Coronavirus. Covid-19. Pandemic. Infection. Quarantine. Death.
These words are filling our headlines, and fear is gripping our hearts. It isn't the first time and it surely won't be the last. How should we think about this from the perspective of our Christian faith? How should we live out our faith in times of great fear? The past it helpful here, as it often is.
In August 1527, the bubonic plague (or the "Black Death") struck the German town of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther and other Reformers were living and ministering. In spite of an order to leave the community and protect himself, Luther, his pregnant wife, and his son stayed behind to help people suffering from this horrendous pandemic that killed almost 60% of the population of Europe. Luther's family transformed their home into hospital to care for the sick, minister to the community, and encourage their neighbors. It was not an easy time, in Luther's own words, "There are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones." But through it all, the Luther's faith and commitment to their neighbors did not waiver.
Later in 1527 the plague hit a neighboring town. Luther provided encouragement to a fellow clergyman there in a letter that has now become called, "Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague." In it, Luther offers sympathetic, godly pastoral counsel and guidance. As we watch the fear of Covid-19 spread faster than the disease itself, and as our communities fall into near panic, we would do well to take Luther's counsel to heart and find strength and encouragement for ourselves and others.
How should we approach a pandemic like Covid-19? How should we be agents of calm in the midst of chaos?
Let me suggest three things:
- Say your prayers.
- Wash your hands.
- Love your neighbors.
Say your prayers
This week's collect led us to pray to God "that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul." After discussing how rational it is for people to be overwhelmed with fear in times of pandemic and disaster, and after encouraging people to help others while allowing those paralyzed by fear to flee, Luther calls us to prayer:
We must pray against every form of evil and guard against it to the best of our ability in order not to act contrary to God, as was previously explained. If it be God’s will that evil come upon us and destroy us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; thy will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in this pestilence in the same way as if I were in fire, water, drought, or any other danger.” If a man is free, however, and can escape, let him commend himself and say, “Lord God, I am weak and fearful. Therefore I am running away from evil and am doing what I can to protect myself against it. I am nevertheless in thy hands in this danger as in any other which might overtake me. Thy will be done. My flight alone will not succeed of itself because calamity and harm are everywhere. Moreover, the devil never sleeps. He is a murderer from the beginning [John 8:44] and tries everywhere to instigate murder and misfortune.”
Before we do anything, even before we decide how to respond to Covid-19, let us pause and pray.
Wash your hands
My wife told me of a friend's recent response to infection and sickness, "I'm just trusting in Jesus." OK, that's a great start, but if that's all you plan on doing, such faith is childish, not childlike. Apologies for being blunt, but the supposed faith healers on TBN (and elsewhere), the Christian Scientists, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and others who reject the gift of modern medicine that God has lavished on society out of the abundance of his grace are fools.
If washing our hands can help prevent the spread of diseases, including Covid-19--and it does--then failing to wash our hands and "trusting in Jesus" is foolish to ourselves and hateful toward our neighbors. I personally am not terribly scared of Coronavirus. At my age and with my health, I am about as likely to die from a car crash and three times more likely to die from accidental poisoning as I am from a Covid-19 infection. But, I spend time around older folks who, if I'm carrying the virus and transmit it to them, may have serious complications or even die from an infection. Instead of merely "trusting in Jesus" to keep them safe, I'm going to also place my trust in the simple God-given gifts of soap and hot water, among other precautions.
Dr. Luther addresses people with this same cavalier attitude. About them he writes:
They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are...This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.
If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes. By the same reasoning a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.
After we pray, before we go out to serve our neighbors in need, let us wash our hands.
Love your neighbors
None of this makes any difference, of course, unless we aim to serve our neighbors in love. As St. Paul says in Romans 9, "The commandments... are summed up in this statement: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Rom 13.9 GW). We do this in a million little ways from day to day, and extraordinary circumstances bring extraordinary needs. Our community saw this in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and again after the Santa Fe high school shooting, to name two. Our communities are going to see it, to some degree, because of Covid-19.
Quoting and then expanding on Psalm 41, Luther clings to God's "mighty promise by which he encourages those who minister to the needy." He encourages us:
Are not these glorious and mighty promises of God heaped up upon those who minister to the needy? What should terrorize us or frighten us away from such great and divine comfort? The service we can render to the needy is indeed such a small thing in comparison with God’s promises and rewards that St. Paul says to Timothy, “Godliness is of value in every way, and it holds promise both for the present life and for the life to come” [1 Tim. 4:8]. Godliness is nothing else but service to God. Service to God is indeed service to our neighbor.
If the Church turns in on itself in fear and only prays, she will be failing our neighbors in their time of need. St. James pulls no punches when he teaches, "My brothers and sisters, what good does it do if someone claims to have faith but doesn’t do any good things? Can this kind of faith save him? Suppose a believer, whether a man or a woman, needs clothes or food and one of you tells that person, 'God be with you! Stay warm, and make sure you eat enough.' If you don’t provide for that person’s physical needs, what good does it do? In the same way, faith by itself is dead if it doesn’t cause you to do any good things" (James 2.14-17, GW). Loving our neighbors means caring for them, body and soul.
Beloved of God, these are scary times. Let us not minimize or trivialize that reality for one second. These times are also wonderful opportunities to show the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus to those around us.
Say your prayers. Wash your hands. Love your neighbors.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash