If you have been a compliant citizen given to civil obedience, then like me, you “sheltered in place” for months. You may have been isolated with or without a family, with or without a companion. We were isolated from one another. Depending on your state of residence, you still may be experiencing such conditions. Either way, ‘isolation’ with reference to human affairs rarely evokes anything but negative connotations. To be isolated denotes separation from others, being alone, strandedness, even when it is a self-imposed or compliant isolation for your own sake and/or the good of your neighbor. Consequently, being isolated and feeling isolated cannot but impinge upon hope, especially when the current crisis has no clear endpoint, with fears of “hotspots” and “second waves” touted from every media outlet.
Christians may have acutely felt this period of isolation since we belong to the Church. The Church, for the baptized, is not a voluntary association like a softball league or Kiwanis. It does not have a corresponding “work-from-home” category either. To be baptized is, by definition, to be made a member of Christ’s body, the Church. We are plunged into the Church. But we are not the Church. Not actually. Not per se. When we are isolated from the entity that is “the Church of the living God, the foundation and pillar of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), then the hope of Christ is impinged, and people lose hope.
Now, I bring this up because of what did not take place (or perhaps continues to take place) in some communities, namely the gathering of some, even just one communicant member with their pastor for the Divine Service of the Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ which, together, actuate the Church in our midst. Put bluntly, some pastors did not preach the Word, did not consecrate the Sacrament, and did not distribute the means of grace. They may have suspended the duties of their vocation out of fear, perhaps thinking it is the best for everyone, or perhaps from laziness. There is no point in speculating. But what did not motivate the ‘suspend-all-activities’ mindset was an understanding that the Church cannot and does not exist without the service of the Word and the service of the Sacraments. Two things were lost as a result: The manifestation of the Church in a time of crisis and the hope of Christ present with His people in a time of fear and anxiety. For, where the Church is, there is hope, because where the Church is, there is Christ. That is where hope abides in isolating times — Christ’s true voice and Christ’s true presence. Thus, the hope of Immanuel, “God with us,” casts out all fear. Of crucial importance during this time of isolation and ongoing social distancing is the continual convening of the Church, be it ever so responsibly small and representative, for the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered for the forgiveness of sins, that is, the Word of Life and the Bread of Life.
For, where the Church is, there is hope, because where the Church is, there is Christ. That is where hope abides in isolating times — Christ’s true voice and Christ’s true presence.
I am not addressing here the rule of law concerning public assemblies, but rather those situations where pastors took a hiatus from Word and Sacrament ministry during the so-called lockdown (which continues in some places), as well as live-streaming “services” occurring without gospel proclamation and at least the knowledge that Holy Communion continues where the broadcast ends. Both the neglect of any-kind-of-assembly for preaching and the total absence of Holy Communion are antithetical to the vitality of the Church and the hope of a sequestered people. Since we cannot be self-feeders, we need to know the Church persists, especially when the people of God are not, overall, assembling from New York to San Diego.
Do not get me wrong, I understand the notion of “fasting” for Holy Communion until lawfully permitted to gather with the full assembly of believers (although, this could never be my practice). But let us acknowledge this is far from ideal and, aside from seriously calling into question the First Amendment and, as an even loftier law from a greater authority, the Third Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” Exodus 20:8), abstaining from Holy Communion deprives the Christian of the viaticum; manna for the journey of life. Tertullian (c. AD 198) stated it thus: “Christ is our Bread, because Christ is Life, and bread is life. He says, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ Then, too, we find that His body is reckoned in bread: ‘This is my body.’” Not to mention, fasting from preaching or imposing a fast of preaching by dereliction of pastoral duty, betrays the impetus behind the Reformation, namely that God’s proclaimed Word saves and sanctifies.
There is no biblical theology or ecclesiology (Doctrine of the Church) which permits forsaking any, much less all, from gathering for “The Service of the Word” and pastors taking a hiatus from “The Service of the Sacrament.” Instead, we read: “Do not forsake the assembling together of ourselves as is the custom with some” (Hebrews 10:25). Someone, even if it is just the pastor’s immediate family or closest associate, needs to be gathering with the celebrant in Word and Sacrament for the Church to be the Church and hope to be solid, especially for those who are not gathering for the actual reception of the body and blood of Christ due to being sequestered.
