Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Prepared for the Television/Online Ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester

Watch Here (Minute 26:25)

In the name of the risen and ascended Christ.  Amen.

 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you, to test you, as though something strange were happening to you …” 1 Peter 4:12

This verse jumped out at me when I first read the scriptures for this morning. It jumped out at me, because it gives voice to the question I know some are asking: “Did God send this pandemic to test us?  And other similar questions: Is God using this to get our attention? Is God using it to punish us? Did God cause the pandemic?

 First, let’s be clear about the fiery ordeal mentioned in First Peter [4:12-14; 5:6-11]. First Peter was written to several communities of new Christian converts in Asia Minor, in the region of modern day Turkey. The author was specifically writing to these new Christians about the suffering they were experiencing because of their conversation to Christianity.

One scholar described the “fiery ordeal” as: “The hostility and ostracism that a low-status minority group suffered from the dominant majority groups in their towns.” It was the marginalization and public hostility the new Christian converts experienced because of their faith. It was not a God-designed, God-sent, and God-administered test. Rather, it was the dismissive reaction of family, friends, and neighbors to their newfound faith.

So let me be clear.  In faith in a loving God revealed in Jesus Christ, my answer to the question, “Did God send this pandemic?” NO! This pandemic is NOT sent by God to test us, to punish us, to teach us a lesson.  The answer must be NO, because if the answer is yes, then that would mean God was willing to sacrifice the lives of 350,000 humans (at latest count) in order to test the rest of us and to teach us a lesson.

Who could believe in such a punishing, cruel, and mean God?  Not me. I couldn’t believe in a God who designs the death of hundreds of thousands of people in order to teach humanity a lesson.

I believe in a God who speaks in the death of just one man: Jesus Christ. I believe in God, who in the death of Jesus Christ, a death freely and willingly chosen, speaks love and grace; announces salvation and hope; and enacts God’s plan of mercy and life.

Not to diminish the untold pain, death, and impact the pandemic has had, but it is rightly placed alongside all other horrific events humans experience as a result of living on planet earth.  The pandemic does not replace the cross as God’s message of salvation.

Now, that being said, let’s acknowledge the truth, that this pandemic has tested us.

The pandemic has tested us in a many ways. Our endurance has been tested, our trust in our fellow citizens and in our public leaders have been tested, our ability to be kind, loving, and patient with one another has been tested.  Separated from one another for a time, our understanding of the Christian life, and worship, and what it means to be Church has been tested.

But the truth is, life presents us with many opportunities to be tested as we live out our faith. All relationships, with other humans in personal and public relationships, with our physical bodies, and with the natural world around us, test us to live with faith, hope, patience, peace, and love.

In the testing, that the inevitable changes and chances of life, present us …First Peter offers hope: “Know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are going through the same kinds of sufferings” [1 Peter 5:9]. Though tested, the new Christians in First Peter, were not to understand their testing as an individual test, like taking the MCAS, or SAT, or GRE test. They were to understand their testing as a group test! The first Christians were encouraged to find Christ in each other, as they turned to one another for answers, comfort, consolation, and encouragement.

In school, you’re not supposed to look on your neighbors test for the answers – that’s called cheating. But as Christian, facing the tests of life, looking to fellow Christians to see how they are responding – is called life together!   As we are tested to live out our faith, we are right to turn to one another!

Friends, here at Trinity Church, in this pandemic, I have been encouraged and inspired by the ways we are answering this test, together:

  • Members are faithful in worshiping online on Sundays and Wednesdays, are faithfully studying the bible online, are learning ZOOM to be in fellowship with one another in a variety of ways …
  • Members are encouraging and supporting each other through phone calls, greeting cards, members are making masks for others, we’ve dropped off food and supplies, we even found homes for four kittens in this pandemic.
  • Members have continued to be faithful in sending tithe and pledge offerings, and other donations to the church in ways that are truly inspiring
  • At the start of the pandemic the Good Samaritan Fund, my discretionary fund used to help those in need among us and in our community, had just over $300. Now, through the generosity of so many, the fund has over $5,000.
  • The Council voted not to return to in-person worship for at least the next three weeks. That vote was taken in solidarity with, and in love and concern for, the most vulnerable among.

