Pastor Stark’s Epistle to St. John Lutheran Church
(Not in the canon, but please read)
I, Pastor Stark, a Called and ordained servant of the Word, sent by God to you, saints gathered at St. John, Frisco, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! What an interesting time to be sojourning through this valley of sorrows toward our heavenly goal. I’m sure many of you are trying to digest and adjust to all the information, often contradictory, about the coronavirus. Who among us saw this coming six months ago that many schools, businesses and churches would be banned from meeting face to face and moved to Facetime online? You all remain in my prayers, as you are making these adjustments. Please continue to keep our congregation and me in your prayers during this time of testing too. I also would like to offer a few of my musings in regards to the issue of churches not gathering and our church in particular. I apologize in advance that what follows will be all over the map; but I pray you can mine some useful nuggets.
First, I thank our board of elders, who have been meeting via phone weekly with me to try to accommodate the needs of our church and comply with the government’s, ever-evolving, regulations. I also thank them for their frequent communication to the church via email, website and phone. If you have a need, concern or question, please be proactive and reach out to us.
Also, I encourage you all to reach out to one another. The devil loves when Christians are isolated. Do what you can to stay connected to your church family using technology. If you don’t have a directory, please contact Bill Bruncke at firstname.lastname@example.org And, if you haven’t updated your contact information or need a picture for the directory, please also send that to the preceding email. We are all equally responsible for and to each other and it isn’t simply a duty of the board of elders or pastor, if that makes sense. Pray for each other, and pray some more. Encourage one another with Scripture, as God’s Word and speaking It to each other privately belongs to all Christians and not just to pastors.
Continue to look for a weekly email update from the board of elders regarding worship services and church activities. As of today, 3/31, the elders and I were hoping that the government’s church-restrictions wouldn’t last very long, only until 4/3. My guess is that the forbidding to meet will go on quite a bit longer–even through Easter. Therefore, the elders and I will have to make more adjustments and we welcome your input. I have already received some input about livestreaming the services on Facebook or YouTube, instead of simply recording the audio of services/sermons and making them available on our website. I’ve been told I have a face for audio, but I would consider livestreaming if there is a benefit. We have also received some suggestions to continue Bible classes through an application like Zoom. Again, since it appears that the inability to meet in person won’t be a short-lived problem, the elders and I plan to revisit these and other suggestions at our teleconference meeting on Thursday. And, if your idea isn’t implemented, please don’t take it personally and continue to let love cover a multitude of sins. When there are lots of competing ideas, they all can’t be used. Our goal is to continue to give you the Word of God during this time of exile and captivity. On that note, I pray that you have been listening to the two sermons a week that I am writing, recording and making available for you. http://stjohnfrisco.org/category/sermons/
What Abut Holy Communion?
While not a substitute for gathering together, technology has been helpful in communicating the Word of God during our ‘house-arrest’, but what about Holy Communion? Where to begin? Willy’s WonkaVision hasn’t been invented, so that’s not an option. Neither is it faithful to do communion via livestream, as I know some church bodies are trying. So, let’s learn from our Lutheran history in how to deal with the present.
The means of grace are God’s Word and sacraments. A sacrament is God’s Word with a visible element, instituted by Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. We make a distinction between our two sacraments of baptism and communion. 1
We do say there are cases of emergency for baptism, but not communion. This is why you will find an emergency rite of baptism in your hymnal that any Christian can do, but not one for communion. “Emergency” means a perceived life and death situation. Of course, communion is a very important means of grace. Jesus says to do it “often”. We desire it often, which, under normal circumstances, is usually at least every Lord’s Day, Sunday. But we are not under normal circumstances right now.
A few thoughts: our unconfirmed children’s faith is nurtured and sustained with the means of grace of God’s Word and remembering their baptisms for years prior to communion. While it is a good thing to want communion often, we don’t want to go down the path of fearing our faith will die if we don’t get it every Sunday during this time of exile. Again, this doesn’t mean communion isn’t important.
There is a difference in faith that wants communion, but it isn’t available and a faith (lack of) that doesn’t desire it often when it is available. (Much like the distinction between someone who dies before they could get baptized, like the thief on the cross, and a person who dies rejecting baptism). Obviously, there were times in Israel’s history when they wanted to have temple sacrifices, but they were enslaved or the temple was destroyed. And, even in the New Testament era, there were times in Scripture when saints couldn’t commune or gather together. Yes, under normal circumstances Christians gathered together for preaching and communion, at least every Lord’s Day, as recorded in Acts, but when Paul and Silas were imprisoned, God’s Word, spoken and sung, sustained them.
