Did you notice some familiar Bible verses just now? Perhaps many years ago, maybe during your confirmation class, you were required to memorize Ephesians 2:8—For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. That’s actually two verses—Ephesians chapter 2, verses 8 AND 9.
Or maybe you’ve memorized John 3:16, say it with me! For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And for people wondering what that famous verse sounds like with inclusive language, I’ll join you in wondering because I have no idea how to remove the masculine pronouns and reword it so that it doesn’t make God sound like a man. We’re pretty sure God isn’t male because God is a supreme being and as far as we know God doesn’t reproduce sexually so probably doesn’t have any sex organs. But our language is imperfect, so here we are, either making God into a dude or overburdening the sentence by renaming God every time: God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son.
I have a suspicion that it’s humans who love this verse so much that we can’t change it—it’s been around so long that it has formed us and has formed our faith. It’s for love that God sent Jesus into the world, and keep reading through the following verse: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
God didn’t come to scare us to death. Nor to tell us what to do so that we may work hard enough to make ourselves acceptable. God didn’t come to tell us of a pie-in-the-sky future or an unattainable dream; God doesn’t deny the reality of sin and pain and death. God came into the world for love. This is what forms us and makes us who we are.
Some Christians call this verse, John 3:16, “the Bible in a nutshell,” which you can even make into a super-cute arts and crafts project for kids, where you print out the verse on a teeny piece of paper and tuck it into a half of a walnut shell or something.
Lutherans may be a little more partial to the Ephesians text, chapter 2 verses 8 and 9, because we just can’t get enough of grace. By grace we are saved—it is God’s work, not ours. This is what forms our faith.
What forms you in faith? And now that we’ve spent the past year in a pandemic, what’s missing from your faith life? How is a pandemic forming us in faith?
It has been a year since Covid-19 began shutting down gatherings, restaurants, schools, and worship spaces and all of social life as we know it. We didn’t expect it, we weren’t prepared, and we spent the entire year thinking, “It’s about to get better, things are going to change soon.” We weren’t foolish for thinking that—we have been surviving and doing the absolute best we can.
And not everyone has survived. Over half a million people in this country have died, many millions have been sick and some have lingering effects of Covid-19 complications for many months after, and maybe for their entire lifetime. This pandemic has broken open our society, laid bare the inequities that persist among us, disproportionately affected the lives and communities of Black, indigenous, and people of color. Or more accurately, the pandemic didn’t break anything so much as it revealed the fragile nature of our society.
It’s true for the church, too—a year ago, we weren’t trying to broadcast worship every week through online platforms! We weren’t having all of our committee meetings by Zoom. We weren’t scheduling monthly food drop-offs to support our local food pantries. And yet, the church has figured out how to continue ministry, because that’s what Jesus called us to do: to love God and to love our neighbors. That call has never changed.
But will things go back to the way they were before? Here we are, right on the edge of having people vaccinated and reasonably confident that we can possibly gather safely again. This week, our church council reviewed the metrics provided by our re-opening team, and the council voted to re-open for in-person worship beginning on Palm Sunday, in a couple more weeks, as long as the numbers of new daily cases of Covid-19 doesn’t rise sharply and there’s no indication that a person with active Covid infection has been present in the building. So we’re tentatively hopeful that with safety protocols in place, we can gather for worship.
But it won’t be like going back to life before Covid. An ELCA pastor, Dave Daubert, who consults with congregations about ministry, says that before Covid, most ELCA congregations were in a pattern of decline—is that what we want to go back to? He asked, instead of putting the church back together, how can we put the church forward together?
How will we use what we have learned from this time? Maybe some of us are so hungry for human interaction that once we can return, we’ll never miss another worship gathering forever. That’s great, I’ll be delighted to see you every Sunday and on every holy day! But probably once we’re able to travel again, it’ll happen that we go somewhere to visit family members far away, or maybe take that vacation we’ve been putting off—can you stay connected to your faith even when you’re away?
This is where maintaining an online presence can be important—if you’re anywhere in the world with an internet connection, you could possibly be gathering for worship with us here in St. Louis! I know this is already happening—my friend in Germany has been joining us for worship, and she’s probably not the only one who has never set foot in this sanctuary but is already getting to know this place and the people here and the God who calls us together.
And for the many who have visited this sanctuary hundreds of times but have grown ill or become permanently homebound—gathering via online video stream can be a lifeline, a drink from the deep well of living water.
God is calling us to the same ministry we have always had: to make disciples. Whether we’re meeting mostly in buildings or meeting online, the mission is the same. Jesus Christ is the same: yesterday, today, and always.
Jesus is the one who feeds his followers with himself—this is what we experience in Holy Communion. Starting on Maundy Thursday, we’ll make Holy Communion a regular part of worship, but it won’t happen the same way as it used to. Some of us will be able to gather in-person here in the sanctuary, and small pre-packaged cups of wine and a small wafer will be with a bulletin, waiting for you when you arrive.
Those who are joining in worship from home can gather their own communion elements—whatever bread is typical for your home, whether sliced sandwich bread or dinner rolls or pita bread or tortillas, and some kind of wine or grape juice. We’ll still receive the elements of communion at the same time during worship, after saying some prayers together and what we call the Words of Institution, recalling the words Jesus spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper.
It will feel different, sure, but it is the same Jesus Christ who strengthens us and holds us together in the Holy Spirit. And it is this meal which will form us and make us who we are. In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther writes this about the Sacrament of the Altar: “Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,’ is really worthy and well prepared.”
That’s the part that forms us: that Jesus gives himself for you. It’s for love that God has come into the world, and it’s for love that God saves us. Let that promise form you and shape your self-understanding, your words and your actions, as we move forward into the future God is creating for us.