Thursday, April 2, 2020

Passover in the Age of Social Distancing

In recent weeks, Christians have found themselves navigating waters that have been relatively uncharted for a century. As the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19 has spread across the globe, leaders worldwide have started placing restrictions on social gatherings in attempts to limit transmission. Many state and national leaders have requested that U.S. Residents restrict group meetings to 10 or fewer individuals; some have gone as far as asking residents to stay home at all times unless except for essentials like groceries, medical attention or exercise.

These requests have challenged leaders from all denominations, now forced to help the church come together as one body – in a hundred separate homes. How can individuals serve others as the hands and feet of Jesus when all their limbs are required to maintain six feet of distance. Many churches have instituted online services. Some have opened drive-thru centers to hand out public assistance. But few seem to have found a good solution for handling communion – the commemoration of bread and wine.

While all Christian traditions adopt this sacrament, differing theological viewpoints affect how the ritual is practiced. Many protestants churches view communion as an important, yet symbolic, ritual memorializing Christ's sacrifice in remembrance “as often as” it is done. Some churches practice it weekly; others monthly; still others quarterly. In the current situation, many feel relatively comfortable waiting indefinitely for the next safe opportunity.

Catholics vary some in their belief about communion, but generally view the practice less symbolically and more as a ritual to be practiced regularly. The elements are served at every mass; but as I understand, it is generally accepted that Catholics should take communion at least once per year; preferably around Easter.  In my area, the diocesan archbishops has granted dispensation from mass – – to all within our district until the crisis passes.

It's more challenging to clearly define the views of the Churches of God, since they never had a  systematic theology and each splinter has its own flavor. Generally, though, the COGs view Passover – their annual communion service – as an observance critical to salvation. This view is based on Numbers 9:13:

But if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the Lord's offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin. 

This application is in keeping with COG teachings on “ongoing justification” - that man is initially reconciled to God through Christ's sacrifice, but then is responsible for keeping his own slate clean – to varying extents – through a track record of repentance and spiritual growth. In short, if you're required to keep your library record up to date, the appointment for renewing your library card is critical.  and the schedule for available renewals is pretty limited - in this case, one evening per year.

I clearly no longer accept the reasoning behind the annual COG service, for both theological reasons and practical ones. Covenants aside, I find that annualizing the spiritual disciplines communion is intended to foster undermines our Christian walk. If we wait several months to get serious about a matter of sin in our lives, they have likely already taken root. If we wait almost a year to restore a relationship - and only do it because we have to - that relationship is likely over. If we make examination and reconciliation an annual practice, our personal holiness and relationships suffer.

Regardless of my reasons, many who I know and love disagree. And that's who I want to talk to today. Because I have no doubt that COG leaders are currently wrestling with decisions about the upcoming Passover. I also know that small groups of members are considering meeting for Passover even if their organizational leaders cancel official services. And I'm concerned about the graying COG population, given the risk COVID-19 poses to the elderly.  Today I'd like to give some food for thought - or at least consideration - advocating NOT gathering for Passover.

God created quarantining

First of all, the concept of social distancing to prevent illness is biblical - they're discussed in both Leviticus and Numbers. God mandated that Israelites who had symptoms of leprosy, or who had a suspicious discharge (among other concerns) stayed outside the camp until their
symptoms passed. This was intended to prevent contagion from spreading through the camp. Social distancing is a similar concept, except we avoid infecting others - or being infected - by isolating ourselves from the public by staying on our own property. Also, today, infection isn't as easily recognized as a seeping wound. COVID-19 has a lengthy incubation period, so it's possible to infect others unknowingly before knowing you're sick. As a result, retreating to your own home – and taking more drastic isolation measures if you're symptomatic – makes practical and biblical sense.

The Second Passover

God certainly wants us to fear and obey Him, but He's also a merciful God who understands that life is messy. Jesus experienced it firsthand; but we even see evidence of this in the Old Testament. In His wisdom, God established a second Passover for Israel when His quarantining mandates made people unclean. In Numbers 9, we see that a group of men who handled a dead body were concerned about being cuff off from Israel because they missed the Passover. God directly told Moses that those men could wait a month.

God's instruction didn't apply only to the ceremonially unclean - it even applied to those who were “away on a trip” during the first Passover. The Bible doesn't elaborate why men would be traveling near Passover - I can only assume it would be for an unexpected or critical reason. Most Israelites wouldn't choose to travel at that time. Regardless, this provision shows that God wants us to take Him seriously - but understands that life is messy. Will our current messiness clear by May 8? I doubt it. President Trump recently extended social distancing recommendations to April 30, and stated society might return to more normalcy by June 1. But an extra month would give church leaders - and the experts informing them - more time and data to evaluate.

Passover at Home 

Another possibility is keeping Passover at home. It's unconventional - but what isn't right
Pretend there's fewer than 10 here.
now. Most churches have already been tuning in to weekly services at home. There's no reason Passover couldn't be handled the same way. Chances are good that you already have unleavened bread at home (if not, and you're considering this option, I'm happy to send you a recipe).

But what about foot washing? Especially if you live alone?

Here's the thing. Foot washing is a beautiful symbol of Christ's humility and submission. It's an amazing symbol, and there's not one thing wrong with doing it ourselves. But in scripture, we have no evidence this practice was repeated in following years. New Testament authors repeatedly reference taking the bread and the wine, but foot washing is not a focus of those passages. Is it a beautiful reminder? Absolutely. Is it possible to do from 6 feet away? No. And does it appear to play into our salvation? Honestly, I don't see it.