I’m inspired by the ways, together, we are answering the test of this pandemic.

That being said, I do need to speak of a danger, that going forward our oneness will be tested.  

In the Gospel reading, in John 17[1-11], part of the farewell discourse of Jesus on the night of his arrest, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one. The danger is that the ongoing nature of the pandemic will test our unity and oneness in a fundamental and profound ways.

For example, in the New England Synod, there is a range of diversity in viewpoints among about returning to worship. One colleague and his congregation are planning on holding an indoor worship next Sunday; and yet another colleague, announced his Council’s decision to suspend in-person worship until at least September. Our bishop has offered guidance that congregations wait to resume any indoor in-person worship until at least after July 1st – and even then, to be cautious, wise, and strategic in our approach. The danger going forward is that our oneness will be tested.

Unfortunately, Christians have often operated with a limited and narrow view of oneness.    In what our bishop has called the “January Church” –  the church before the pandemic – Christians often beat each other over the head to hammer out THE Right way, THE right belief, THE right opinion about a matter.  There was a “my way or the highway” approach.

But maybe this pandemic is testing us to think differently about oneness? First Peter was written to what is believed to have been five different Christian communities. Did they all handle their suffering in the same way? Or did they take different approaches? What diversity existed in their response to the common suffering they experienced?

Recently, I have drawn frequently from Lutheran Professor Barbara Rossing, and again for today’s scriptures she offers profound insight.  She writes: “Recent scholarship has highlighted the many ways John’s theology diverges from the orthodoxy of the Synoptic [Gospels] … this Gospel reflects the diversity of earliest Christianity is all its richness … Considerable diversity among the four canonical Gospels and Paul’s letters show how differently each of the early communities envisioned Jesus and the meaning of his life and death for us. Just as we would not try to harmonize John with the other Gospels, so we should not appeal to this Gospel to try to craft … uniformity for the church today.”

Might the church going forward, and the congregation of Trinity, be a church celebrating a oneness in Christ, that does not insist on ONE right way in which to live in Christ? Could it be right that some Christians are worshiping in their building today, while others are worshiping at home today? Could both be right at the same time, on both the issue of returning to worship, and on so many other issues before us?

This doesn’t mean anything goes, it doesn’t mean there are no standards or no common practices, and I do think the Church needs to stand as witness against capitalistic “consumer mentality” that caters to individual tastes rather than inviting people into shared and common practice. But, maybe this pandemic is testing us to understand that our one common faith, is a oneness deeper than uniformity in practice and belief?

Again Barbara Rossing writes: “If the church is like a river, we can seek … unity that aim not to merge everyone into one monolithic main channel, but rather affirm the multiplicity of individual strands as they braid and criss-cross and sparkle across the broad spectrum of God’s river of unity.”

The Good News today, is that God does not test us so that we would produce the one right answer. Rather as the reality of sin and death, and life on a planet earth test us, God blessed us with the promise of life lived as named and claimed members of the body of Christ.

Our hope today is Jesus of Nazareth who ascends as Christ into the Church across time and space, and through the promises of baptism makes us members of his body, forever. As we face life’s trials and struggles, especially as we are invited to face them as disciples of Jesus, we are not left alone in that testing … we are placed with the communion of saints, finding hope, encouragement, as faith as members of the body of Christ.

Our hope today is not that we will escape suffering, not in the test cancelled. Rather, our hope is found in life in the living Christ who gives us each other, and the whole communion of the church, in which to pass through suffering together. Our hope is in Christ, who by the Spirit’s breath, breathes new life into the Church, and who in a big and diverse church living out faithfulness in a variety of ways, welcomes all people to consolation in communion with one another.

Friends, the pandemic was not sent by God to test us or to teach us any lesson. But, as our faith is indeed tested by the pandemic, Christ holds us in his body to bless us, sustain us, and to lead us in life. In this group test, Christ gives us the community of the diverse global Church, in which to strengthen us for the living of these days in faith and peace.

Blessed in a community of encouragement and consolation, rich in perspectives, thought and practice, may you live in faith, hope and peace, through all the tests of life.

Thanks be to God.