Sunday, May 10, 2020
Most churches have done what ours has done during the Coronavirus global pandemic, and moved to conducting meetings through Zoom calls and worship through streaming platforms. But not all. Most churches, like us, have closed down the facilities except for essential functions, in our case the food pantry, But not all.
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church[i] and Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge were arrested for holding in-person worship services after the governors in Florida and Louisiana respectively had put in place stay-at-home orders. Along with churches in Ohio, Arkansas, and other parts of Florida, these churches have held in-person meetings.
Why are these congregations ignoring the science about the Coronavirus, and defying the government guidelines, and in some case government orders?
Pastor Lawrence Bishop of the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio said paraphrasing Psalm 91, “No plague would come nigh our dwelling if we dwell under the shadow of the Almighty.”[ii] Is he more confident in God’s protection than those of us who have temporarily closed our church doors? Pastor Bishop added, “The Devil don’t like us to assemble together because he is afraid of the vibration of our praise.” Are the churches that refuse to comply with the Center for Disease Control’s preventive measures standing as a bulwark against the onslaught of Satan?
What’s actually happening here? What is the best course of action for a follower of Jesus?
Because of COVID-19 people are getting sick, and dying. New York hospitals were so overwhelmed by the number of critical patients, Samaritans’ Purse had to set up emergency field hospitals in Central Park to help meet the caseload. Because COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be spread by people who have it but do not have symptoms everyone is a possible carrier and spreader. Because COVID-19 is new, we don’t yet fully know how to treat it or inoculate against it.
Thus, the country has shut down. This shutdown has sparked a national debate. What’s worse, Coronavirus-related deaths or unemployment and the dramatic downturn of the economy? Christians set their faith in Jesus aside and then take sides, either maximum caution, or reopen immediately. Distressed as we are, how do we follow Jesus in this troubling time? How do we embody faith?
My high school football coach wanted us to play defense with reckless abandon. Run to the ballcarrier at full speed. Run through blocks. When you get to the runner, tackle him hard. Drive him to the ground. Reckless abandon. It’s wonderful in football. Can other things be done with reckless abandon?
Baton Rouge police chief Roger Corcoran called Pastor Spell’s decision to keep Life Tabernacle open when the rest of us are staying home “Reckless and irresponsible.”[iii] Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister, in Florida, said of Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne who kept The River Church open, “His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people from his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week.”[iv]
Reckless. Are pastors Spell and Howard-Browne leading their churches with the kind of determination my coach wanted to see on his defense? Should other pastors follow their bold example? Reckless.
In the Bible, Acts chapter 6, the first deacons are commissioned to oversee, of all things, a food distribution. The first church had conflict based on the perception of favoritism. Greek-speaking widows complained that the Hebrew-speaking widows were being fed, but the Greek-speakers, Hellenists, were not. The apostles didn’t want to sacrifice preaching and praying time to deal with this complaint, so they commissioned deacons to handle it. One of those first deacons, Stephen, was also an amazing preacher and defender of the faith.
He was so good, synagogue leaders in Jerusalem felt threatened, and as they did with Jesus previously, trumped up false charges and brought him before the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s defense, the text of Acts chapter 7, infuriates his accusers. At the end of it, they, like 5-year-olds, cover their ears, and say “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! Not listening!” They drag him outside and stone him to death. As he is dying, Stephen has a vision of the resurrected Jesus. To Jesus he says, “Lord, do not hold not hold their sin against them” (Acts 7:60). They’re killing him and he’s asking God to pardon them! How? One commentator I read writes, “Stephen is able to love so recklessly because he has entrusted himself to Jesus.”[v]
Again that word; Reckless. Is it possible to show the Jesus-love we see in the Bible with the vigor of a determined linebacker bearing down on a quarterback? I’ll love you as hard a Luke Kuechly tackled running backs. What does this mean? Reckless love. Reckless leadership. Reckless abandon.
Trying to serve God during a global pandemic is hard. Stephen faced hardship. He was tried for insisting that Jesus is Lord and we all need the salvation only Jesus gives. What if we hold up Stephen’s witness alongside the actions of American churches and church leaders who have defied CDC quarantine guidelines?
The first line of comparison is suffering and loss. American churches today face the loss of the freedom to gather. Whether you think it is the disease, or overreactive government guidelines, either way, we’re not gathered in church. You’re at home watching this. Leaders, like Pastors Bishop, Howard-Browne, and Spell declare their independence as they invite their members to assemble even though, in the name of public safety, the governor has said to not do that. Coupled with protestors storming different state capitals, we hear a collective clamoring to open up.
