Easter 4 | Friday, May 8, 2020 To the Brothers and Sisters at Trinity Lutheran Church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! We give thanks for you in this time of mild tribulation. We give thanks for our Pastors for their faithful and selfless conduct. The State of Colorado and City of Denver, seven weeks ago, announced restrictions on gatherings as part of broader quarantine measures to slow the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Restrictions increased until just ten people were allowed to be in the same location. The limits were never codified as law but rather introduced as guidelines and recommendations since they would be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge. As the lockdown progressed and extended, the goals and reasons for maintaining it shifted and became opaque, and citizens have received conflicting and misleading information from government appointed experts. The burden on the people of God was and remains heavy, more so since it was the holiest time in the church year. We have observed the arbitrary classification of services as essential and non-essential. Notably, marijuana and liquor stores have enjoyed exemption. The former were initially not exempt until customers showed up en masse, after which the State quickly relented and granted them essential service privileges. At the same time, our neighbors and some of us suffer from delayed or deferred medical treatments, while late-term abortion clinics remain unfettered. Some of us and our neighbors have lost their jobs, and others are uncertain of their livelihoods, yet barely counted among the unemployed are government employees. Trinity’s Pastors and Council have met frequently and deliberated at length to ensure that in-person Word and Sacrament Ministry was maintained, especially for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. The Council was mindful of adhering to the health guidelines and respecting our neighbors in our vocations as Christians, Lutherans, and American citizens. Similarly, the Council was self-conscious about not idolizing the First Amendment nor binding the conscience of any member of Trinity.
The Lutheran teachings on the Three Estates and the Two Kingdoms have been notably applicable at this time, facilitating concord and unanimity among the Council. Martin Luther taught that all human activities occur in three “Estates,” namely and in priority order: The Family, The Church, and the Civil Authorities. Each Estate exists in relationship to the other (they are not divorced from each other like the alienating American formulation of Church and State), and within each Estate there are hierarchically structured relationships that organize human life under God’s care. God commands each hierarchy and endows it with authority. These authority structures provide order and harmony to the temporal life. Disrupting the hierarchies or improperly mingling the Estates invites chaos and disorder. For example, the only proper role for the care of children is within the Estate of the Family under the authority of two opposite-sex parents, of whom the father is the senior authority. In the Estate of the Church, called and ordained male pastors have the premier authority and responsibility to tend, shepherd, feed and oversee the people entrusted to their care. In the Estate of Civil Authority, politicians and bureaucrats devote themselves to the well-being of their subjects. The Fourth Commandment teaches us that within the Estates, children, parishioners, and citizens owe their parents, clergy, and rulers honor and obedience as sources of God-given authority who are accountable for the care and governance they exercise. The Two Kingdoms framework is closely related to the Three Estates. God has established an earthly or temporal kingdom (the left kingdom) wherein secular authority is endowed with rights to maintain order and steward creation. God’s grace in this kingdom extends to both believers and unbelievers. The right-hand or heavenly kingdom encompasses the Invisible Church. God rules and reigns in this kingdom through His Means of Grace. Consequently, all Christians are citizens of two kingdoms - the heavenly one and a temporal national kingdom or state.
In the relationship between the Two Kingdoms and the Three Estates, we are always careful to ensure that neither intrudes improperly on the other. It is not the business of the state to instruct the Church in doctrine, and it is not the business of the Church to interfere with the state in martial, trade, commerce, or diplomatic matters. Further, the unique Lutheran understanding of vocation provides us with the confidence and necessity of being occupied and engaged in all Three Estates, and in both Kingdoms. We thank God that the civil authorities of our state and city have not pursued the draconian responses witnessed in states like Michigan, Alabama, and California. Nevertheless, Trinity has drawn the repeated attention of city police and health authorities. Those authorities have, to date, declined to undertake any enforcement. Nor have they overtly interfered with Trinity’s doctrine and praxis apart from repeated recommendations to conduct services “virtually.” We are a sacramental church that reveres the Word and Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. They have the power to forgive sins, confer eternal life, and continuously reinforce our faith solely on account of the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus.
