When I started this Lenten blog series, I didn’t anticipate it would be in the midst of a pandemic. With the death toll in the thousands, vulnerable populations are dying as the virus has ravaged whole communities. And yet, in times like these the topic and discussion of death becomes much more relevant and pressing.
Death comes for us all. A pandemic represents the fear of the invisible foe. We cannot see a virus, and this virus has the world watching in horror as it destroys and disrupts. A pandemic represents all that is vile about Death.
How does the Christian respond to a pandemic? Specifically this pandemic? There are many helpful voices providing expertise and guidelines for managing the risk and flattening the curve. And yet, there are still voices within the Christian community encouraging us to ignore the threat, to not follow the guidelines for prevention because they are based on fear.
Somehow in this view, the very idea of proactive measures against this invisible foe is somehow different than taking actions like the polio vaccine, or buckling your seatbelt, or having a fire extinguisher near your stove.
But this is not the Christian response.
The Christian takes death seriously. This means the Christian does not ignore danger. The Christian does not turn a blind eye to risk, thinking this is somehow more holy or brave. The Christian lives and walks with wisdom, seeking to honor God with the mind, and then entrusts oneself to God who holds all things in his hand. Social media has been spreading a quote from Martin Luther, where he writes to a fellow pastor regarding the plague:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” (emphasis added)
–Luther’s Works Volume 43, Pg. 132: Whether One Should Flee From A Deadly Plague – To Rev. Dr. John Hess
Luther is correct and biblical in his approach. He depends first on God and then reduces risk responsibly, so his actions are “neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” (Tempt could be translated as “put to the test” which is the language we have in Matthew 4:7.) We would do well to follow his example and change our behavior in response to a very real threat. This pandemic threatens the lives of thousands of vulnerable people and many more if we do not respond appropriately. We must take death seriously.
The Christian does all he can to protect others. This means the Christian endeavors as Luther says, “Not to be found responsible for either my own death or the death of others.” This is a far cry from some of the responses of the brash and brazen who say things like “I’m not afraid of this virus; I’ll be fine.” —That is a grossly unchristian response.
The Christian response is one of care and concern for our neighbors. The Christian response seeks to save and help the vulnerable, and doesn’t allow machismo masquerading as superior faith to put others at unnecessary risk.
But the Christian, while being wise, does not ultimately fear death. The Christian does not have to suppress a fear of death. The Christian can look Death soberly in the eye and know Death ultimately has been defeated. This is why we can say with Luther and all the believers throughout history, if my time comes, I want to be found responsible and motivated in my actions by love, trusting in my loving heavenly Father who sustains my very breath. I look at Death knowing that Christ has defeated death once and for all.
And though Death may slay me, Death will not have the last word. Our freedom from fear comes from security in the Father’s love. Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love motivates behavior that is truly loving, and not for performance or admiration. It causes true love of neighbors. The kind of love that happens in secret. The love Jesus describes when he says, “don’t allow your left hand to know what your right is doing.”
The early church saw epidemics sweep the Roman empire. And the early church’s love motivated believers to take risks and help others, a fact that elevated them to heroes of the ancient world.
Thucydides, an early pagan historian, describes the ineffectiveness of early medicine and pagan religion at stemming the tide of an epidemic:
The doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods….Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of the oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they aid no further attention to such things (The Rise of Christianity, p 84)
And when ancient Rome realized the plague was contagious, things got worse. People stopped visiting one another and left people on their own. “They died with no one to look after them. . . .” Thucydides description of the ancient scene is grim. ( p 85)
How did the church respond to this? They responded with love. They faced the fear of death and did so with godly courage. One early writer described it this way: “Most of our brother christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another.” (p. 82)
They risked their lives to help others who were sick. And some of them died as a result. But they did it out of love. In fact, the early church had a higher survival rate than the pagans because of the care and love that they provided to believers and pagans alike. Those who would have been left to die were nursed back to health. And yes, this meant sometimes Christians were put at risk, but overall the Christian community flourished because they loved. They loved in a way that was foreign to their culture. And the pagans noticed.
We have some advantages the early church did not have in our understanding of germs and viruses. We have the ability to take precautions that were unknown to early believers. The behavior described here by an early pastor is the precursor to our modern medicine. The care for the sick exhibited here translates into the modern hospital —a hospital precursor that didn’t understand how disease spread, a hospital precursor with a drastically lower threshold of knowledge. This is a very significant difference between them and us. The difference between life and death. And yet what we have in common with the early church is our confidence in the resurrection.
We know death has been defeated. And although we do take death seriously, and although we do protect others —we do so motivated by love, and without fear. Because Death overcomes us all. And yet Death, our invisible and ever-present foe will one day be forever done away with. And life will come. We will live without fear, and pandemics will be no more. Because Christ is risen. Because the grave could not hold him. And the grave will hold neither you, nor me. Let us use our freedom to wisely love our neighbor in this time, this time God has placed us in.
[Note: This devotional is Part Four of a blog series for Lent. The previous devotionals are available on our church app.]