May 17, 2020 – Being Church in the time of Coronavirus

Sunday Morning Sermons

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By Rev. Victor Kim
Acts 17:16-34

By now you may have heard that Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, stated this past Wednesday that churches could start meeting in person again beginning next week. But there are still a few conditions. The gatherings must be less than 50 people and they must observe the protocol around social distancing.

So, what does that mean for us at RPC? For now, nothing will change. There are a lot of things to consider before we can even begin to imagine returning to in-person church gatherings, including worship. For a congregation that gets on average close to 150 people in worship, how do we do church when we are limited to 50? Multiple services? A combination of in-person services and livestreamed services? Do we mark off pews every 6 feet, not only side to side, but also front and back? What about singing? Can we sing in worship? Will there be any in-person fellowship time, munch and mingle? Can we have Bible studies again or Tea at Two? What about our children in worship programs, or VBS this summer? So many questions, but not a lot of answers, at least not yet.

Mark Clark, the senior pastor at Village Church in Surrey conducted an informal Twitter poll on the question of when people would feel comfortable returning to church. He asked, “Would you return with 25% of the room full, skip rows and wearing a mask for instance as some are proposing and writing about, or should it wait, even a year if necessary? No right answer just interested in your opinion,” he asked. The 323 who responded were fairly evenly split, with the majority (59.4%) favouring ‘Let’s wait, online works’ and a sizeable minority (40.6%) ready to head right back to church.[1]

I think that when churches reopen for in-person gatherings, things won’t just return to the way they were. I suspect that when we are ready to reopen, people won’t just return in the same numbers as before. Some people will return quickly, others will be more cautious, those who are most at risk, seniors and those with underlying health concerns, may choose to wait to return. Some may wait for a vaccine or some other medical breakthrough before returning. Others will be perfectly happy with the live streaming worship services, having gotten used to rolling out of bed a couple of minutes before 10 am, still in their PJ’s for worship with their cup of coffee. It may take a long time, if ever, before church returns to the way it was before the pandemic. Being church in the time of coronavirus and afterwards will be different than the way it was.

But maybe there’s a silver lining in all of this for the church. Way before the pandemic hit, churches, including ours, were struggling with the question of how to be relevant and compelling in our context. We know that most people don’t go to church, not just our church but any church. Many churches have been wondering what the future holds for the church and whether they will be able to survive, never mind thrive, in that future. We’ve known for a long time now that to be the church today we need to change the paradigm, the model for what the church should be like. For the church to thrive, not merely survive, it needs to be robust in its missional focus and identity.

A church cannot be inwardly oriented but must embrace our evangelical birthright. We need to practice evangelism, telling others about the love of God in Jesus and why that matters, both in our words and in our actions. But it’s hard when we’ve gotten so used to understanding church as gathering in here, rather than getting out there. There’s a difference between saying I go to church and I am the church.

And anyway, hasn’t the church always been about a people, not a building?

And that has never been more clear than now, when we cannot gather together.

The church doesn’t stop existing because our buildings are closed. The church has always been Christ and his people, Jesus and us. We are church right now because Jesus is with us, with his people. And if we are church by the very act of being together with Christ and each other, then this time of coronavirus doesn’t stop us from being church, rather it clarifies what it means to be church and compels us to consider the opportunities to engage with others in our current changing context.

It seems that’s what Paul was doing. In our text this morning, we find Paul in Athens, on one of his mission tours, in that great ancient capital of philosophy and culture. Paul and his co-worker Silas, had been going from place to place, proclaiming the gospel and teaching the scriptures. In many of these places they founded faith communities, churches, some based in synagogues, some in homes.

While in Athens, Paul was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. In his distress, Paul engaged the people of Athens in conversation about their beliefs, in the synagogues as well as in the marketplaces. A group of Epicureans and Stoics, philosophers, debated with Paul. They called him a babbler, but others were interested in what he had to say. They brought Paul to the Aeropagus, which was the cultural and philosophical centre of the city.

Paul spoke to the Athenians, noting that in addition to their own gods, the Athenians also had erected an altar to an unknown god. Paul charged the Athenians of being ignorant of the very thing they were worshiping and proceeded to teach them about the God of Jesus Christ. The God Paul spoke of would have been very different from the gods that the Athenians would have been familiar with. If you remember your Greek mythology, you will understand that the Greek gods were very capricious in their behaviour. Even though they were endowed with supernatural abilities, they were quite human in their foibles and follies. They were jealous of each other, they constantly fought amongst themselves, in fact, Zeus, the king of the gods, became king by overthrowing his father Cronus, who had managed to swallow his children, to prevent one of them from overthrowing him, just as he had overthrown his own father.

Into this congested milieu, Paul introduced the idea of a loving God, who alone made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in shrines or temples made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

Paul continues to speak about God, not as a petty deity whose relationship with humans is often nasty and small minded, but as one who created humanity so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though as Paul notes, indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ Ultimately God showed his glory by sending the one he appointed, who he has raised from the dead. Upon hearing Paul’s teaching, some of the Athenians scoffed and sneered, but others wanted to hear more, and still others became followers and believed.

