by Bishop John Henderson
‘…but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,
for the wind was against them.’ (Matthew 9:24 NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
It’s just over 2½ months since the last LCA COVID-19 update eNews. Then, we had just crested the first wave and the curve was trending down. We were cautiously optimistic about the return of ‘normal’ life.
Today the pandemic continues to rage around the world. New Zealanders, however, tentatively talk of being ‘post-COVID’. The virus is suppressed to reasonably low levels in Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, yet they are still nervous and highly vigilant. We have a concerning outbreak in Victoria, particularly in greater Melbourne, and the state government has come down hard on virus transmission, introducing tight restrictions, including a curfew. This situation is causing alarm elsewhere, particularly in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. That led some states and territories yesterday to wind back their plans to progressively ease border closures and re-introducing further restrictions on their own residents.
We, the LCANZ, are present in all those places. Collectively, our circumstances are quite varied. I thank our pastors, congregational and district leaders, school principals, early childhood, aged and community care directors, thousands of paid and voluntary staff, and the tens of thousands of regular church members, for your love, care and compassion towards each other. Christ is truly among us.
During the first wave shut-downs, borrowing an Elvis theme, one Barossa Valley pastor said it well: ‘The church has left the building.’ That positive thought is a welcome reversal of the more common negative refrain of being ‘locked out’ of our churches. Not the church as the building, but the people who are the church using the building. There’s an eternity of difference between those two ways of looking at the situation.
We use buildings as places of worship because we (the church) choose to. These buildings also do more, such as giving visible witness to faith (mission) and as a place Christians can gather publicly without fear (community and outreach). Buildings speak of our established presence (legitimacy) and show our commitment to honour God with our worldly possessions (service and stewardship). The secular world also needs to see these sacred places as reminders of God’s enduring presence. They remind us of the Christian moral basis of our society, from which we all benefit.
Of course, we can get carried away with our buildings, giving them an importance they were never meant to have. We can turn them into an end in themselves, mattering more than the faith they were built to proclaim.
COVID-19 challenges many of our presuppositions about church life. Maybe that’s why some of us are finding new freedoms, exhilarating in exploring and experimenting with options we hadn’t thought of before, while others are finding it a dark time of uncertainty and fear. Quite naturally, some of us are cautious about returning to our buildings, not because we don’t want to, but because we have lost some of our former certainties. We will need to rebuild trust in a post-COVID world. It’s okay to be unsure, to feel your way gently, to be kind to yourself and not to bluster your way forward as though you know what you don’t know and feel what you don’t feel.
God does not automatically prevent all danger and give us constantly calm waters to sail through. We learn that in the brilliant story in Matthew’s Gospel (and in Mark’s and John’s as well) of Jesus coming to the disciples out of the storm. They had left Jesus behind in safety on the shore (he had stayed back to dismiss the crowds and pray), and as far as they knew he was still back there, miles behind them. Among the disciples were experienced sailors who knew that lake well, and how dangerous it was in the evenings when the strong winds would blow down from the hills. But Jesus had made them get into the boat, so they had rowed out bravely and now they were caught, no turning back. Their lives were stalled, their futures forfeit, trapped in a fragile boat against the forces of nature, and Jesus had put them there.
Yet in the morning, impossibly, there he was, coming towards them out of the storm. They were afraid, thinking him a ghost (things are going from bad to worse). But then he spoke, telling them not to be afraid. Perhaps ashamed or embarrassed, given the miracles he had seen the day before, Peter asked for a command to join Jesus on the water. When Jesus called, ‘Come’, he stepped out but was soon worried by the raging storm. So, predictably, he sank. Only when Jesus caught him, questioned his faith, and they got into the boat together, did the storm subside.
Why only then, and not when Jesus first appeared? Because although they saw something on the water, although he spoke the comforting words, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’, they did not believe. They thought he was a ghost. Only when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, rescuing him from the waves, and joined them in the boat, did they believe and worship.
So here we are too, caught by the wind and waves of the COVID-19 storm. Without Jesus in our boat we too can be fearful and uncertain, despite all God’s comfort and promises to the contrary. But our God is not a ghost! He is real. Social distancing notwithstanding, Jesus reaches out and touches us, he joins us in our boat, and the storm, within and without, subsides.
Honestly, we don’t know yet whether the worst is over. Quite possibly it’s not. Even if it is, the after-effects will cause long-lasting damage on so many levels. There will be much work to be done, much healing to take place, much trust to be rebuilt.
In COVID-19 God has taught us that we can’t contain his church in buildings or institutions. That’s one way of doing things, and we worry a lot about them, but it’s certainly not the only way. We use them while we can but, if needed, the church can leave them for a season, because the church is something else besides. Believers will continue to love, to serve, to worship and to pray.
Do you believe that Jesus is in the boat with us? I, for one, believe he is. That’s what gives me hope, and the assurance that all is not lost. So many times, in the history of faith, it seemed it was coming to an end, but it endured. It grew deeper, more resilient, more hopeful, more Christ-centred. My prayer for us is that this will also be our experience.
I conclude with the words with which the disciples in the boat that stormy morning used to worship Jesus, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ And with him, all things are possible.
Pastor John Henderson
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
Adelaide, 5 August 2020
Note: we should also pause today, 5 August, to remember and pray for those who died and were injured in the horrific blast in Beirut. Another blow to an already devastated population which is experiencing COVID-19, just as we are, but without the stability and prosperity we can too easily take for granted.
 Matthew 14:22-33, the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.