Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
Dear members and friends of the Pacifica Synod,
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I find myself in this Easter season noticing more than I had in the past how much the lives of the disciples changed with Jesus’ death and resurrection. They had lost one of their number, Judas, and had to deal with the reality of his betrayal of Jesus, and of them and their trust. They had to give up all notions of earthly power and wealth, realizing that the Reign of God would not bring them material comfort or political power as they had thought. They were given a new mission—to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, to teach. They were to live as Jesus’ followers, trusting not in earthly power but in the power of Christ that is made perfect in weakness. Instead of living long lives of prestige, James the brother of John would be the first to be martyred, and tradition has it that ten of the eleven remaining disciples were put to death for their faith. It was a harder life than the one they had envisioned, but it was a life filled with meaning and purpose, and filled with hope that the God who conquered death would continue to put to death all systems that drain human beings of life on this earth, and would work in and through them to bring life and joy in this life, and when this life is over, would lead them into eternal life. They embraced a life that brought suffering and lived in faith and hope that God would be at work in and through them to make a difference in the world.
We currently are facing lives filled with more suffering and hardship than we could have imagined just a few months back. Many of us are separated physically from those we love. We see friends via the internet, we talk over the phone, but we are asked to keep our distance from all who live apart from us in order to protect them, and ourselves, from the coronavirus. But, like the early disciples, we do not face these hardships alone. Jesus says to us, “I am with you always to the end of the age,” just as he said it to the early disciples. And because Jesus is with us, we can continue the journey our Lord has placed before us. We can continue to proclaim the good news that God is alive and active in our world, that the Holy Spirit is among us giving us all we need to face the challenges of this day, that God who is mother and father of us all continues to gather us as beloved children and calls us to love each other as a good mother enables her children to love each other because they know how deeply she loves them.
We are in this together, friends and members of the Pacifica Synod. And we continue on this journey together. But many of you are asking, what happens when this journey ends? When can our churches come back together? When will we be able to worship in the same building at the same time, singing and praying and communing as we did in the past?
I would urge you to be patient for a while longer. Our governors still have shelter at home orders for all of us. Hawai’i’s order has been extended through May 31, and California’s continues without a timetable to end. Public health officials have not yet said it is safe to gather even a few at a time. Which means that if we meet too quickly, we will endanger the lives of our neighbors. When Jesus was asked which the greatest commandment was, he responded as follows: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:30-31) The way we show our love for God on earth is by loving and protecting our neighbors. In order to protect the lives of our neighbors, we should keep distance for as long as public health officials request that we do so. This means we should not plan to return to public worship until we are cleared to do so.
When we do come back together, we will need to carefully consider how to do so. The virus will not be gone, and experts are stating that we will need to meet first in smaller groups, probably of no more than ten at a time. Churches may want to meet in person, but there should be consideration for those who will not feel safe to meet—those in high risk groups, such as those over 60 or those who suffer from respiratory or other health conditions. Even if some worship is done in person, those who have stayed at home and need to continue to do so should not be forgotten. Online worship, bible study, and fellowship will be with us for a while.
We in the office of the Bishop are encouraging pastors, deacons, and church councils to discuss how congregations should re-open when our governors and public health officials say we may do so. We encourage these leaders to continue to listen to advice from health officials as to how many can safely gather. Distancing will still be required, and singing will be difficult, as singing can spread the virus from greater distances. Masks may need to be worn at public gatherings for some time, which will make the reception of communion difficult. There are many issues for congregations to consider. Luckily, there are others in our society who are thinking about such issues. The governor of Wisconsin is allowing churches to hold public worship (to start only for gatherings of 10 people or fewer, with future phases allowing for more worshippers), and the Wisconsin Council of Churches put together a helpful guide for thinking about how to safely do so. I found this a helpful resource in thinking through some of the issues involved in being church during this time of COVID-19, and I encourage you to read it as you think about how your own church may ensure safety for those who gather once gathering is allowed.
No matter when or how we meet again, we will not be the same. The disciples found a new energy and enthusiasm for ministry due to the changes they experienced after Easter. I pray the same will be true for us. As you walk through the challenges of this day, keep your eyes open for the opportunities Jesus brings you to share your faith, to help your neighbor, to live in grace, hope, and love. Let us use this time to give witness in word and deed to the God who loves us and rose from the dead for us. And let us continue to use our lives to praise God by helping our neighbors have all they need to live and thrive.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
Bishop Andy Taylor