Being church in the time of coronavirus means bearing witness where the people are. Isn’t that what Paul was doing that day in Athens? And isn’t that what we should be doing today wherever we may be? To be the church in our present culture means to be engaged in the world around us and it means to be a people whose lives can testify and be witness to the unknown god that so many people around us might have a sense of, but don’t really know. But to do so, we first have to be willing to engage. We need to embrace a sense of evangelism as followers of Jesus Christ.

Eric Michael Bryant, in his book, Peppermint Filled Pinatas, writes that we Christians have a peculiar problem. Our personal relationships often betray our feelings for the world. Rather than befriending and loving those who do not yet know Jesus, it seems that the longer we follow Jesus, the fewer people we actually know who believe differently from the way we believe. All of us know more people who don’t go to church than do go, and yet we find ourselves attracted to the ones that do, rather than seeing an opportunity to connect with the ones that don’t. Instead of engaging with the world, to embrace opportunities to share with them about their unknown gods, our church buildings and congregations become our own little world within a world, a little Christian bubble in which we live with everything we need.

The church is the ultimate place for insiders, where we know what we can expect.

We know one another, there are very few surprises here. Ultimately the church becomes a place of refuge from the world, when we are in fact called to be lights on a hill. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world,

but it seems that we have gotten that command confused and we do our best to not be in the world at all. But isn’t that what Paul was doing at the Areopagus?

Areopagus means the Hill of Ares. Ares was the name of the god of war, in Roman myths, he is referred to as Mars. So the Areopagus is also called Mars Hill.

And on this hill, Paul engaged the world, as a light on the hill. There are many people just like the Epicureans and Stoics of Paul’s time, today they might be called agnostics, new-agers, spiritualists, what have you, and just like in Paul’s time, they hold to numerous beliefs, including for many, a belief in an unknown God. We need to be speaking of this unknown God, we need to be engaging in the opportunity God has presented to us to be lights on the hill. For those who might cringe every time they hear the word evangelism,

I want you to notice something. In the text, it is clear that even before Paul has spoken to the Athenians about God, they already have a sense of this God, whom they label unknown. The point is that God is already present in the Athenians, he is already at work in them, after all God is the one who made the world and everything in it, and he uses Paul to clarify and continue the work he has already started. The encouraging news for us is that God is already at the work of evangelism, but God invites us to be useful to him as we engage those who may be seeking to respond to his initiative in their lives. But in order to do so, we need to go where the people are; we need to engage people on their own turf.

When we can no longer go to church, it allows us to better understand that church isn’t something we only go to, but more critically, more importantly, it’s about who we are, wherever we are. So, what does that mean for you and for me? We know that these are very difficult times for many people, difficult socially, financially, emotionally. There are people close to us who are suffering in their mental health as they face the obstacles that this time of pandemic has raised. These are very real challenges. People need our support, our engagement with them. Just a phone call or a zoom conversation, an invitation to go for a walk together, to chat, most of us can do all of these things and more. I know that many in our congregation are working hard at keeping in touch with others.

We can support the work of those agencies that continue to serve and minister to the most disadvantaged through this time of vulnerability. We can share what we know of God’s blessings in our lives with those most in need. There are many more examples of being church wherever we are. If it’s true that we are the church, what does the world see when they see us?

One day we will be able to return to our church buildings, and that will be a good thing. Not because it will allow us return to the way things were, but because this is the place where in our worship, in our discipleship, in our fellowship, we are equipped and enabled to be sent out, to be sent on mission, God’s mission, to the world.

Let’s be clear, the church will survive, pandemic or not. Our institutional structures that we have called the church may not, but the church, Christ with his people, well, not even the gates of hell will prevail against the church.

It’s not the music, it’s not the preaching, it’s not the programmes, it’s not the buildings, it’s the people, it’s you and me and how we engage our world, how we live out and speak out about the reality of the living God, in whom we live and move and have our being. If people need a compelling reason to consider following Jesus, we, who are the church, we may be the most compelling reason

why anyone would want to become part of the church community, or not.

For us, it starts with worship, when God encounters us in the risen Christ.

Henri Nouwen has said that when we have met our Lord in the silent intimacy of our prayer, then we will also meet him in the camp, in the market, and in the town square. But when we have not met him in the centre of our own hearts, we cannot expect to meet him in the busyness of our daily lives. While they are certainly not the only places where we encounter God, our buildings are places where our worship can take place, and in that worship, we meet God, and the risen Christ encounters us. But he also sends us out, to be the church, to live out his love and to speak of the unknown God so that he will be known.

We can speak of going to church or we can be the church. One is about going to a place that I find attractive, the other is about being the kind of person that others might find attractive in the way we live out what it means to follow Jesus.

So my friends, being church in the time of coronavirus is to practice what we confess, to engage with the world in which we live, where we live, in the ways we still can, to love the people who we interact with daily, to care for those who are hurting, confused, angry and lonely, to serve those who have little or who need assistance, to speak and share the good news of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.

Some will scoff, some will sneer, but others will want to hear more and still others will follow and believe.

Thanks be to God, and to God be the glory, now and forevermore, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on May 17, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church
without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online.