Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.
Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient – when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.
1 Peter 3:13-22, Common English Bible
So we haven’t read a lot from the First Letter of Peter. It’s one of those books tucked in at the end of the New Testament, with Hebrews, James, Jude and so on, and we just don’t seem to get to it that often. But it does have some very meaningful things to say. The writer speaks about the story of Noah. We read two books about Noah and the ark during our children’s storytime, and went over the story of God telling Noah to build a big boat, two of every kind of animal, the flood and the rainbow. The First Letter of Peter talks about how God patiently waited during the time of Noah, and how Noah built an ark in which eight lives were rescued through water. It’s referring to the human family on board, Noah and Mrs. Noah – we never learn her name – their three sons and their daughters in law.
The letter uses the Noah story to make a point about baptism. But I think it can speak to us baptized people in this time. Look at this story – there is a disaster, a family is in isolation for a long period, they look for signs that they can come out, finally they do, they give thanks to God in worship. It’s all there in the Noah story, and it’s the story of our recent past, our present, and, we hope, our future.
This would be a good time to talk about what has been the theme of government news conferences the last week: reopening. People ask me, when will we be back in our church building. And the short answer is, I don’t know. Ontario just began the first phase of the three-phase reopening plan for the entire province. The United Church of Canada also has three phases in its guidance for governing boards as they decide when to reopen, in consultation with the province, local health unit, and United Church regional council. Phase one is reopening the building so small groups may meet in person, with physical distancing and wearing masks. Worship would continue to be online, or possibly outdoors. The second phase is resuming in-person worship, with appropriate health measures. Phase three would be full return, but still subject to health and safety regulations.
The guiding principle in these three phases of reopening is the safety of all who enter the church building. Let me say some more about this. You may have seen Facebook posts or heard people say something like, “how come 500 people are allowed in Home Depot but we can’t worship in church?” Well, let me respond. Churches are not businesses. We need revenue coming in because we have expenditures going out, but the similarities end there. We are not like Home Depot, or the health unit, or a charity, even if we have a charitable registration number. We are here, as the First Letter of Peter says, to proclaim that “your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” We are here to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. We are tell each other and tell others that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. No one else does this. Home Depot isn’t doing this. Our message includes but goes far beyond just saying “stay home and wash your hands.”
Church buildings will be among the last to reopen, because worship services, like other indoor gatherings, are what are called superspreader events. They are high risk activities involving a high risk population, because there are a lot of older people. And it is difficult to reduce these risks. There was a United church in Calgary that had its last worship service in the sanctuary the same day as us, March 15. There was a social time after church for a member’s birthday. They took all the precautions. There were fewer than 50 people there, so it was allowed. They stood six feet apart in the church hall. Those serving food used gloves and tongs. They did everything right. And yet of the 41 people there, 24 got the coronavirus and two have died.
To resume worship in the church building, the final phase of reopening, we would have to make significant changes to the way we gather. We probably won’t have greeters. There may not be a printed bulletin. We will have to sit six feet or more apart, and, yes, this means you may not be able to sit in your usual seat. We will probably have to wear masks. We may have to limit the number of people in the building. We won’t have any contact with each other. The entire space – pews, hymn books, floors, doors, everything – will have to be sanitized after every service. If you go to the washroom, that will have to be cleaned immediately before the next person can use it. And this is an even bigger issue, there will be no singing. Singing expels a cloud of droplets into the air, and if you have the virus, even if you don’t have symptoms and don’t know you have it, those droplets contain the virus. Someone could walk 10 feet from where you sat, 20 minutes after the final hymn, and become infected from the virus remaining in the air.
We have a responsibility that businesses don’t have. We can’t love and serve others, we can’t proclaim Jesus our judge and our hope, without obeying his commandment to love one another. If we are to worship again in the church building, we can’t just adhere to the letter of the health regulations. We have to act in the spirit of love. We need to learn the lesson of our siblings in that church in Calgary, who did everything correctly but are still desperate to relive that day and do it differently so no one became ill and no one died. The Board and the Session may decide that even with all this in place to let us worship in person, there is still too much of a risk of infecting people we love. Many of us may make that decision for ourselves and stay away. We would continue to have worship online to serve those who can’t come, and have to figure out how to serve those who currently can’t access worship online and would probably not be able to attend in person either.
It is perfectly understandable that we want to get back into the buildings that mean so much to us, and we want to see each other in person. We want to be back to normal. But what is “normal” will change. Think about Noah and his family. When they got off the ark, got back to normal, the normal was completely different from before. We know something about this here along the St. Lawrence Seaway, starting over after a flood.
And, you know, the Noah story shows that not reopening the building until we are good and ready isn’t about a lack of faith. Noah and his family didn’t get off the ark early. We need the faith of Noah and his family, who stayed on that ark for over a year, the Bible story says. And we need the hope they had, that their time on the ark would indeed end. First Peter says, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.” We do have hope. We can defend our hope, telling anyone who asks that God is with us now in this time and will still be with us in the new normal, whatever that is like. And we need love. We can say that we are not living in fear now – we are obeying Jesus, who told us to love our neighbours. Scripture says, faith, hope and love abide, these three. Noah had all three despite a great disaster, the Christians First Peter was written for had all three despite persecution, and we have all three despite a pandemic. Noah and his family, the first Christians, neither had buildings to worship in, yet they worshipped, in faith, hope and love. And so do we, together with each other right now, no matter how long it takes to reopen fully.