I was recently talking to some people about how the church as a whole handled COVID. Given that COVID is far from over and some places in our country and around the world are moving back to lockdowns, the question of how the church should function in the midst of these circumstances is still very relevant.
There’s the natural understanding that we, as the church, should be gathering together. St. Paul says as much. This act of gathering together is an essential part of what it means to be God’s people. We are the people who have God in their midst and our identity and most important function is to be where God is.
This necessity ends up getting a little more convoluted when the physical safety of the members becomes a question. While I won’t wade into the debate of meeting vs. not meeting right now, I will acknowledge that even those who did not meet understood the importance of receiving God’s grace through Word and sacrament. Hearing God’s Word even when at home is not a great difficulty. Many churches were able to record or stream their services so they could be watched at home. Something is certainly lost when the people are not gathering, but, nevertheless, the Word is preached and proclaimed.
That gets a bit more difficult when talking about the sacraments. Following the Lutheran definition of the sacraments, they must have a physical element. That makes the sacraments a lot more difficult to sort out, since they necessitate some amount of physical interaction. To that end, it is commendable that we as the church were earnestly trying to dig into that problem and tried to address it. It’s unfortunate that in some cases, those with differing viewpoints on the matter were dismissive or confrontational toward those they didn’t agree with.
What is also unfortunate was the overriding principle that drove the discussions was usually, “How do we get the sacraments to the people under these circumstances?” While it is true that the sacraments are there for the people, the first duty and responsibility of pastors, and the church as a whole, is not to the church, but to God. Sadly, in circumstances of this nature that distinction gets rather muddied.
That isn’t to say we as pastors or all of us together as the church should not bother caring for others. Far from it. What it does mean is that caring for others comes, first and foremost, from attending to God’s commands. No one is helped when God’s work is undermined, even when the motivation is to help others. This is why the list of duties on thecall documents given to an LCMS pastor begin:
“To administer to us the Word of God in its full truth and purity as contained in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as set forth in the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as found in the Book of Concord;
To administer the holy sacraments in accordance with their divine institution;”
This is where all pastoral work and all Christian life begin, with Word and sacrament. Both Word and sacrament are intended for God’s people, but they are not for us to do with as we please. Leviticus 22 says:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons so that they abstain from the holy things of the people of Israel, which they dedicate to me, so that they do not profane my holy name: I am the LORD. Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.'”
No one is helped when the sacraments are used improperly. In fact, there are serious consequences to misusing them. God has bound His promise to these things. His name is placed on them and how they are used and what they are used for will reflect back on Him. This responsibility is just as important in the New Testament era as it was in the Old Testament, for St. Paul tells the Corinthian church their practice of communion does not follow God’s direction. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:29-30).
I cannot possibly get into all of the various ways in which the sacraments might be improperly used. What I can say is that our job is always to hold up God as holy and distinct from all other powers and authorities in creation. With that in mind, it is better to refrain from the sacraments altogether rather that use them in a manner that is not in keeping with God’s command. The God who gave them to us and who promises to provide for us will by no means punish His people for following His command.
This mindset should be how we as the church approach everything that we do. We do need to care for people and for the rest of creation, but we are firstly called to honor God. Starting with that mindset will do far more to bring grace to God’s people and care for the world around us than any other approach we might take.