Friday, May 15, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus (Episode 13): Romans 12-14 (Coronavirus Version)

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Episode 1: Introduction)
(Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Episode 7: The Church's History During Plagues)
(Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing)
(Episode 12: Is COVID-19 A Judgment From God?)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)
(Episode 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience)

Episode 13: Romans 12-14 (Coronavirus Version)

Video



Transcript


I’d like to offer a coronavirus update to Romans 12-14. 

The original context of that passage is about church life: what it looks like to do life together when there are different opinions about what Christian freedom looks like. 

Some were convinced things were sinful that weren’t; some were so cocky about their freedoms they were turning liberty into sin. These three chapters offer excellent advice on how to have the kind of character and faith that allows people with great differences and different gifts to live together in a way that honors God and others. 

However, the main example used isn’t a contemporary issue of us here in the United States – we are not debating whether or not Christians can eat meat that was offered to Zeus before being sold in a temple market. It got me wondering: what example might the writer of Romans use if he were writing to us today?

One thing we are arguing about in this moment is about all the restrictions and guidelines because of the coronavirus. As pastors are looking for the light at the end of a very long tunnel, we are wrestling with church-related tensions that are already popping up on social media. 

  • If we require people to wear facemasks to church if the governor says we should or just because we think it’s prudent, will we be seen as living in fear? If we don’t, will be seen as brash and foolish? 
  • If we limit the number of people in the service, or separate clumps of chairs by six feet in the auditorium, or choose not to do congregational singing for a while, how many will mock that move, and how many will think it reflects wisdom?  
  • Some families won’t mind bringing their kids and letting the little hooligans bounce off each other. That’s a problem for others, especially those with immune-compromised kids who already take flu season very seriously. 

The debate is already happening in the Christian community on social media. Some people are pushing back against the governmental boundaries and recommendations; they claim others who accept tem are controlled by fear. Some people are embracing the guidelines; they claim they are full of love and those who reject them are controlled by selfishness. Are the faith-filled out and about and the faith-deprived still home? Do the faith-filled shun masks and hug people while the faith-depleted wear masks and foot bump as a way of greeting? 

It’s going to get worse as churches get back together and not everyone is there, and only half of those who are there are wearing masks, and some won’t want to shake the hands offered to them, and someone’s going to go in for a hug and punched in the face. “If you are scared and don't trust God, stay home” is going to be met with, “If you can’t love and honor your neighbor by observing protocol, don’t come to church.”

I think this Romans passage has something to say about this. To be clear, I am taking creative liberties to apply what I believe is the heart of this passage to our current situation in church and broader community life. 

So, here we go. Don’t cut out your Bible’s version and replace it with this, for heaven’s sake. This is meant to be thought and conversation provoking. Treat it as an imperfect creative analogy exploring the implications of what honor and love look like in our setting within the church and our broader community. 

I urge you, Christian brothers and sisters, as we keep God’s mercy toward us in mind, to pass that mercy on to others, living self-sacrificially in a way that pleases God—this is our true and proper response of worship.  Don’t mimic the selfish patterns of the culture; God is renewing you and giving you the ability to think from His perspective about the world and life. As that happens, you will be able to test and approve the good, pleasing and perfect will of God for you. 

First, you have to get over yourself. You have to give up the idea that everything revolves around you and recognize that you are a part of something much, much bigger than yourself. You are part of a diverse community in the church, connected with others through Christ, with the plan that your presence will contribute to the church’s flourishing. It’s not about you. It’s about ‘us.’  This is not going to be easy, so here are a few things to keep in mind. 
  • Be lovingly sincere when you interact with others. 
  • Reject things that draw you toward or encourage sinful thoughts, attitudes or actions, and cling to everything around you that is holy and good. 
  • Be devoted to other people in love. 
  • Honor others above yourself.  
  • Serve God fervently and zealously.  
  • Be joyful, full of hope, patient when you are in trials or afflictions, and faithful in praying for people and situations.  
  • Share with people who are in need. 
  • Be hospitable.
  • If someone causes problems for you, bless them. Do not curse them. 
  • Learn how to connect with people where they are: Rejoice with people who are happy; mourn with those who are weeping.  
 This is just basic information you can apply to any situation that will help you live in harmony with one another.  It bears repeating: do not be proud; don’t overlook or disdain people. Just - do not be conceited. I know I said this three times now, but seriously. Pride and arrogance is the heart of so many relational problems. You’ve got to get over yourself and be thinking about the needs of others.

Why? Well, among other reasons, you are a witness. You have the privilege and responsibility of being God’s representative on earth. If someone does something bad to you, don’t do something bad back. Remember that mercy thing? If someone does something you don’t like, don’t do something back they won’t like. In fact, you should always be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. Don’t go out of your way to antagonize people or think it’s cool to push the boundaries of what’s legal or decent. In fact, if it is possible, as far as it is within your power, live at peace with everyone. Don’t let bad or frustrating things overwhelm you; rob those bad things of their power by doing good.

And all of you - listen to the government officials.  God has established those roles of authority.  Whoever rebels against their authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. If you do that, you deserve for the government to crack down on you.  Listen, you don’t want them angry at you. You are going to have enough problems when you are on their radar simply because you are Christians. You need to be banking a good reputation all the time. 

