Previously on this blog we have discussed rightly interpreting the promises of God and the “already / not yet” model of the kingdom in this age. In this blog post, we will examine this question – how can we as Christians uniquely bring joy and hope even in the midst of deep sorrow?
Let me begin with an image from a film based on the true story of the Apollo 13 crisis. There is a scene in the movie where flight director Gene Kranz overhears two NASA directors discussing the low survival chances for the crippled spacecraft … “I know what the problems are Henry,” one of them says, “this could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.”
Gene Kranz responds with great wisdom, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”
Lessons from Church History
While this whole thing is brand new to us, this is not the first time the church has been through such times. Christians have faced many epidemics over the past 2,000 years, and our brothers and sisters in the past have much to teach us. I have been reading this week about the Spanish flu from 1918 and how churches closed for several weeks back then. There was the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, yet the church survived. Soon thereafter, there was the famous epidemic called the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colorful account of this disease in his sermons. The church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” Our witness was so strong that even the pagan Emperor Julian spoke of how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people.
In the middle ages, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg (in 1527), the reformer Martin Luther refused to flee the city and protect himself. His refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. Luther produced a tract entitled, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,” which states, “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”
To modern people living after the discovery of the germ theory, this can all sound a bit foolish. But this is not what they understood. For them, their staying was an act of self-sacrifice and took great courage. Today of course we understand that staying to care for the sick with close proximity is likely to infect others and make the problems worse. So now, we socially distance, not to protect ourselves, but to protect others, so we follow the rules and pray for strength for our neighbors, especially the health care providers who are on the front lines. Nonetheless, the point in looking back is this, Christians have weathered these storms before with a spirit of generosity and sacrifice … and grown stronger because of them. The watching world was stunned by our love (John 13:35).
What does Love Call us to do?
Love is our mark. In every age, we should be asking ourselves this question: What does love call us to do? Love calls us to utilize technology and stay connected. Love calls us to lend a hand to do grocery shopping or run errands for those who can’t get out. Love means checking on the elderly and serving the immuno-compromised. Love means holding out a great hope even in the midst of the fear all around us.
The Christian gospel and the great hope is not immunity from all suffering and disease. The Christian message is that even in the midst of great tragedy, we say that God is good and He has not forsaken us, even though this fallen world is broken. To the healthy, we urge vigilance and the call to serve our neighbor. To those infected, we pray for healing and we hold out hope. To all, we point to Christ’s promises which never fail. To those suffering, we point to Christ’s presence, as He is sufficient and He will never leave us nor forsake us. Evil and harm cannot separate God’s children from His love, nothing can separate us, that includes even pandemics.
Let me leave you with a great quote from the great Mr. Rogers. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Dear Christian brother or sister: May people look for the helpers … and find you.
Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. (San Fransisco: Harper, 1997).