WATERTOWN — Sunday, March 22, 2020, marked the first time in nearly 30 years of preaching that I preached to an empty sanctuary (four other people were present to help run the livestreaming equipment to broadcast the service online). Since then, a few have asked me about what effects the COVID-19 pandemic may have on Christianity (particularly as it relates to the temporary vacancy of church buildings).
Some may recall the little children’s Sunday school rhyme “Here is the church.” The children would fold their hands and say: “Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple.” The fun part comes when we would somehow twist our hands together with interlocked fingers and declare: “Open the door and see all the people.”
It taught that churches are not buildings but flesh-and-blood people. Churches are groups of believers who come together to sing songs to the Lord, hear the Bible preached, celebrate Jesus’s cross around the Lord’s table and baptize new converts.
Child-like faith shines its brightest light in life’s darkest hours. This pandemic, as horrible as it is, will pass.
Consequently, the church-at-large will find itself stronger — not weaker. Furthermore, Christianity has the much-needed message of joy, forgiveness and hope.
Today, I bring this Good Friday article to direct our attention to how Christianity finds fulfillment in empty things. Let’s note three of them.
Christianity proclaims fullness of joy in an empty tomb
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus spoke these words John 16:22: “Therefore, you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” Jesus promised His disciples that they would see him again. How?
Jesus made a dozen, physical, post-mortem appearances to skeptics and believers for 40 days following His resurrection. These appearances motivated Jesus’s followers to announce: “He is not here; He is risen!”
Christianity communicates a message of joy (that is, a sense of abiding confidence in God regardless of the circumstances). Jesus came as God-in-the-flesh to deal directly with evil, suffering and death. Furthermore, drawing joy from Jesus’s resurrection provides tools to deal head-on with fear and anxiety.
Christianity’s fullness of forgiveness is due to an empty cross
The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is the most widely attested event of antiquity. Yet many Christians wear empty crosses and most church-buildings have crosses with no crucified Jesus upon them. Why?
An empty cross declares the uniqueness of Jesus’s death for sinners. Peter, one of Jesus’s original followers (i.e., disciples) and “sent ones” (i.e., apostles), wrote in 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
Another early Jesus-follower and apostle, Paul, explained the achievement of Jesus’s crucifixion in Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” John, another of Jesus’s disciples and apostles of Jesus, expressed in John 3:16: “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
To experience God’s forgiveness at a time such as this grants strength to cope and help others. So Christianity proclaims fullness of joy from an empty tomb and forgiveness because of an empty cross. How else does Christianity find fullness in empty things?
Christianity proclaims fullness of hope despite empty church buildings
Good Friday (the day of Jesus’s crucifixion) points beyond itself to Easter Sunday and Jesus’s ascension into Heaven 40 days thereafter. Overwhelmingly, Jesus and His disciples expounded on how after His ascension into Heaven there would come a future time in which He would return to earth.
Jesus promised to have the Father send the Holy Spirit to strengthen His church and call people to believe on Him until His return (see John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-11, 33; and Titus 2:13). Church buildings are great.
However, Christianity’s temporary inability to meet in buildings doesn’t mean there is no fullness of hope! Christians can still encourage fellow co-workers bravely serving in essential areas like hospitals, supermarkets and factories. Others can send cards, make phone calls or send encouraging messages through social media.
Prayer for government, medical professionals and all impacted by COVID-19 is the supreme, unseen task of the church. Those early disciples were gripped by fear between that first Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Yet Jesus’s Good Friday suffering led to His Easter victory over death. Fear gave way to hope. As a final thought to you, dear reader: Trust in Jesus, who can give you strength in this time and for times to come.
The Rev. Mahlon Smith is senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Watertown.