For the first—and hopefully last—time in our lives, churches around the world are about to celebrate Easter by not gathering on Sunday. It’s a tragic picture of these sad and scary days. Yet it’s similar in several ways to what happened on the first Easter Sunday.
John shows us Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb (John 20:11), while Matthew adds that she and the other Mary were very afraid (Matt. 28:4). The disciples, meanwhile, were so scared they stayed indoors in a group small enough to satisfy the coronavirus quarantine (John 20:19).
But then Jesus showed up, and everything began to change. To the two Marys Jesus said, “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:9), and to the disciples he declared, “Peace be with you” (John 20:21).
The risen Christ is still speaking these words to his people—church planters included. He sees the struggle of your disrupted rhythms. He knows your fears about the survival of your church and the well-being of your staff, whose livelihoods are wed to the generosity of his people. And he knows the added pressure you feel even now as Easter Sunday approaches: What will you do? How will you help your people celebrate good news in such hard times?
In view of the diversity of churches and ministerial contexts, there is probably no “one-size-fits-all” approach to celebrating Easter during COVID-19. But here are four words of exhortation derived from the first Easter Sunday, from the nature of the church itself, and from the promises of our Lord.
1. Don’t Give in to the Pressure to Perform
Easter is a celebration of what Christ has done, not a demonstration of what a church can do. This is true every Sunday, but it’s essential we remember this now. That’s because the routine pressures of our weekly preparation have become prime territory for our Enemy’s work. If you’re livestreaming services, you may especially feel the added pressure to do something fantastic or memorable, or at least “not boring.”
Easter is a celebration of what Christ has done, not a demonstration of what a church can do.
Don’t give in to the pressure to perform. Instead, remember that Sunday services are not about manufacturing a certain experience, but faithfully holding Jesus forth to people who need to see him (John 12:21). The church is not, and never has been, a show. So, rather than fretting about the quality of your streaming service, count it all joy that such measures are a cheap substitute for the real thing: the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s gathered ones.
2. Don’t Downplay Easter’s Significance
If one group is prone to overemphasizing Easter in all the wrong ways, another is prone to underemphasizing holy days for the opposite reason. Indeed, it’s tempting to soothe sorrows over the present circumstances by saying, “It’s just another Sunday, after all.” But I would caution you against this, for such a sentiment betrays a common tendency to downplay the means of grace. And while it’s true, in one sense, that every Sunday after the resurrection is “mini-Easter,” there are still good reasons why the church has given the resurrection a full season of its own (Eastertide).
Instead of downplaying Easter, acknowledge that—as with so many things in a sin-stained world—this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Then lead your people, like Israel in captivity (Ps. 137), to long for a return to corporate worship. We should value gathering so much that missing Easter makes us feel the losses of this present moment all the more.
3. Rejoice Even as You Lament
Matthew tells us that the women who first learned of Jesus’s resurrection “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy” (Matt. 28:8). I’ve always liked this unexpected combination of emotions. Joy (obviously) because they’d just discovered that Jesus is alive, but also fear (presumably) because they weren’t sure how every detail would work out. Similarly, Easter is a reminder that we have much to rejoice about.
Sin and death have been defeated and will one day be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:54–57). Yet we still experience the sting of death, as COVID-19 painfully reminds us. If ever there were an Easter when we might feel fear and sadness in the midst of great joy, it’s now. So let us lead our people to celebrate accordingly, rejoicing in what Christ has accomplished already, even as we lament the “not yet” and long for that day when death can touch us no more.
4. Rest in the One Still at Work
On his best days, a planter is so confident in Jesus’s promise to build the church that he’s willing to sell everything he owns and move across the country (or the world) to start a church with just his family, his Bible, and a half-baked dream. But on his worst days, a pastor is wracked with worry. This anxiety comes from feeling and acting like everything depends on me.
Don’t just preach a message about Easter this week. Practice the meaning of Easter, too: Christ is risen indeed, so you can rest in him.
For however long the church is prohibited from gathering, pastors and planters have been handed a unique gift (à la Gen. 50:20). Most of the platforms and programs that prop up our false sense of security have been removed. We’ve been left with virtually nothing but Jesus himself.
Instead of resisting this state of affairs, let’s rest in the One who’s still with his people by the Spirit, through the Word and in prayer. For if we can trust him with our own lives, shouldn’t we trust him with the life of the church he bought with his own blood? So don’t just preach a message about Easter this week. Practice the meaning of Easter, too: Christ is risen indeed, so you can rest in him.