In unusual times such as these, a few healthy members with the celebrant serve to represent, for isolated others, the Holy Church that assembles, perseveres, and persists even amidst plague and pestilence, war and want. Hope, then, abides when Christ resides within the Church and the Church is manifest in the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. This does not and cannot happen in virtuosity or, synonymously, cyberspace. The people of God must know Holy Ministry occurs in time and space (even if others only view through social media); the very same time and space in which we find ourselves isolated, in need, missing and needing the comfort of, “Immanuel, God with us.” Our hearts and minds need to know where Christ is present for and with His people. The answer has never changed: Always in the Word and Sacraments, always in the Church. In the Church, Christ self-presents as the hope of the world. The stop-gap measure, then, cannot be total suspension of some assembly (be it ever so limited by strictures of five or ten) for the Word and Sacraments. Rather, the temporary measure is Facebook streaming for most believers who may be comforted by the fact that the Word and Sacraments persevere and persist when nothing else does. It is a missed opportunity to placard Christ as the hope of the world when preaching and sacramental action go neglected. The world itself needs the hope derived from the assembled Church, be it ever so few in numbers by responsible and willing representatives.
The world itself needs the hope derived from the assembled Church, be it ever so few in numbers by responsible and willing representatives.
The Church starts with Christ and His Word. What gives instantiation to the Church, then, is the Word incarnated, orated and sacramented. The Church is not merely an idea or invisible entity. It has a locale, a physicality, just like our bodies, our families. We are embodied someplace; likewise, the Church. Where the Church is, where we know the Church is, we know Christ is present with and for His people — all of them. Where Christ is present, when even just two or three are gathered for the Word and Sacrament, there is faith, hope, and comfort.
Luther, with the earliest Christians, understood the material world possessed great value and could be sanctified for divine purposes, could be altered by the Word-wielding Holy Spirit who “seizes the water” and “brings Christ” as true food and true drink in the here and now. So, Christ has not left us down here alone, isolated amidst pandemic and economic upheaval. No. The resurrection and ascension were not the end of the incarnation, but the continuation of it! For the same Christ who, “will never leave you, nor forsake you,” also said, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you,” and, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the Earth.” The Gospel, therefore, is that which constitutes the Church and gives the Church “locatedness” as God’s possession, through which He brings the Kingdom of Heaven to bear on earth where Christ is present in His person (Sacraments) and with His authority (Word). It is through the locatedness of the Church that one anchors faith in Christ and the sure hope we are not alone, and God is for us and with us through Jesus.
The Gospel then elicits faith, begets the Church, and constitutes her authority and reason for existence: “The sure mark by which the Christian congregation can be recognized is that the pure gospel is preached there. For just as the banner of an army is the sure sign that they have taken the field, so, too, the Gospel is the sure sign by which one knows where Christ and His army are encamped.” Pastors, then, are to raise the standard, lift high the banner of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament even among the smallest of gatherings so the Church may be the Church. Where this does not happen, when preachers fall silent, opportunities to be the Church, to be the Ark of Salvation, are lost. But where the Church is manifest with her Bridegroom in the world, there is hope, real hope. We cannot be alone when this is the case. Thus, the Church has a this-world reality, a predictable concrete manifestation for people living in an empirical world who have this-world fears, hardships, and isolations.
Parishioners, likewise, should expect Christ to be present and so dispel the notion of entirely abstaining from preaching and Holy Communion or, at least, they should expect their pastor to make the Word and Sacrament available to a representative few who, in the understanding that the Church is a contiguous entity encompassing Christ’s redeemed people in Heaven and Earth, in assembly and isolation, commune with the risen and reigning Lord. Christians sheltering-in-place need this hope and the hope of returning to the assembly where Christ is present.
Comfort, therefore, one another with these words: Christ is present with His people.