Consequently, there is no such thing as a “virtual” Divine Service. It is, therefore, Trinity’s duty and obligation to provide Word and Sacrament Ministry in person; otherwise, we cease to be the true Church. God has the power to use the Word of Christ by any means He sees fit to cause us to recognize our sin and repent of it in justifying faith (1 Cor. 2:6-7; Rom. 3:24-25; Rom. 4:13, 16; Gal. 3:22). He may even apply the power of the Word via television, or reading, or any other medium. Holy Communion, however, must and may only be conducted as a real and tangible thing that engages all the senses (Psa. 34:8). The Lord’s Supper consists of the common elements of bread and wine (Mat. 26:26-29). To them are added the Words of Institution so that 1 Cor. 10:16 teaches us that in the Sacrament, we have the Word joined with the elements. Holy Communion is nothing without the consecrated common elements and the Word. We cannot resort to our reason to unwind the commands of Jesus to justify making the Lord’s Supper virtual or in any means novel without endangering our faith (Luk. 1:34, 37; 1 Cor. 1:18, 23). Furthermore, the institution of the Lord’s Supper is a command and a testament from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. Its celebration must follow the order prescribed by the Words of Institution; otherwise, it is no longer the Lord’s Supper but something of our own making (Exodus 32:1-9), which we do to our harm (1 Cor. 11:20-21; 27-32). Only in the prescribed way is the Lord’s Supper received sacramentally (the physical participation) as well as spiritually (the faith that causes us to recognize and receive all the gifts Christ won for us in His birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension). It is also a considerable injury to the Church when it cannot fellowship in full unity (1 Cor. 11:33). By the Lord’s Supper, all members of the body of Christ join together (1 Cor. 10:17). Thereby, we increase in mutual love and service to the Saints in Christ and our unbelieving neighbors (1 Cor. 1:10). Scripture does not prescribe the form of the visible church nor its size. Still, it is sure about the benefits of worshipping as an assembly, especially for the sake of praise, prayer, and thanksgiving to God. Great corporate and personal harm follows when loneliness and isolation are coerced. Consequently, as the risk from COVID-19 receded and diminished, Trinity progressively decreased the number of services and increased the number of participants. The Divine Services have followed guidelines on social distancing and personal hygiene. Members most vulnerable to the virus remain advised to follow the recommendations of their doctors and the dictates of their conscience. Permission was requested from the City of Denver to conduct “protests” on Sunday mornings as a way to protect Trinity against further interruptions from the civil authorities. Permission was granted, and the police have thanked Trinity for its orderly approach to the matter. “Protest” is invested with negative connotations, including fears of uncivil action and violence. However, civil protesting enjoys considerable deference from the authorities irrespective of the number of people in attendance, and whether or not they follow social distancing guidelines. Trinity is, therefore, sheltering under the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble since the civil authorities presently show more respect for that right than not to interfere in the free exercise of religion. The above actions are a proper and appropriate boundary between the Estate of the Church and the Estate of Civil Authority. Likewise, Trinity is not intruding on the Estate of the Family since no-one is compelled to attend against their will or conscience. Protesting protection was not sought to draw attention to Trinity, but that the focus should remain properly on Christ and Him crucified for us; that our Pastors might continue to deliver Christ’s gifts to us. Trinity is blessed to have the option to exercise more than one civil right to safeguard its freedom to worship in keeping with God’s commands and promises, and it would be negligent if it did not exercise those rights for as long as they exist. These matters are not new, unusual, or controversial. There is no ambiguity or confusion about them in Scripture and the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (specifically AC XIV), to which all LC—MS Pastors have subscribed unconditionally. Furthermore, the doctrine and praxis of the Lord’s Supper has been thoroughly clarified, again, by the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). Lastly, the Council has been severely disappointed to observe that Trinity stands nearly alone. Just five LC—MS congregations in all of the Rocky Mountain District are known, at this time, to have maintained Word and Sacrament Ministry during the pandemic. It is a poor reflection on District leadership, which has not provided the laity with the necessary guidance and encouragement that they might use to fortify their Pastors and congregations. Similarly, the LC—MS Synod leadership has also been wanting in doctrinal discipline regarding virtual communion or providing vigorous support for religious freedom despite maintaining resources in our nation’s capital, specifically for that purpose. It is our hope and prayer that other churches might follow Trinity’s simple example. We do not seek the spotlight. Trinity’s sole concern is that shepherds should care for the sheep in person and maintain right doctrine even in adverse circumstances. The Lord’s Supper is a central pillar of that right doctrine, and resorting to virtual communion is heterodox because it countermands God’s explicit instruction. Pastors who indulge the temptation to virtual communion or open communion abandon their duties as the servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1).
Trinity will continue to urge prayers for one another, law enforcement, the mayor, the governor, the President, all who are sick, for doctors and nurses, and those who care for them. The Father in heaven is gracious to hear our prayers on their behalf.
Almighty God, grant us perfectly to know your Son, Christ Jesus, to be the way, the truth, and the life; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN. Trinity Lutheran Church Council