Roman Roads: Church Closed?


Read: Malachi 1:6-14

Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple doors… (Malachi 1:10a, NRSV).

There is something almost obscene about churches sitting empty during Holy Week. This is the very week we are supposed to be singing our hosannas and hallelujahs. And God knows, if ever we needed to move from death to resurrection, this is the time.

I am living in Rome right now, and we have been in “lockdown” mode for several weeks. I remember the initial sucker punch of seeing a Chiesa Chiusa (Church Closed) sign. But it’s been almost a month now, and I have had a little longer to get used to what passes for church during a pandemic. It’s not all bad as it turns out. In fact, there is something quite heartening about the weekly ZOOM service I have been attending with upwards of 100 Italian Protestants. We listen to scripture, music, and a sermon. We pray. We even have an offering. But the most moving part of the service for me is after the benediction when everyone’s microphone is turned on and we spend several minutes waving to each other and saying, “Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!” For some reason, that’s when I tear up. Perhaps it’s because that’s when we feel the absence of an embrace most keenly. Or maybe it’s because we know that once we click on “Leave Meeting” it’s the start of another week of isolation.

Still, it’s enough to prove that there is nothing virtual about virtual church. As we have heard so often, “church” is not a building, but a people. We are the body of Christ in the world, and in some ways, that has never been more true than it is since we were forced to “shut the temple doors.”

But let’s talk about that verse from Malachi. I will admit that I am taking it violently out of context. When Malachi first uttered these words, he was expressing his exasperation at fellow priests who were offering inferior sacrifices—cutting corners and going through the motions of religion—rolling their eyes and complaining about “what a weariness this is” (v. 13).

There are plenty of things about the contemporary church that might make Malachi want to get up and bar the door. Sexual abuse scandals, for starters. But if Malachi were blogging during this pandemic, I suspect he might have a few choice words for those few priestly hold-outs who are refusing to “shut the temple doors.” As my colleague Suzanne McDonald points out, they are a prime example of how “bad theology can kill people.”

Since I am quoting Suzanne, here is something she posted on her Facebook feed this week:


“Gatherings of significant numbers of people spread this disease to their communities like nothing else. People, what is your gospel problem?! It is very evident that love of God and neighbor demands that we do NOT gather in one place to worship at the moment…. I know it’s hard, but there are plenty of other ways for us to temporarily worship together even though physically apart. The ‘essential’ thing is that we continue to worship the Lord and seek to live for him. Nothing is preventing that. Oh, and to the Louisiana folks who have been packing into that megachurch: nope, buying an ‘anointed handkerchief’ sold by your snake-oil-salesman-pastor is not going to help.”


There is something “Malachi-esque” about both the content and tone of that post. Like the prophet, the professor does not mince words in an emergency.

During this week when we remember Christ’s death for others, we have an opportunity to set an example by acting in ways that give life to others. It is the way of the cross. And it is a powerful witness in the midst of this pandemic.

Ponder: The following post went viral on Italian social media recently. How does it speak to you as a Christian? As a human being?


This is an opportunity to turn an emergency into an opportunity of solidarity and unity.

Let’s change the way we see and think. I will no longer say ‘I’m afraid of this contagion,’ or

 ‘I don’t care about this contagion,’ but it is I who will sacrifice for you.

I worry about you.
I keep a distance for you.
I wash my hands for you.
I give up that trip for you.
I’m not going to the concert for you.
I’m not going to the mall for you.

For you!

For you who are inside an ICU room.
For you who are old and frail, but whose life has value as much as mine.
For you who are struggling with cancer and can’t fight this too.

Please, let’s rise to this challenge!

Come together…nothing else matters.

Pray: Help us make faithful choices in these difficult days. Show us how to live for you in ways that are generous, wise, and just. Help us to be the body of Christ in the world.





Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!