Empty Churches Celebrating the Empty Tomb
by Doug Bixby | April 3, 2020
The image above serves as a stark reminder of what we are all going through.
It was submitted via social media during a livestream of our worship service from Attleboro (Massachusetts) Covenant Church on March 29. It was sent by Katie Hansen, a pediatrician in our church who had an unexpected break during her Sunday morning office hours and was able to watch the service live.
Katie has been faithfully serving children and families in our community for many years. She helped me understand early on why our church needed to stop in-person meetings and worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic. She posted pleas on social media for us to help flatten the curve and to respect her colleagues on the front lines in the hospitals by not gathering together.
In her book Splashes of Joy in the Cesspools of Life, Barbara Johnson writes, “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” Using humor, Johnson strives to offer a healthy perspective on the tragedy, trouble, and trials many of us experience. One key thing Christianity offers our world is a theology of suffering. We all experience pain and are exposed to trials and tragedy, though we usually don’t like to reflect on such things.
Sometimes we prefer to live in denial about the things going on around us. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to acknowledge that we live in a Good Friday world. In my sermon on March 29, the last Sunday of Lent, I said, “We find ourselves in a pain-filled world with nowhere to run.”
People across the world are experiencing the same set of horrific circumstances at the same time. The coronavirus is everywhere, and as one pundit put it, “It is an unforgiving disease.” The words, “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world,” ring particularly true to me in these past several weeks. Easter is the holiest day in the church calendar. Millions of people attend worship on Easter Sunday—we enjoy the packed sanctuaries. Not worshiping on Easter feels strange to almost all Christians.
“The words, ‘We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world,’
ring particularly true to me in these past several weeks.”
Nevertheless, I felt compelled to share this post on social media: “The best way to reflect the power of the empty tomb on Easter is empty churches. Jesus is resurrection and life. Choose life by being a part of the solution not the problem in 2020! Live stream!” I wrote to encourage church leaders and pastors to celebrate Easter while complying with social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
In this crisis our Christian witness is at stake. Churches and Christians who choose not to comply with federal and state emergency plans and orders tarnish our Christian witness and make us—and our faith—look foolish. We should not confuse self-centeredness with courage. It is one thing to risk one’s life to serve others. It is quite another to risk the lives of others to serve oneself or one’s own ego.
The power of Easter is not confined to one day. Easter, like Lent, is a forty-day season in the church calendar. Christians often relish in the forty days of Lent more than we do the forty days of Easter. Perhaps that is because we live in a Good Friday world. Often we identify more with the pain and suffering of Good Friday than we do the joy and life of Easter.
The reason we have forty days of Easter is because Jesus spent forty days on earth after the resurrection before ascending to be with God the Father in heaven. Some of my favorite stories in the Gospels come from the time Jesus walked with his disciples after his resurrection: the story of the great commission from Gospel of Matthew, the Emmaus Road story in the Gospel of Luke, the stories of Thomas doubting Jesus’s resurrection and of Peter’s breakfast with Jesus on the beach in the Gospel of John. These narratives capture the power of the resurrection that is available to us every single day of the year.
We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Christians are called to reveal the light of Christ to the darkness of our world. We serve a forgiving God in a world trying desperately to live with an unforgiving disease.
“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:6-12).