Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
July 19, 2020
Patrick has expressed in a nutshell his opinion about the meaning of life, at least in the context of this particular international crisis. And let’s be clear that this is a well-thought-out and creditable perspective. Dan Patrick has worked hard his entire life to create an economically strong Texas. He doesn’t view this as only for himself or for his generation; he believes that this is a legacy that we should pass on to our children and our children’s children. He is concerned that the economic shut-down will have long-term negative effects on our economy that could resonate for generations to come. To him, it would be immoral and even selfish to shut down the economy now, to deal with what he believes is a temporary crisis, to save our own lives at the cost of the inheritance we could bequeath to our children.
Think about this carefully. This is not a poorly thought out, or politically motivated, or “reactive” position. It is a clear moral position, with moral implications that we can understand. It is a fair question to ask if our actions today are pulling the rug out from under generations to come. In fact, it’s a question we should ask more often than we do. Millennials and Gen Z today are dealing with outsized debt loads that had created a generational financial crisis already in process even before the coronavirus shut-down, and most experts point to the many self-serving financial policies instigated by my generation, the Baby Boomers, as benefitting us while passing the costs down the road to our children and grandchildren. One of the most important moral questions we should ask is, “How do my actions today affect generations who will be here after I’m gone?”
Lt. Gov. Patrick’s position dovetails into the disagreement between churches over what exactly is the faithful response when it comes to congregational worship in this time of pandemic. We Christians believe that especially in a time of national crisis, we should make congregational worship integral, even if it has to be done at great risk. Add to that the concern many have that to obey government directives, especially those that direct us NOT to go to church, is to make government or specific leaders into idols whom we are worshiping instead of God. A lot of folks will look to past times when government set itself up as an idol, and how faithful Jews and Christians of the past willingly went to martyrdom rather than to bow down to such decrees. And so, it isn’t such a big leap for them to see risking Covid-19 by going to public worship as a ditch worth dying in—literally dying. They view the risk they are taking as worth it because of the larger purpose of bequeathing true Christian faith to generations to come. They are also more willing to believe that because of their faithfulness, God will protect them from getting Covid-19 by going to church. But my guess is they think it’s worth it even if it kills them.
I think it’s worth noting the level of faithfulness, courage, and selflessness that are reflected in this view. I will say furthermore, that this is a Christian position. There are indeed things worth dying for, and certainly two of them are the inheritance we leave to our children and resistance to idolatry.
Where many of us might disagree with these folks is not on whether legacy and idolatry are things worth dying for, but rather the particulars. What is the legacy we wish to leave? Is this truly a situation of idolatrous confidence in false gods? Is it true that the most faithful thing we can do right now is to risk getting Covid-19 and leave the consequences to God?
Really to ask the question what’s worth dying for is to ask what is it that Christians are living for. That’s what we’ll talk about today.
In our epistle reading for today, Paul says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” There is so much going on in that sentence theologically that it boggles the mind, but let’s look at the phrase “the Spirit of LIFE in Christ” versus “the law of sin and death.” This is how Paul sees things: without Jesus, we humans are tied to law, sin and death. He goes further to say, that without Christ we are tied to the flesh; but in Christ we have become Spirit. Flesh certainly means the material world; it means sex and materialism and our family and our actual physical life. But Paul isn’t condemning these things. What he’s saying is that if one is not living in the Spirit, then one thinks that is all there is to life. All there is, is sex and materialism and family and actual physical life. That is what defines you.
But if one is in the Spirit, you still have sex and materialism and family and physical life and health—BUT THAT’S NOT ALL THERE IS. THERE’S MORE. Human life is no longer solely tied to temporary, temporal things. Human life is now tied into the eternal, into transcendent things, into God. And that creates a tremendous reframe of what it means to be human. We can value and enjoy the material things of the world, but we don’t define ourselves by them. Life is bigger than these material things and so—this is important—if we lose them, we can do without them. We don’t need material things to give our lives meaning, and so if we lose them, we don’t despair.
This goes to a concern I have about how some Christians are responding to the economic side of this crisis. It is as if they perceive that loss of material security somehow indicates that we are not faithful to God. What’s odd is that it is as if they believe that maintaining financial and material security IS exactly what it means to be faithful to God. It is a strangely materialistic interpretation of being Christian. I think this is more an expression of the classic American work ethic than it is of Christian faith. It reflects Benjamin Franklin’s adage from Poor Richard’s Almanac that “God helps those who help themselves.” I think all of us have said, as Lt. Gov. Patrick said, “Let’s go back to living” because we’re so frustrated that we can’t go out to eat, or go to the gym, or to work, or to church. But life is more than these matters of material security.
So, let’s talk about what Christian life actually is.
