by Rev. Robert Griffith
I had already written my sermon for this week when I found myself online reading some social media posts from people across our nation both inside and outside the Church. Some of them were measured, wise and very helpful. Many others were irrational, misleading and motivated by fear and a growing sense of doom and hopelessness. So I decided it might be helpful if I addressed this once-in-a century crisis which has dominated the news and taken our whole world captive in recent weeks: the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Apostle Paul told us in Ephesians 3:10-11 that, “(God’s) intent was that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What an amazing statement. Paul says that God wants the Church, that’s you and me, to be the channel of His wisdom even to angels! So in the midst of this global pandemic the Church should be a beacon of hope, a fountain of assurance and the one place people can find refuge, common sense and wise counsel in such a time of crisis. To be candid, if the Church’s voice is not the loudest and most helpful in the midst of this mayhem, then we have failed in our calling and missed the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to shine the light of Christ into the darkness of our broken world. So let’s rise to this challenge, shall we?
Before we think about what is happening around us today, let’s look back first. The early church was no stranger to plagues, epidemics, and mass hysteria. In fact, according to both Christian and also non-Christian accounts, one of the main catalysts for the Church’s explosive growth in its early years was how Christians dealt with disease, suffering, and death. The Church’s posture made such a strong impression on Roman society that even pagan Roman emperors complained to pagan priests about their declining numbers, telling them to step up their game. So what did Christians do differently that shook the Roman Empire and what can the early church teach us in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?
First Century Response to a Pandemic
In AD 249 to 262, Western civilization was devastated by one of the deadliest pandemics in its history. Though the exact cause of the plague is uncertain, the city of Rome was said to have lost an estimated 5,000 people a day at the height of the outbreak. One eyewitness, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, wrote that although the plague did not discriminate between Christians and non-Christians, “Its full impact fell on [non-Christians].” Having noted the difference between Christian and non-Christian responses to the plague, he says of the non-Christians in Alexandria:
“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”
Non-Christian accounts confirm this sentiment. A century later, the emperor Julian attempted to curb the growth of Christianity after the plague by leading a campaign to establish pagan charities that mirrored the work of Christians in his realm.
In a letter in AD 362, Julian complained that the Hellenists needed to match the Christians in virtue, blaming the recent growth of Christianity on their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives. Elsewhere he wrote,
“For it is a disgrace that . . . the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
Though Julian questioned the motives of Christians, his embarrassment over the Hellenic charities confirms pagan efforts fell massively short of Christian standards of serving the sick and poor, especially during epidemics. According to Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity, this is because,
“... for all that Julian urged pagan priests to match these Christian practices, there was little or no response because there was no doctrinal basis or traditional practices for them to build upon.”
Early Church Response to a Pandemic
If the non-Christian response to the plague was characterized by self-protection, self-preservation, and avoiding the sick at all costs, the Christian response was the exact opposite. According to Dionysius, the plague served as a “schooling and testing” for Christians. In a detailed description of how Christians responded to the plague in Alexandria, he writes of how “the best” among them honourably served the sick until they themselves caught the disease and died:
“Most of our fellow-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
Similarly, in Pontius’ biography of Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, he writes of how the bishop reminded believers to serve not only fellow Christians but also non-Christians during the plague:
“There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well . . . Thus the good was done to all people, not merely to the household of faith.”
The impact of this service was twofold. Firstly, Christian sacrifice for their fellow believers stunned the unbelieving world as they witnessed communal love like they’d never seen (John 13:35), and secondly, Christian sacrifice for non-Christians resulted in the early church experiencing exponential growth as non-Christian survivors, who benefited from the care of their Christian neighbours, converted to the faith en masse. The unbelievers in the Roman Empire emphasized self preservation while the early church emphasized fearless, sacrificial service. The unbelievers fled from the pandemic and abandoned their sick loved ones as they feared the unknown, Christians marched into the pandemic and served both believers and unbelievers, seeing their own personal suffering as an opportunity to spread the gospel and model Christlike love.
Christian Response to Coronavirus in 2020
But it’s 2020 now and we live in a very different society. But are we any different as people? Is human nature and human need any different to the early Church days? We are facing a world-wide crisis none of us have ever lived through before.
Not since the Spanish flu pandemic in the early part of the 20th century have we seen a health threat of this magnitude. Coronavirus is spreading fast. Thousands of events have been cancelled. Churches are closing their doors as Governments all over the globe are buckling down in an attempt to halt the pandemic. How are we to respond as Christians? While God’s world seems to be in panic, how are God’s people to act? I want to suggest three Christian responses, which, taken together, I hope will give us a general guide as we navigate the weeks and months ahead, for God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good.
