From now on, we we meet as a church we will be obliged by law to wear face coverings for the first time. This is not merely a matter of guidance, and those who fail to do so without a ‘reasonable excuse’ will be liable to a £100 fine.
In the month since places of worship have been allowed to reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown, initial optimism has given way to an ever-increasing restriction, which leaves the experience very different from what we expect church to be. Initially we couldn’t sing. Then we were told that we could not speak to others outside of the household group with whom we have attended. Now we have to wear face coverings. It is a measure of the importance that many Christians place on physically meeting together that so many are continuing to meet despite all of these limitations.
We all hope and pray that this crisis will be over soon – whether because a vaccine is developed, herd immunity is achieved which causes the virus to subside, or others means of containment such as test and trace are developed. However, the ‘hardships’ we are facing during this time are also ways in which God is disciplining us as his sons, and this will ultimately produce a harvest of righteousness to his glory.
It is ironic that with such low levels of infection, hospital admissions and deaths, the hardships we are experiencing are now largely a result of the government regulations rather than of the virus itself. However, they are likely to be temporary and are being shared by vast swathes of our society as we strive to avoid a return to the dark days of March and April when over 1000 people died from COVID-19 a day.
We might resent the restrictions, but we ought also to ask what the Lord might be teaching us through them. Here are a few lessons that we might learn as face coverings become the ‘new normal’ for church gatherings.
The Lord is teaching us to submit to authority
None of us finds it easy to submit to the decisions of the civic authorities, especially decisions that we personally disagree with. We assume that we know best, and that we ought to allowed to be sovereign over our lives. However, the New Testament tells us this is not true, and it is a manifestation of our wider consumer choice society. God has set governing authorities over us, and we are commanded to submit to them and obey their demands, except when submission would mean disobedience to Christ.
We do not wear face coverings only if we agree that they are a sensible protection against Coronavirus. We wear face coverings even when we might think them unnecessary and over-cautious. We wear them because the servant God has put in place to govern for our good has commanded that we wear them, and we respect and honour this authority.
Ultimately it is God who commands us to wear face coverings though his agent, just as he commands us to wear seat belts and observe the speed limit. We may personally think 70 mph is an unnecessary precaution on an empty motorway, but that does not take away our duty to obey, nor does it provide a defence when the speed camera ticket lands on our doormat. We are under authority.
This coronavirus crisis will force us to choose whether to submit or rebel against the authority God has, in his sovereignty, established over us. It is especially an opportunity to learn what it means to submit for those of us who occupy leadership positions, whether, in church or society. This is a lesson that we need to keep on learning. Those in leadership generally have less occasion to submit, and can fall into thinking that they are above submission because they usually wield authority. We all need to learn to be joyful submitters as a spiritual discipline. If we will not submit to the human authorities over us, what makes us think we will willingly submit to the authority of the Lord Jesus? The heart of sin and rebellion is to think that we know better and that we can make the rules for ourselves. That is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The Lord is teaching us to love our neighbours
The requirement to wear face masks is not just an arbitrary requirement that has been imposed to test our obedience. It has been introduced in good faith by the authorities because they believe that it will reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Indoor spaces, such as churches, are particularly susceptible to virus transmission, and a disproportionate number of our congregation are more vulnerable if they catch the virus due to their age or underlying health. The wearing of face coverings is becoming widespread around the world, imposed by governments of all different political stripes. The regulations in England are considerably less draconian than those in, say, Victoria in Australia.
The reason we wear masks is not to serve our own self-interest. They are not primarily for our own protection, but to protect others. It is because we pose a risk. After all, we might be the spreaders of the infection. The evidence shows that there is much more asymptotic spread of the virus than was previously thought.
Wearing a face covering, whether in a shop, cinema or church, reminds us that we might be the danger to others. It undercuts our natural self-centredness, which assumes that others might be the danger to us. So masks are an expression of our love for others, and our desire to protect them from infection at our hands – or more properly our mouths and noses! The local lockdown imposed in Preston today has been launched by the slogan ‘don’t kill granny.’ This powerfully expresses the intended purpose of the restrictions.
The call to set aside our own interests and put the interests of others first is the essence of the Christian life. It is the example of Christ that Paul sets before us in Philippians 2. It is at the heart of Romans 14-15, where Paul calls Christians to be willing to set aside their own freedom to eat meat so as not to cause harm to their brothers and sisters with sensitive consciences.
As we wear face coverings, it is an opportunity for us to show that we are willing to bear discomfort for the sake of others – to put them ahead of ourselves. It is an expression of our love for our neighbours.