Also, when Lutherans came from Germany to America there weren’t seminaries and many pastors here yet, so Christians had to make due with God’s Word and baptism. House Fathers would teach their families God’s Word, but wouldn’t celebrate communion. Pastors would ride the circuit and congregations might only get communion four times a year or once a month, even though they had it every Sunday back in Germany. It wasn’t that they didn’t desire it each week, but it just wasn’t possible logistically. I think we find ourselves in a similar situation right now. It is our prayer that we return to weekly communion as a congregation as soon as possible, but we trust the Lord will sustain our faith with His Word. 2
And, what a forced reminder during quarantine that it isn’t simply the pastor’s job to teach the faith, but, as Luther’s catechism says at the beginning of each chief part, “As the head of the house shall teach his household.”
Why should we obey the government’s forbidding us to meet? Shouldn’t we obey God rather than men?
If our ruling authorities were targeting Christians, much like Christianity was illegal prior to 313 A.D., then, yes, we would obey God rather than men and face the consequences—jail or martyrdom. (By the way, when you are in prison, you can’t congregate or commune, which is why it is important to memorize scripture and hymns). But that isn’t the case. The 4th Commandment tells us to obey our authorities, unless they go against God’s Word. I think here they are forbidding gatherings, which also includes churches, out of care for the people under their charge. For now, I think we are wise to obey them and put the best construction on their motives, which is hard when certain businesses are considered “essential” and churches are not. I also think it would be a poor witness to the world if we disobeyed right now, as it might look like we are putting our neighbor’s health in danger, which is unloving.
As an aside mentioned above, our country and world murder more babies than likely will die of the coronavirus. I don’t know God’s hidden will, why He has allowed the coronavirus, so I can’t say that God is punishing us with this pandemic. What I can say is that things like pandemics and disasters are a general call to repentance. And, I can say that we all, as sinners, deserve temporal and eternal punishment. And, I can say that it is a fallen world with disease and the devil, which is not what God created good in the beginning. And, I can say that the Lord chastens. And, I can say that the Lord is patient and slow to anger and abounding in mercies, which are new every morning.
More of a Fifth Commandment Issue than Fourth
Our not gathering for a time is really more out of love for our neighbor and his body than it is obeying the government. Based on the medical knowledge we have we love our neighbor by trying to slow the spread of this virus by not congregating. Similarly, when you are severely sick with something contagious, even though you want to come to church, you probably don’t attend out of love for others and not wanting to get them sick.
Some Lessons to Learn
Here are a few of my random thoughts on lessons to learn in all of this. I encourage you to give this some thought too. Feel free to email me your observations. 1. Don’t take congregating around preaching and communion for granted; it can be taken away. 2. Don’t take freedom for granted; it can be taken away. 3. Memorize God’s Word in case you are imprisoned. 4. Don’t have such a busy schedule that you don’t pray and have home devotions. 5. Reminder that faith is to be primarily taught in the home. 6. See if you normally value with your time and energy truly non-essential activities, e.g. youth sports, sleep, RR over essential one–church, prayer and devotions. 7. Rest/family time are important (I rested on #7).
3 I also am not opposed to making home communion visits to those who desire communion, assuming I can do so legally. My only human concern is that that my wife works in a hospital, and I am likely a greater threat to you than you to me. But, again, the elders and I are thinking these issues through. Maybe I could wear a mask and communion you on your front porch or something.
Remember, I said at the beginning that my epistle was going to jump around, but, hey, this isn’t inspired like Paul’s epistles. I do hope it has helped you in some way to biblically think through some of the church issues during this time. Please, if you will, reply to this email and let me know if you have any questions or comments. Please give me an update on how you/your family are doing. Please let me know if there are any specific prayer requests you would like me to add the prayer of the church or to my private prayers.
Finally, I will conclude with Paul’s inspired epistle to the Philippians:
[Phl 3:8-21 ESV] 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. [Phl 4:1, 4-23 ESV] 1 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. … 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. 10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. 21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
In Christ, Pastor
1 Confession and Absolution can also be considered the third sacrament. This can be done on the phone.
2 I also am not opposed to making home communion visits to those who desire communion, assuming I can do so legally. My only human concern is that that my wife works in a hospital, and I am likely a greater threat to you than you to me. But, again, the elders and I are thinking these issues through. Maybe I could wear a mask and communion you on your front porch or something.
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