So here we go. I wondered when it was going to come. Others have wondered, too. Some said it would be Easter. One friend said he was willing to put money on it. What am I talking about? We were wondering when Christians were going to start losing their minds over stay at home orders. I’m glad I didn’t take my friend up on his guess of May 1, because I’m pretty sure I’d owe him right now.
Let me say up front that the vast majority of Christians I know have fully complied with the executive orders (I’m in Illinois). We’ve stayed home, worn our masks when at the store, said goodbye to the school year in the strangest way possible, shut down businesses deemed “non-essential” and closed our church buildings down.
Last week, I wrote about some of the good things that have come out of this whole thing and the “vile opportunity” it presents for sharing the Gospel. I got a lot of amens from the virtual balcony for that post. It was read more than anything else I’ve ever written, even being shared in the UK. And it always seems to be the case, that preachers go from getting the amens to being accused of meddling. Fair warning, I’m about to go to meddlin’.
While I still believe that the vast majority of Christians are in compliance with the guidance we’ve been given, there has certainly been an uptick in “angry Christian posts” on social media since the most recent extension. Just a quick scroll of my newsfeed and I found the following descriptions of the Governor of Illinois: “communist” “asshole” “trying to screw us all” “wants to bankrupt us” “hitler” “nazi” “idiot” “fear-monger”. All of these posts were from Christians, and in some cases Christian leaders.
I’ll be completely honest, I’m frustrated with a lot of this too. I think we’ve flattened the curve well south of Chicago and personally feel that a regional reopening while maintaining social distancing is the way to go. I think we need a shift from virus testing to antibody testing so we can track the presence of herd immunity. I worry about the long-term economic impact of this continued shut down. I worry about the emotional toll on children who had their whole lives upending on a dime and are missing their network of friends that exist primarily at church, school and sports. I worry about the financial impact on families…and churches. I worry that continuing this longer will turn us from social distancing to social destruction and a decrease in health….because let’s face it….we’ve all probably added a few inches to our waistlines and in a world where we’re already struggling with isolation and depression, this is not helping. I’m ready to be back in worship, I’ve got about 200 people that need a big ole Pastor Larry bear hug. I’m ready to go plant my butt on a beach very soon! I get that there are political forces at play and we are caught in the middle. I GET IT! I GET THE FRUSTRATION! I, too, have questions about the effectiveness of continuing as we are and maybe even the constitutionality of some of this…
But, I’ll say this….angry posts about our “communist governor” or about any leader trying to destroy our lives are still out of bounds for Christians. We are called to speak prophetically in to the culture, not introduce anarchy.
With that weighing on my mind, let me segue to Scripture. As a virtual connection, I’ve been hosting Evening Prayer each evening at 8pm. It’s been really well attended and it’s something we all look forward to. Last week, I decided to camp out in Philippians for awhile. When I got to Philippians 1:12, I couldn’t help but smile when considering our own circumstances. Remember, Paul is imprisoned under Roman guard as he writes this:
12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.–Philippians 1:12-14 (NRSV)
I camped out on that first verse for awhile. My point was that even though our current circumstance can be really frustrating, it has helped to spread the gospel. And that has been true. There are people engaged with my local church right now who were fringe or not involved at all before the shut down. I keep getting Bible questions from people who are taking deep dives into the Word right now that they felt their schedule wouldn’t allow for before. Pew Research posted a study which showed that about a quarter of American Christians say that their faith has grown stronger during the pandemic. The question I feel left with in light of this passage from Philippians 1 is this…..If our own imprisonment/house arrest/lockdown could be used by God to bring people to know Jesus, wouldn’t that be worth it?
I’ve been reflecting on this passage more since the other night. And it occurs to me that if anyone had a reason to be frustrated at his present circumstances, it was Paul. He was arrested in Jerusalem based on a completely untrue charge. He was held under Roman guard at Caesarea for two years.
Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor in Rome. His request was granted, but the journey to Rome was anything but easy. His ship was wrecked on the island of Malta by terrible storms. When he finally arrived in Rome, he was placed on house arrest.
I think Paul had every right to feel dashed and disappointed. Years of his life have been wasted because of lies, natural disasters and the ineffectiveness of others. He had plans. He had vision. He wanted to take the Gospel to other cultures and countries. But now, that must have seemed like a distant memory and a pipe dream that would never happen. I think if I were in Paul’s sandals, I’d be really ticked. However, here in his letter to the Philippians he seems full of joy. He assures his dear friends that everything that has happened to him has advanced the cause of the Gospel!
How’s this possible? He’s in close contact with some of the best Roman soldiers in the world. He’s got plenty of time on his hands to tell them about Jesus. His example and suffering has emboldened other Christians living in the empire to proclaim their faith more courageously.
And I think that’s something for us to chew on. Perhaps God will use our present circumstances to advance the cause of the Gospel. Those early Christians living in the Roman empire were certainly seen as subversive. Because of their stubborn insistence on monotheism and Jesus as Lord over Caesar, they were accused of “dangerous superstition” and “impiety and promoting sedition.” But then something started to happen. The Gospel was advancing. Some were being attracted to Paul and the Christians because of their gentleness and reverence. The Philosopher Galen, who was not a Christian, would write that he was impressed by the Christians because they behaved as those who were enlightened by philosophy. They had no fear of death, they abstained from strange sexual practices, demonstrated self-control with regard to food and drink and were bent on righteousness and justice.
Paul from a jail cell was bringing people to Jesus. Others gained courage because of him to share the faith. And the Kingdom advanced. Yes, what they were doing was still subversive. To insist that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar was high treason. But here’s the thing, these holy subversives impacted their culture and changed the world for Jesus not with angry social media posts, but by simply demonstrating gentleness and respect.
And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way–1 Peter 3:15b-16a (NLT)
There is a place for us to question the legality and effectiveness of these present times. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to long for this to be over. It’s okay to want to be back in physical worship. It’s okay to disagree and have an opinion on either side or somewhere in between. But we also have an opportunity to share the Gospel in these uncertain times, and we must do so with gentleness and respect. Please, for the sake of the Gospel, let’s model Christian maturity, cooperation, and respect as we all navigate these waters together.