Rulers aren’t a problem for those who do right and honor their authority; rulers are a problem for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from worrying about what someone in authority might do to you? Then listen to them, and do what is right. They are God’s servants for your good. But if you decide you know better and do something they said not to do, well then you ought to be afraid.

Rulers have the right and the ability to punish those who do wrong. You must submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. It’s a witness. People know you are followers of Jesus, so how you conduct yourselves matters. Unless the government asks you to sin or deny Jesus, God expects obedience from you. 

This is part of a broader principle: give to everyone what you owe to him or her. A great practical example is to pay the taxes you owe. We do that even when we don’t want to, right? But it’s more than that.  You owe respect to people, so give them respect; you owe honor to people – especially your political leaders – so give them honor, even when you don’t want to. 

So let’s talk about how to apply this to the virus. Don’t quarrel over things about which there are legitimate differences of opinion: the economy, epidemiology, case counts, cures or lockdown protocol. Discuss these things like adult Christians. Don’t rant and argue and demean and blow up at each other. Respect and honor.

You are going to have to navigate some treacherous waters as you start meeting again.  One person will think not meeting is a sign of spiritual cowardice that robs us of discipleship and robs the world of evangelism and saved souls. And thus conscience compels them to meet now.

Another person will be convinced meeting is a sign of foolhardy arrogance that will kill the very people who need to be saved and disciple, and will harm our witness in the community. And thus conscience compels them to stay home now.  Do not be contemptuous or judgmental of the other. Their position and their conscience will stand or fall in front of God, not you. 

One person thinks the best way through this is to open up, get herd immunity, and carry on before the economy implodes.  Another favors social distancing and stay-at-home directives to protect the vulnerable.  Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind and have reached their decision honestly, motivated by love and mercy for others, before the Lord.

Just remember this as you stake out your position: none of us lives for ourselves alone. We belong to the Lord first and the community of the church second, and we are embedded in an even broader community. We are part of something bigger than ourselves on multiple levels. Our actions are intertwined with the lives of others. Pray for wisdom and truth informed by love and mercy. 

So all of you: Get over yourselves. Don’t treat others with contempt. Stop throwing harsh and demeaning condemnation at others and making mountainous arguments about things over which you should merely have molehill differences. Your witness and the reputation of the church are at stake. Because you are a Christian –the visible presence of Jesus as an ambassador who is part of his temple, the church - you could harm the faith of a brother or sister in Christ, or put a totally unnecessary stumbling block or obstacle in the path of people who are on their way to the cross.

Even if you are fully convinced that the danger from the coronavirus is nothing and the government is despotic, if another person is worried and finds comfort in the restrictions, take it seriously and interact honorably. If your neighbor is distressed because of all the liberties you take, and you know it, and you think, “Well you need to toughen up,” you are no longer acting in love and respect. 

You are a witness: Do not by your liberty push someone away in church from church. Even if you are right, if you arrogantly flaunt recommendations and treat others with contempt, you will be thought of as dangerous, callous, and foolish. 

Listen, the kingdom of God is not about face masks and quarantines and eating in restaurants and fishing and shopping and even the building where we meet on Sundays; it’s about righteousness, peace and joy – and the mercy, love, honor and respect I mentioned earlier. Anyone who represent Christ and serves others with those things not only pleases God but receives approval from everyone, which means our lives are functioning as witnesses that makes Christ and his kingdom compelling. 

Make every effort to do what leads to peace and the mutual building up of people. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of a face mask. You could be right –the whole thing could be a hoax – but you would still be wrong if you shamed the reputation of Christ and his church and put up a roadblock between the cross and people far from the cross just because you couldn't be bothered to do something you didn’t want to do. What matters is honoring God, loving others and building the reputation of Christ.


Reflections


I  made the video a week ago. I posted this on my Facebook wall yesterday.

What political leader recently said the following?
"I want to thank all the Christians in Michigan. During this pandemic, church members were frustrated like the rest of us, but they modeled patience in adversity. Even when Christians disagreed with the restrictions - and they made it clear that they did - they proved they took their biblical command to honor their leaders seriously. As the restrictions eased, even as they chafed to return to the church life they knew, they set the standard for how to re-engage in all public venues, from stores to churches to homes and parks, with respect for official guidelines and the safety others, by embracing the personal safety protocol for the sake of the at risk people around them. Their members, from day one, purposefully used their social media platforms to model thoughtfulness, kindness, truth and love, and time after time brought peace and hope to tense situations. While others were trying to find villains to blame, Christians were finding victims to serve. While others pushed the boundaries, Christians showed us what is was like to flourish within them. As much as is in my power, I will make sure the history written about this time treats Christians and their churches kindly."
 So, what political leader recently said this?

Not a one. I suspect you had a gnawing sense that something wasn't right the longer your read it. I could have broadened it - "what person in Michigan" - and it probably wouldn't have sat any more comfortably.

That there is such jarring dissonance between that quote and what is actually happening is just another layer of tragedy piled on to an already tragic time.

It doesn't have to be this way.

There is still time to change this.

We could yet be a witness.

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