The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 5
“There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” – Luke 13:1-5
I’ve chosen to title this essay “Metanoia” rather than the usual English rendering “repentance,” to avoid the common misunderstanding associated with the word. When we hear the word “repent,” especially coming from religious circles (though it is not originally a religious word), we tend to think in terms of “stop sinning and straighten out your life,” in the way of a Kentucky revival preacher.
Repentance at its root means a change of mind or thinking. Meta – change, nous – mind. Metanoia. Perhaps a better rendering might be “re-cognition,” to re-cognize things through a new framework of understanding and perception, recognizing that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our way of thinking needs to be reshaped. In faith terms, to be changed in mind is to have one’s mind conformed to Christ and to be Christ-minded in how we think about ourselves and the world around us, most especially at times such as these.
The bowls of God’s wrath are indiscriminate. Like the rain and the sunshine, they pour out on all the earth without regard for where or upon whom they fall. Believers get no special immunity. Pious Galileans and construction workers die, along with countless victims of violence, wars, genocides, accidents, natural disasters, and epidemics. “Dust we are and to the dust we return.” Our present crisis presents us with a critical moment for serious reflection to recognize God at work in, with, and under the worst of situations and to look for what He is revealing to us as the tidal waves of viral epidemic, economic uncertainty, and spiritual scattering batter society, home, and church, and challenge the very foundation of our lives. These are anxious times, to say the least.
Anxiety goes hand in glove with repentance. We become anxious when our false gods are taken from us or prove to have feet of clay. Kenneth Korby writes of the “liturgy of anxiety” in his essay, “The Church at Worship”.
It does not follow that worship is life. Idolatry is death, both now and forever. False gods devour their devotees. Men who seek their lives in food and drink, in work and play, in religion or irreligion are consumed by the gods they make and by the “liturgy of anxiety” they offer to those gods. They lose, but never find, their lives. This is not to say that idolators have no dealings with God. He indeed deals with them, sustaining their lives in a particular relationship to Himself. In fact, it is God’s presence and activity which threaten men in these points of contact with their lives. Anxiety in men is not groundless. Men cannot control their lives, yet they do not trust God for their lives. Anxiety is the liturgy of their idolatry.Kenneth F. Korby, “The Church at Worship” in The Lively Function of the Gospel, Robert W. Bertram, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966), p. 60.
Our current anxieties, whether over the supply of toilet paper in our pantries or the need to have church by any means possible (we weren’t so concerned about such things on Super Bowl Sunday), reveal our misplaced faith, hope, and trust. As we Kübler-Ross our way through this anxious liturgy of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression that precede the acceptance of the death-loss of our idols, we would do well to use this moment for a healthy, reflective repentance. God never wastes a good crisis and neither should we.
Being both painful and personal, repentance is sometimes better voiced in the first-person “I” or the inclusive “we” rather than the preachy “you.” The apostle Paul does this in Romans chapter 7 where he describes the existential crisis of being simultaneously flesh and spirit in personal terms. A little empathy helps the medicine go down. Mindful of that, I’ve chosen to write from within my own metanoia over the last few weeks, allowing your mileage to vary as the Spirit sees fit.
Vocationally, I’m a pastor, a preacher and presider for a smallish congregation of baptized believers named Holy Trinity. I preach the Word of God from Holy Trinity’s pulpit and preside over the liturgy of the Sacrament from Holy Trinity’s altar. I also teach, counsel, hear confession, and try to engage people in their lives as best I can. But preaching and presiding are the mainstays of my vocation. These are what I was trained to do, and I do them reasonably well.
As I write, I am effectively on furlough. My church is dark, and the pews are empty. I drop in occasionally to kneel before the altar and pray for our regathering and for our community. These days, my work is mainly writing, recording audio sermons, talking on the phone, occasionally visiting from a safe distance. My only tool is the Gospel of Christ, the power of God for salvation from faith to faith. I pray that I’m not ashamed of it in its seeming humility.
My congregation still pays me, and for that I’m grateful. I know that many of my people are experiencing economic hardship, or soon will be, and I am called to bear their burdens together with them. We have a large number of commuters, and I’m not sure if I will have a congregation when this is over. Perhaps Holy Trinity will become the outpost for a new mission among the survivors in the local neighborhood.
As a pastor, I am keenly aware that my work is being put through the fire of God’s judgment to see how well I’ve built on the foundation that was laid before ordaining hands were laid on me (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Have I preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified for the faith of my people, or have I mingled it with some other gospel to scratch an itching ear or two? Have I pointed to the Cross and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” Or have I pointed to myself and said, “Look at me and what a great pastor I am?” Have I equipped my people to be Christ’s priesthood in the world, armed with the Word and prayer, or have I created a needy spiritual codependency on me as their pastor to spoon feed their faith? At this moment, when my real presence has become nothing more than a virtual one, am I willing to rejoice with John the Baptist and say, “Good! He must increase, and I must decrease?”
As we are scattered to our homes and unable to congregate, I wonder if in my zeal to encourage the corporate life of Word and Sacrament, I did not inadvertently turn the Gospel gift of grace into a law of necessity. It is good, right, and salutary to gather and hear the Word and receive the Sacrament as one body every Sunday and festival day, but is it necessary in the same way as faith in Jesus Christ and His Word is necessary? This is not to say that our gathering around Word and Sacrament is an adiaphoron, something we are free to do or do without, but it does not fit into that category of absolute necessity, since it isn’t always possible, as we have come to see. If you don’t have bread and wine, you can’t have the Sacrament even if you are gathered. My fear is that somewhere along the way, the Gospel grace of divine service became a law of duty, obligation, and necessity.
Last year, I took a brief sabbatical from preaching and presiding to join the ranks of the worshippers in the pews. It was nice to be able to sit with my wife, something I haven’t been able to do this for almost 28 years, except for the occasional vacation Sunday. It was also a bit terrifying not being “in charge” of the liturgy and being at the mercy of the presider. I came to a new appreciation of what my own people have to endure from me.
Speaking as a participant in the divine service, we need to reflect on what it means to gather as the church. Are we simply a religious country club of the theo-politically like-minded? Have we been consumers rather than communicants, worrying more about “being fed” instead of being the Body of Christ? Have we individualized our faith to the point where church is a collective “Jesus and Me” moment that must not be intruded upon by a cranky infant or the stranger next to us? Is there more to our relationship with Jesus than a sweet hour of prayer on Sunday morning before brunch when we have the time? Is our faith anchored in church institutions, buildings, organs, praise bands, vestments, crowds, programs, and preachers? Or is it fixed solely on Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and reigning? Is this pang we now feel a hunger and thirst for righteousness or the withdrawal pains of a church addiction? Can we be content with the Word alone to sustain us, or do we need something more?
In the first of his Ninety-five Theses, Martin Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said,`Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” A continual metanoia, rethinking, re-cognition. Whatever reminds us of our own mortality – whether political atrocities, construction accidents, or a virus – is opportunity for repentance, recognizing who we are and what we trust and who God in Christ is for us. In the end, repentance and faith will be the only way to survive what lies ahead.
©2020 William M. Cwirla