Stephen’s circumstance was different. He felt compelled by God to declare that Jesus is Lord. His trial came when leaders in Jerusalem felt threatened by his message. While his preaching defied a government order, when he was arrested, he did not protest. Instead, he spoke directly to his persecutors. He leaned into the situation. When stoned, he prayed for his executioners. As a follower of Jesus, his concern was for the Kingdom of God. To share Jesus with his persecutors, he gladly forfeited his rights. Christians in today’s America demand their rights. Quarantine resistors bristle, where Stephen leaned in and shared Jesus.
A second line of comparison is wisdom and knowledge. Did you see evangelist Kenneth Copeland vigorously blow into a microphone declaring, “COVID-19, I blow the wind of God on you?” Why didn’t Stephen do that? Stephen preached. It’s the longest sermon recorded in any of Luke’s writings, even longer than Luke’s record of Jesus’ lengthiest sermons. Stephen preached and prayed.
Today our knowledge of the physical world comes from wisdom accumulated through generations of observation, study, repeated research, and peer-reviewed findings. Science is a gift God has given, a way for women and men to expand their obedience to Jesus’ command that we love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). Best practices by scientists who love the Lord is obedience to this command. But some high-profile Christians downplay the voice of scientists and even accuse the scientific community of conspiring against the Bible and against God. Even when devout Jesus followers are the very scientists sharing the newest information, others in the church resist this knowledge and instead blow into microphones. I don’t remember Jesus doing that. The Holy Spirit is God, and is not tossed around by any evangelist or anyone.
Stephen appealed to the shared values and knowledge of his community. To understand the world, first century AD Israelites relied on scripture, which told the stories of creation, the Exodus, the monarchy, and the witness of the prophets. Stephen situates his message in this shared story. In the final note he likens those who oppose Jesus to the wicked monarchs who opposed God’s prophets (7:51-53).
Today’s Christians face a loss of the right to assemble and resist that loss by opposing the government and demanding our rights. Stephen faced a loss of life and leaned into the situation in order to talk about Jesus to his persecutors. Some of today’s Christians, not all, not even most, but some ignore our shared frame of knowledge and wisdom by actively resisting the recommendations gleaned from scientific research. Instead they oppose the Coronavirus by resorting to comical theatrics and unbiblical postures. Stephen presented the gospel of Jesus within the framework of the wisdom of his day, the story of Israel.
A third line of comparison is the stance. When churches decide to gather and risk spreading the Coronavirus, what do they think they are standing for? As a body of people joined together in Christ, what do we stand for?
Is it “us,” God’s people, against “them,” the government? Are “they” out to get us? After he was arrested and released, Rodney Howard-Browne went straight back to defiance, back to his congregation whom he told, “They’re trying to beat me up, you know, having the church operational, but we are not a nonessential service.” He continued, “My encouragement to you is not to talk to these people because they’re not looking for truth. They’re just trying to find an angle to shut the church down.”[vi] He specifically told his church to not talk to governing officials or reporters. Understand, God doesn’t need The River Church in Tampa to be open for God to be God.
Our spiritual need to be with each other. Worshiping is as real as any need we have. But for the time, we relate at a safe distance, because we care for one another’s health. God doesn’t need people gathered at Hillside Church in Chapel Hill for God to be God.
Stephen understood that God didn’t need him walking the earth in order for God’s truth to be true. But his executioners did need God to save them from their sins. So, he preached a sermon in which he named their sins, described his vision of Jesus, and asked God to forgive them. The results of his stand were the gospel was heard. The hearers might repent and turn to Jesus. Churches that defy stay-at-home orders jeopardize public safety. Christianity loses credibility in the public square.
We are called to proclaim that Jesus is Lord and that all can have salvation in his name. We must never compromise as we answer that call. But we must answer it in a way that is intelligible and has a hearing in the public square. Stephen was stoned because his hearers understood his message perfectly and felt threatened by it. Churches today that ignore the Coronavirus threat are not feared and are not stoned, They are lampooned. They make Christians look like fools.
We are called to give a more effective witness. Like Stephen, we pray. Pray for the church, for your neighborhood, and for those who govern. Like Stephen we proclaim; have a conversation with someone about Jesus. Tell someone what Jesus means in your life.
Do something reckless. Donate food to our food pantry. Or volunteer. Pray for someone who cusses you out or cuts you in traffic. Be extra kind to the people in your house, those cooped up with you as you stay at home. Pray a little extra for doctors and nurses, for those who have the disease; pray for those who disagree with you and for those who seem to be losing it Make sure your recklessness is the recklessness of love. And when you put yourself out there to care for others, wear a facemask. God is with us, even when we have to stay home.