Is the Government Violating Religious Freedom by Restricting Church Services? A Holy Wednesday Invitation to Solitude
This is the first Holy Week in Christian history to be observed primarily online.
From livestreamed services at the Vatican to video sermons recorded and shared on cell phones, Christians and Christian churches all over the world are meeting virtually these days.
This is a controversial subject. Some claim that governmental restrictions on worship services are an infringement of religious liberty and a violation of the separation of church and state. Others disagree, noting that such prohibitions do not single out religious gatherings but include all events at which people could become infected with coronavirus. Still, others claim that church services should be classified as “essential” functions and allowed to continue under social distancing guidelines.
I agree with Dr. Albert Mohler and Kelly Shackelford’s statement in the Washington Post: “Asking houses of worship to briefly suspend large gatherings is neither hostile toward religion nor unreasonable in light of the threat. Rather, this is a time for all of us to exercise prudence over defiance. Love for God and neighbor demands nothing less.”
However, my purpose today is not to litigate this issue. Rather, it is to encourage us to reframe social distancing in a way that aligns with this day in Holy Week.
You might respond by noting that the Gospels do not record any activities of our Lord on the Wednesday before he died. I agree.
"God goes where he’s wanted"
Jesus spent the first four nights of Holy Week in Bethany, a suburb east of Jerusalem, at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (cf. Matthew 21:17).
Making the homes of others his own was customary for our Lord. He stayed with Peter and his family when in Capernaum (cf. Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:29). He once said, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
But as Philip Yancey noted, “God goes where he’s wanted.”
When Samaritans, an ethnic group hated by the Jews, “believed in Jesus” and “asked him to stay with them,” our Lord “stayed there two days” (John 4:39-40). As a result, “many more believed because of his word” (v. 41).
When Paul led Lydia to Christ, she “prevailed” upon Paul and his team to “come to my house and stay” (Acts 16:15). It’s hard to imagine that Saul the Pharisee would have stayed at the home of this Gentile woman, but as Paul noted, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
After the apostle was subsequently released from prison, he “visited Lydia” and “the brothers” who were there (v. 40). He later told elders in Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
Christianity was a house movement centuries before it became a building-centered institution. Today, if someone asks you, “Where is your church?”, you’ll probably give them an address. If someone had asked you that question in the first century, you would have been baffled. It would have been like identifying a physical location for democracy or Stoicism.
"Be filled with the Holy Spirit"
Jesus spent Holy Wednesday in solitude, preparing spiritually for what lay ahead. If the divine Son of God needed such a time of intimacy with his Father, how much more do we in these days of crisis?
We need the power of God to fulfill the purpose of God.
For instance, after Jesus met Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, the Lord sent a disciple named Ananias to him. Ananias told Saul that he had been sent “so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Saul was then healed (v. 18) and “immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God'” (v. 20). Despite opposition, “Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ” (v. 22).
Note that nothing had changed in his life except the fact that he had met Jesus and had been “filled” with his Spirit. Saul had not yet met other believers or received Christian theological training (cf. Galatians 1:16-17). But he was empowered by the Spirit to partner with the Spirit in declaring spiritual truth that advanced God’s kingdom in powerful ways.
If you’re a Christian, you’ve met the same risen Lord. If you will ask the same Holy Spirit to “fill” or control you, he will (cf. Ephesians 5:18).
The best way to observe Holy Wednesday
Social distancing does not mean spiritual distancing. In fact, the opposite can be the case.
I cannot think of a better way to observe Holy Wednesday than by doing what Jesus did on this day. So, make time to be with your Lord. Remember all that he did for you this week and thank him for each act of grace, from his intense prayer in Gethsemane to the scourging, mocking, and crucifixion he endured on your behalf. And know that he would do it all again, just for you.
Now ask him to show you his personal love for you. Listen for his voice in your mind and heart. Feel his holy presence and experience his transforming grace.
If we will make today a Holy Wednesday with our Savior, we will never be the same.
Publication date: April 8, 2020
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Fizkes
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