Sacrificial love

During the Lord's Supper itself, where Jesus established the tradition of communion, He also told us that love would be the mark of His followers. The word used in this passage is a form of agape, or sacrificial, unselfish love characterized by outflowing concern for others. Throughout the New Testament, we see examples where Jesus, Paul, Peter, and others made choices that cost them personally in order to benefit others.

So what does that mean today? It means we may need to sacrifice our comfort and our preferences for the good of others. You may be young and healthy (although that's not a guarantee), but your graying COG brethren to whom you risk passing the virus are not. This knowledge has led to restrictions on assisted living and nursing home visits. It is not loving your elderly neighbor to risk passing the virus to them.

The Bible instructs us to respect governing authorities

Service at the River church held March 29, 2020
Early this week, news leaked that a megachurch in Tampa, Florida, preached before a crowd of several hundred parishioners over the weekend. Many Christians were shocked that the River at Tampa Bay Church ignored local orders restricting gatherings in non-essential services to 10 individuals or fewer. Other Christians were shocked when the pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, was arrested.

I don't intend to rehash the arguments for and against Howard-Browne here - I'm sure we'll hear them ad nauseum in coming weeks. I've also heard of earlier instances where churches held services while restrictions on crowds larger than 50 were in place for weighty reasons like "we usually only have 80 fewer or people anyway" or "we didn't like the government telling us we couldn't meet."

I recognize that there are complex constitutional questions, among other nuanced issues, involved in this debate. But the Bible came before the U.S. Constitution. And Romans 13 clearly instructs Christians to obey the governing authorities, unless our leaders instruct us to commit an immoral act or to contradict God's instructions. I don't believe that requesting people temporarily limit gathering crosses this threshold. No one is singling out churches in this request - it's ALL GROUPS. No one is forcing church leaders to change their message, editing their sermons, or restricting access to broadcast media. It's not ideal, it's not fun - but it's not persecution.

This has all happened before 

The decisions we're being forced to make may seem unbelievable, but they're not unprecedented. Church leaders had to consider similar issues during the Bubonic Plague, and more recently, in the Spanish Flu outbreak. Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, had this to say regarding whether Christians should flee the Plague, in a surviving letter to the Rev. Dr. John Hess:
"I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."

Throughout history, it's highly likely that Christians have occasionally missed taking the bread and the wine without jeopardizing their salvation. For example, we know Paul taught and received visitors while under house arrest. But it's unlikely he was able to continue Passover and other religious traditions as scheduled while in Roman prison in the late 50s A.D. We know he wasn't the only disciple imprisoned before martyrdom. Given the chaos that has defined much of human history, it's improbable that believers have been able to observe the Passover on the exact date, every year, for more than two thousand years. (This is just one more reason that ongoing justification, partially based on dates and observances, is implausible in my eyes).

We should, as Luther stated, pray for protection. We should ask God to wipe this virus out. And He could. But I'm not expecting it. God can do anything, and a miracle of epic proportions would capture the world's attention, for His glory. But my gut says He would have stepped in by now if that was part of the plan. Like everything else in His creation, God designed viruses for natural purposes. And like everything else He made, He designed them to be efficient and effective. In our fallen world, many things intended for natural purposes have spun out of control. xHWA wrote an excellent piece earlier this week explaining why COVID-19 is not a sign that Jesus' return is imminent, despite what some COG leaders are saying. Boils are the only human illness specifically named in prophecy, although the word translated as "pestilence" can have broad meanings, including human illness. In general, human life isn't expected to get easier as time draws to a close. While we should not be ruled by fear, I'm not getting my hopes up for a quick fix, either.

Really, there's only one reason for hope. Thankfully, it's a pretty big one.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. 
                                                                                        - John 3:14-15
In this passage, Jesus cited a miracle from the book of Numbers, when God was punishing Israel for instance number 867,213 of disobedience and faithlessness. God sent serpents to
torment the Israelites. Many were bitten and died, but even then, God made a way for those who repented to live. The Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up among the congregation. Those who were bitten but looked on the serpent lived.

If there's one thing that hits home at this time of year, it's that sin has bitten us all. Maybe that lesson is hitting you harder this year than in the past. Maybe virus-forced disruption to your usual preparation routine has left you wondering whether you've done enough to be worthy to take the Passover. Or maybe the time you've spent thinking during extended periods of down time has convinced you that you aren't.

In the example Jesus cited, there was Iittle the Israelites could do. They were bitten. They were dying. They couldn't hobble over to Moses. They couldn't touch the pole. All they could do was look at the bronze serpent in faith. And hope.

Good thing that was the one thing they needed to do.

And it's the one thing we need to do, too. Your eternal life doesn't hinge on your ability to fully remove leaven from your home, your vehicle or your church hall. It doesn't hinge on washing feet. It doesn't hinge on drinking bread or wine in the same room as your pastor - or even on a specific day. It hinges on recognizing that you aren't worthy and never will be, on repenting of your sin, and on placing your faith in God's promise of salvation to those who fully place their faith in Jesus' sacrifice for them. In His work instead of yours. That's more important to your future than deleavening, washing feet, wearing a mask or bathing in hand sanitizer.

Best of all, you can do at home.

In fact, please do it at home.

Stay safe, and know that even when we don't have time to post, you're still in our thoughts and prayers.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11