandemic in two parts. Part one will frame the new experience of church and preach to the fear of death while part two concerns serving the vulnerable and gathering pastors together.
(1) Frame the new experience of church. We need to theologically frame the change through which our churches are living. Pastors should be ready to explain to their congregations what precisely is happening to their identity as members of the body of Christ. In this time, I think we may be starting to see a more profound, biblical, and spiritually authentic vision of the Church coming into clearer view. So what does it mean to be the Church? It cannot mean being together physically. If physical presence is required, then none of us have been the Church for weeks. To be the Church does not mean to be gathered together in body, but still must entail unity. How else could you read the Bible? There has to be some kind of unity that remains real despite physical proximity. What could possible sustain that? I think the New Testament vision of the church as the body of Christ circumscribed by the Holy Spirit makes good sense here. Indeed, it has been a key Pentecostal insight that, for the New Testament authors, the church is just as much a pneumatic reality as it may be (in good Reformed terminology) the creature of the Word. After all, it is the Spirit’s presence among the people of God that, in their own subjective experience, makes them a real instantiation of the historical, objective reality that is the work of Jesus Christ. We see this line of thinking reflected in passages like Romans 8.9-11. A clearer sense of how the Holy Spirit makes the church a reality is a key theological resource in a time when we are losing a previously-reliable facet of our church experience, namely gathering together. The Spirit, the local presence of God that is not bound to any one local, can be our bond of genuine unity even when we are geographically far apart. We are still the Church, even when we are separated, because the Spirit keeps us united as one people who are still active in the work of God. As we preach through this time, lean into the reality of God’s church-making Spirit.
The Spirit, the local presence of God that is not bound to any one local, can be our bond of genuine unity even when we are geographically far apart.
(2) Preach to the fear of death. We modern people, we most technologically advanced of the historical human race — we fear death. We are seeing now more clearly than just a few weeks ago that our society is built upon an elaborate attempt to shield ourselves from the reality of death. But we Christians have no room for the fear of death. This is perhaps the most difficult and liberating implication of the message of Jesus Christ. This is the tough prerogative of the Good News: we no longer have any excuse to remain slaves to the fear of death. This is precisely what the author of Hebrews believed in no uncertain terms: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (2:14-15).
We no longer have any excuse to remain slaves to the fear of death.
Hebrews is the Jesus we need to be preaching right now — the Jesus of the Scriptures who has not only overcome death but freed us from the fear of death. This is a Jesus who, as v.14 says, shares in our plight. He was like us poor humans whose are haunted by death from the day of our birth. Maybe that is why the canonical Passion narratives spend so much time not simply on the Cross itself, but also on the drama of Jesus approaching his own death. It is a drama that so few of us know personally but so many of us will face. It is a drama that, in these days, we are constantly wondering about: is today the day I inhale an imperceptible particle of the “invisible killer” that is floating among us? Christians need not be slaves to this logic of fear. The question that we need to be asking ourselves is not, “Is today the day I die?” but “What would the risen Lord have me do today?” Of course, telling someone not to be afraid has rarely been the solution to fear, and I imagine that is as true for our parishioners today as it has ever been for anyone. That said, it seems to me that pastors should actively be engaged in the homiletic challenge of showing how the resurrection of Jesus Christ was God’s way of changing that precise experience which so many of us are undergoing these days: the fear of death.