Dear people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do we blindly follow the advice given out by our government leaders as they urge us to stay at home rather than go to church, and to maintain a 2m distance from others rather than administer the sacraments of Christ, which almost by definition require a physical interaction? Right from the start of this virus outbreak there have been conflicting voices trying to give us direction. Which voices are we to follow? Should we follow those that speak from the place of civil authority which showcases its panel of experts on epidemiology and healthcare? Governments have been known to lead their people astray in order to accomplish their ends. Or are we to listen to the other experts that pop up here and there with their own research and data analysis and expertise, which would warn against blindly following the voices of those who may have ulterior motives? What might be the motives of these other experts?
It is quite likely that you are following a different voice. With the conflicting messages calling you back and forth between two opposing viewpoints, it is inevitable that you decide to follow neither 100%, but to hearken to another call. It is your own call. You make the call. You are deciding for yourself which directions to follow and which ones to disregard. You are maintaining your isolation, except for certain family members. You are staying at home, except for the trips and interactions that you don't believe will be of any harm.
Even in the Church we are having a difficult time trying to heed all of the voices that are offering guidance. We have cancelled live services, except for the people needed to broadcast something to a certain standard that we have set for ourselves. We have cut off all physical communication, except for those who don't have internet capabilities. We have maintained our distance, except in cases of spiritual crisis in order to give sacramental care.
It is always easier to judge the practice of someone else, and from my point of view I see churches that are trying to work through loopholes in the mandates that have come down from the government. And from my point of view I judge that some churches and pastors are taking the opportunity to shirk their duties or are being more restrictive than they have to be. I see it that way because I'm listening to my own voice on the matter, making my own judgments, setting my own limits.
What does it all matter? On the surface it matters in terms of love for my neighbour. I don't want to make anyone ill or cause anyone's death. And I don't want anyone to fall into spiritual sickness or eternal death either. It is the same for all of you. You don't want your family members to get sick because you brought this deadly virus into their home, but neither do you want them to suffer neglect and loss of affection throughout this troubling time. That is on the surface.
But under the surface lies the issue that I don't want to be judged by others as being guilty of either of those things. Deeper than my care for others is my concern for how I look in the eyes of others. Will I be judged a good pastor for not distributing the Lord's Supper at this time, or does that make me a bad pastor? Will I be judged a good son for not visiting my parents, or a neglectful one? Under the surface I am either being too cautious or too cavalier for my own self-centred reasons. It is not solely love for others that rules my actions and decisions, but love of myself. I choose to listen to the different advice and guidance based on how it will all work out for me. And in the end it will work out for my eternal damnation because there is a whole bunch of sin in the mix.
Do any of these voices have all the right answers? No. Do any of these voices have supreme authority? No. Do any of these voices have the ability to save me from my inner torment, from my distress at not knowing who to listen to, when, and to what degree; and not knowing whether I'm putting others first, or myself to relieve any guilt if I should be the one to carry sickness and death to their door, or if my neglect should cause them to despair? The voice of the civil government cannot do that. The voices of opposing experts cannot do that. Your own internal voice cannot do that.
Under the current social restraints we may feel like animals penned in, like sheep corralled in the sheepfold, waiting for someone to let us out, to let us out not just of our homes but of the inner turmoil that comes with wrestling between opinions and with our own sinful inclinations. Today's Gospel reading says of the Good Shepherd: “The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice” (John 10:3-4).
There is another voice calling to us, not arising out of the civil government, not popping up with some new opposing expertise, and not arising from within you. There is a voice that comes from a loving God who calls out to you. This is the voice that can do what the other voices cannot. This voice does have the right answers. It does have supreme authority. It does have the ability to save you from the inner torment of your soul and its distress. This voice saves you from sin, from death, and from the eternal damnation that your self-centred decisions deserve.
It is the voice of God that became man, the voice of the God-man Jesus. He is your Good Shepherd. In the previous chapter of John's Gospel, the voice of Jesus said to a man born blind, “'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.' ... So he went and washed and came back seeing” (John 9:7). There is no question that this voice has the power to do what we wish the voices around us could do. We are told to wash in order to prevent the spread of a virus. But other experts are telling us that if we wash too much we will never build up an immunity to this virus. Which one of them is right?
We know that Jesus' voice is right because He said “Go, wash” and when the man went and washed he was healed. Then the voices of the ruling authorities kicked this man out of the synagogue, and the voices of his parents distanced themselves from him so that they would not be kicked out of the synagogue. Jesus found him in his despair and He said to him, “'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' He answered, 'And who is He, sir, that I may believe in Him?' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen Him, and it is He who is speaking to you.' He said, 'Lord, I believe,' and he worshipped Him” (John 9:35-38).
The Pharisees, the authorities, did not like this at all, and so Jesus began to speak about the Good Shepherd, who calls to His own and they hear His voice and they follow Him, in contrast to thieves and robbers who they will not follow and who come only to steal and kill and destroy. The Good Shepherd comes to give life abundantly.
Jesus calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. He did that for you at your baptism. He knows you and will never leave you behind. He will always call to you that you may follow Him and have life abundantly. He will call to you even as other voices seek to get your attention. While they call to you with their own self-serving motives, even that inner voice of your own, He calls to you in order to be of service to you. He calls in order to lead you to green pastures and quiet waters, to restore your soul (Psalm 23). He calls to be the one voice that resolves the inner turmoil within you, by forgiving your sins of self-centredness and giving to you the only true love that will fill you in order to truly love your neighbour.
He knows you by name and He knows the needs that are particularly yours, even the particular needs that you have during this present crisis. He knows the particular struggles that you have in trying to navigate all of the things that have turned your wold upside down. He knows the particular sins that you have committed in finding the loopholes that will make things work for you. He knows all of that and He forgives all of that. He calls you by name in order to forgive the sins that have attached themselves to your name. Those are the ones that He forgives.
In your despair, His voice calls out, “Go, wash.” Wash yourself in the waters of your baptism, daily drowning the old man with all of his sins and evil desires, that a new man may daily emerge and arise to live before God in holiness and righteousness forever (Small Catechism. Baptism, IV). This is the abundant life. It is the baptized life of Jesus' little lambs. It is not a childlike innocence, but a fully mature holiness that He gives to you by name. This is where His voice calls for you to follow.
Jesus doesn't say how long to wash your hands. Rather, He says to be washed in His Baptism. Jesus doesn't say when you should stay in your home and when you should go out. He calls you to follow Him. Jesus doesn't tell us when to reopen the church and start attending services again. He calls you to devote yourselves “to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
He calls you to live in the forgiveness that He secured for you when He was sacrificed on the cross, like a lamb without blemish or spot. He calls you to live abundantly in the life He won when He rose victorious from the grave, having defeated death's sting. He calls you to find pasture in the sacraments that He provides as He leads you along the still waters of your baptism and fills the cup of His precious blood to overflowing for you.
The voice of Jesus tells you to love your neighbour by caring for his physical needs, but it does not tell you how many metres to stay apart during an epidemic. That is because, whether the correct answer is 2m or 4m, your decision to observe it or not will be infected by sinful motives. The voice of Jesus therefore tells you to follow Him in order to find forgiveness in His death and resurrection for you, and to be filled with His love for you so that you will be able to love one another. Following Him, you have that abundant life that never ends, the life that He has given to all who believe and are baptized (Mark 16:16). He calls to them and they follow Him from these green pastures to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.