We Christians believe that the life we have in Jesus Christ is first and foremost, the renunciation of the power of death over our lives. “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” Paul says in First Corinthians 15. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Paul here indicates that part of the way we live into God’s victory over death is by doing “the work of the Lord.” Paul says in another place that for him, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” If we are Christian, we have work to do, work that starts in this material world that we all share together. That work is Christ at work in the world, and so we should not be cavalier with our own lives. Death may be gain, but life is still Christ, and our job is to live Christ’s life in the world and do the work that requires. A couple of years ago on my most recent trip to Israel, a group of us Fort Worth pastors was partnered with a group of Black Baptist pastors from North Carolina. Every time we visited a holy site, one of us was designated to provide a meditation. When we went to Bethlehem, that job went to a black pastor named William Johnson whom the other pastors from North Carolina viewed kind of as their “dean,” the guy with the most experience and wisdom. In front of the fields where possibly the shepherds heard the angels sing the birth of Jesus, Willie gave a profound and thoughtful meditation on eternal life, and the way he finished it really struck me: “I don’t wanna go today ‘cause there’s still plenty of work to do—but one of these days….” And that goes to what we are living for. To die is gain, yes—but in the meantime to live is Christ. We don’t want to go today because there’s still plenty of work to do. And that means that Christ expects certain things of us. And those things happen here, in the material world, right here on earth. Jesus is at war with death right here on earth. For instance, Jesus teaches us that taking care of the poor and the needy is vital to faithful living, “that whatsoever is done for the least of these is done” for him. Our assistance to the needy is more than just kindness. It is an act of defiance of death. We do not want poverty and neglect to claim one single life. And then there goes Jesus identifying himself with the poor and needy. So, if we say that “to live is Christ,” then taking care of the needy is pretty much required. We Christians also believe that worship is one of the most vital parts of human life. Worship connects us to the Holy, reminds us of the meaning of our lives, tells us what God wants for the world. But worship isn’t as simple as going to church or synagogue. Frustrated with self-serving worship, the prophet Micah says, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The prophet Isaiah addresses the same problem, saying
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
In both these cases, God says that real worship is not simply ceremonies or going to church every Sunday. In fact, such things can actually be perversions of true worship. But to do justice and to take care of people in need is always, always true worship.
This is why, as much as anything, places of worship have sadly but willingly closed our doors to public worship during the corona virus. It is because, not only are there all sorts of other ways to worship, but real worship is taking care of others; it is because to live for Christ is to live for the most vulnerable in our society; it is because to be Christian is always to be at war with death so that it cannot claim a victory over us. We recognize that public worship is a Petri dish for the coronavirus, so we have closed our doors—for now. We continue our worship through video but also through providing opportunities to serve our neighbors, and those service opportunities are, too, an act of worship.
They’re also a reminder that this isn’t about us. I reject the claim that because we have a right to do something, we should just do it and forget the consequences, even if it makes someone else sick or die. That’s just selfishness. An essential Christian tenet is that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will save it.” That doesn’t mean that Jesus wants you lose your life by foolishly going some public event and not taking minimal precautions. But what it does mean is that we are willing to sacrifice our own comforts for the sake of others. And right now, sacrificing certain material comforts to save lives seems like a completely consistent Christian thing to do. Wearing a mask when out in public isn’t a political statement nor is it an appropriate act of defiance to an overreaching government: it is a loving act of protecting your neighbor from a disease you might have unawares. It’s an act of Christian discipleship. And in the meantime, there are still plenty of ways we can live Christlike lives in this crisis. There are certainly things worth dying for, and if it comes to that then our hope is in Christ, who has already defeated death and promised us eternal life; but in the meantime as pastor William Johnson told us, we don’t want to go today because there’s still plenty of work to do.
This puts us in an interesting position, of course. Frankly, speaking for myself, I very much see why the economy needs to reopen to some degree. It looks as much as anything, from a Christian perspective, like a moral issue. There is a real risk that people will get sick and die because of Covid-19, whether as customers or as workers. On the other hand, there’s also a serious risk of people falling into poverty, not being able to feed themselves or their kids, and possibly creating long-term generational poverty. How do you figure out the balancing act? Just because we have a moral framework in which to view the world doesn’t make the choices any easier or clearer.
As to those who view going to church or refusing to wear masks as a way of resisting the tyranny of the government or the medical elites or public opinion, well, I just don’t see that. I don’t think anyone is trying to usurp the role of God in our lives. I think we’re in a real health crisis and it calls us to respond as Christians are always called to respond: with humility, mercy, grace, service to others, and patience. Fighting tyranny and idolatry are worth fighting and dying for, but that’s not what this situation is.
And finally, as to legacy: I certainly don’t want my children or my grandchildren to be poor because of foolish decisions made in this pandemic. But there are more important things than financial security. Among them are love of God, strength of character, moral fortitude, and an awareness of God at work in the world through acts of selflessness and concern for others. I would hope that our children, would benefit from seeing an entire society or at least a significant portion of it make the conscious moral decision to put the needs of the many over their own short-term comfort. I think that’s a worthy legacy to pass on. A society that lives the self-sacrificing life of Christ would be a great legacy for future generations to build on.