The Lord is teaching us to rejoice in our salvation
We live in a culture in which face covering is unusual and disturbing. It is a culture in which the Prime Minister felt able to describe Muslim women who covered their faces as looking like pillar boxes. However, for much of human history, women have covered their faces with veils, usually for cultural reasons of modesty.
In 2 Corinthians 3v14-16 Paul uses the analogy of a veil as a metaphor for our lack of understanding of the message of the Scriptures. God has revealed himself and his plan of salvation in his word, but by nature, our hearts have been veiled so that they cannot understand it and respond to it. It is for this reason that Paul says the Jews were unable to see that the Law of Moses pointed ahead to the Lord Jesus and the new covenant he has inaugurated.
The glorious good news is that, for those who trust Christ, the veil has been removed. We can see and understand the glory of the cross and the salvation it has brought. The Scriptures make sense to us, and we can see that the law, prophets and psalms are all about Jesus. They bring us to him.
As we are forced to wear face coverings in church tomorrow, it ought to bring home to us the wonderful truth that we so easily take for granted – that God removed the veil from our own hearts so that we could see and be saved. We did not believe in Christ because of our own cleverness, or the skill of those who told us the gospel. We believed because Christ himself made it possible for us to believe. He regenerated us and gave us new birth, which has been expressed in our responsive faith.
Salvation is always a work of God, and a supernatural miracle. As we sit in church with our faces veiled, hearing the word of God proclaimed and understanding how it gloriously points us to Jesus, let us not forget how astonishing this is. Perhaps we are being taught by our Father to rejoice afresh in the wonder of our salvation, and to praise him anew for what he has done for us. Perhaps an analogy that we have heard so many times before, but never experienced, will take on new meaning and poignancy.
The Lord is teaching us to be bold in gospel ministry
Not only does the analogy of the veil/face covering point us to the wonder of our salvation, but it also reminds us of the glory of gospel ministry and the need to be bold in our gospel proclamation.
In 2 Corinthians 3v7-12, Paul uses the same metaphor in a different way, to contrast the fading glory of the old covenant ministry of the law with the lasting glory of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit. When Moses returned from being with God in the ‘Tent of Meeting’ he would veil his face so that the people did not see the temporary glory fading. He did not want them to see its transience. In contrast, now that Christ has come and the Spirit has been given, the glory is permanent. We see the eternal glory of the cross and resurrection, and also in each other as we are being transformed into the Lord’s glorious image.
This metaphor encourages us not to become downcast in gospel ministry, despite the persecution and suffering we might face, but rather to be ‘very bold’. We are involved in the most glorious task of proclaiming the good news that will bring life and righteousness rather than death and condemnation.
As we sit in church in our face coverings, let us remember that the glory is not, and should not, be veiled. We alone have the glorious good news that can save people from death – whether from coronavirus, cancer or a car crash. We need to be bold rather than discouraged. We need to proclaim the glory of the cross and resurrection in the power of the Spirit.
The Lord is teaching us to look forward to the new creation
Finally, wearing face coverings will be a stark reminder to us that we are not yet back to ‘normal’, and that our communion with one another has been impaired. It may be better than meeting on Zoom, or watching on YouTube when we have no knowledge of who else is tuning it, but it will still feel like a loss. We will recognise one another but not be able to fully express ourselves. We will be known in part, but there will not be the full openness and intimacy of knowledge we long for.
This experience ought to teach us an eschatological perspective, and cause us to long for the time when we will be able to see one another ‘face to face.’ There is a parallel with our relationship with God. As a result of his self-revelation in Christ, we know God truly, but we do not yet know him fully. We do not yet see God ‘face-to-face’. Our knowledge of him is mediated by his word and his Spirit. We live by faith and not by sight.
We should not be satisfied by what we have, but long for what we will enjoy in eternity. At the same time, we need to recognise that we cannot have this now, and there is no point striving after a ‘beatific vision’ that will only be possible when we stand before the throne in our resurrected bodies.
As we sit in church wearing face coverings tomorrow, frustrated that we cannot see each other’s faces, let us have hope that this will not last forever. There is a day coming when we will be able to meet with one another in church with uncovered faces. It is natural for us to long for this, and we should do so.
In the same way, let us remember that there is a day coming when we will see God face to face in all his glory. We will gaze upon his majesty and his beauty. It will be a day when our faith is finally turned to sight, and we no longer see as in a glass darkly.
Let this time of restriction be a time of renewed eschatological hope and repentance from an over-realised eschatology, that will either leave us disappointed because we have been given false expectations of our current knowledge of God or, even worse than that, willing to settle for what we have now.
So it might be different, and perhaps disappointing and discouraging. Let’s not wallow in our discouragement but instead ask what the Lord might be teaching, and rejoice in the blessings and hope we have because of the gospel.
This is a Guest post from John Stevens of the FIEC