1. Redirect Fear
First and foremost we must address the issue of fear. Fear is at the root of the panic, driving much of the alarm we see in the media and the mayhem in supermarkets. People are scared. Although we still aren’t 100% sure of hospitalization and fatality rates for the Covid-19 virus, and although we can agree there may be misinformation and exaggeration in the news, nevertheless, the numbers are still alarming - enough to cause the world to halt like it has. So, this is a virus to be taken seriously. But is fear the right response? As Christians, we first must answer with a resounding, “No.” Many of us, particularly in Church and on social media, have sounded this trumpet: We are not to fear this virus; we are not to panic. But then, surprising and provocative as it sounds, we as Christians must also say, “Yes, fear is a right response to this all.” The Bible leads us to both - to a fearless fearfulness, if you like - and both are beneficial for us and our world. To understand this paradox, we need to understand the two different meanings of ‘fear’ in the Bible and in the Christian faith.
If the question is, "Are we as Christians to be afraid of this Covid-19 virus; are we to panic like many are who don’t know Christ?" then the answer is a resounding “No.” “Fear not” is one of the most repeated exhortations in the Bible - and for good reason. We do not live in a God-less world, or a world where God has His hands tied behind His back. If we did, then we’d have little hope and ample reason to fear.
Instead, we live in a world where God is really here, He is actually in control of everything and He is truly good. This is reality - as real as Covid-19 is - our personal God is still in control of everything, including this virus. We need not fear anything that comes, because in everything - even in pestilence and disaster (e.g. see Amos 3:6; Lamentations 3:38) our good God is in control with His gracious purposes, working all things for the good of His children (Romans 8:28). As the Lord is in control of every falling sparrow, so He also is in control of every virus molecule. As Jesus said, “Fear not, therefore ...” (Matthew 10:31). He’s got this.
But we’d be amiss if we stopped there when discussing the biblical concept of fear. While it’s true that God often exhorts us to “fear not,” have you ever noticed that God also exhorts us to fear - over and over again in the Bible? In fact, this is one of the greatest, most commonplace exhortations from God. But it’s the object of our fear and the nature of that fear which is so important: We are exhorted to “fear the Lord.”
Take the Psalms for example. In Psalm 23 we read: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Or the beginning to Psalm 46, which is particularly applicable to the present pandemic: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.” (Psalm 46:1-2). So when it comes to troubles and uncertainties in the world, we are not to fear. Yet more often in the Psalms, the word “fear” is used positively and is seen as something we should do.
The vast majority of times fear is portrayed as a positive, praiseworthy action. Consider these statistics just from the book of Psalms:
- The word ‘fear’ appears 68 times in the Psalms.
- Only 8 times is the word ‘fear’ used as something to avoid, as a negative response, such as inPsalm 46:2 above (“We will not fear though the earth gives way”).
- But almost 90% of the time ‘fear’ is portrayed as a positive, appropriate response from us and an astounding 97% of those times we are exhorted to fear the Lord.
In other words, we are biblically lop-sided if we believe fear itself is bad. God doesn’t. God’s people shouldn’t. Instead, we see fearing God as a celebrated reality - as something that is to be sought, admired, and even rejoiced over.
Negative ‘fear’ embodies anxiety, worry, a lack of faith and a sense of powerlessness. Positive ‘fear’ in relation to God embodies honour, celebration, confidence, faith, reliability, respect, awe and worship.
REDIRECTING OUR FEAR
So we need to ‘redirect’ our fear if you like. When discussing the current global pandemic and fear, the answer isn’t merely to not fear. Of course, that’s correct in one context - we are not to fear this virus or its implications. God is in control. But the fuller response as Christians is to redirect our fear. We are to take that feeling of fear and recognize that the same ‘I’m-not-in-control-and-I-need-help’ feeling we get from this pandemic should instead be directed toward God.
Just think about it: What is fear? Fear is a feeling that something more powerful than you is actually in control of your life and your future. It’s a feeling that comes when you recognize that you don’t have a fool-proof plan; that you aren’t in complete control of your life or your health; that you can’t fully protect, provide and plan; that you are finite and fallen and your life is not as solid or as guaranteed as you wished and you need help. But feeling all that isn’t a bad thing, because it’s all true. We aren’t in control. We don’t know the future. We do need help. So, we fear.
So the question is not do you fear, but rather: What or whom do you fear? Where are those feelings of "I need help" directed? Are they directed towards a virus - does this biological invader of our world make you feel like you aren’t in control - or is your fear directed toward God in a positive sense? Do you look at our good God and affirm that He is the only One in full control, you aren’t, and so you must rely on Him?
Throughout our lives we each have a choice. We either take that innate human feeling of fear and look to circumstances, our own control, or we look to the Lord. Those are our three options. It’s the Christian who chooses to fear the Lord. We do not fear circumstances (they are far too transient). We do not look to ourselves for our security (we are far too unstable). Instead, by God’s grace, we direct our fear and awe and trust and all our ‘I'm-not-in-control’ emotions toward our good and totally in control God. We know God is loving. We know that God is all powerful. We know that God is reliable and trustworthy. So, we fear the Lord. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
No wonder, then, that fearing the Lord is an overwhelmingly positive response in the Bible. “Happy is the one who fears the Lord.” (Psalm 112:1). It’s only when we take that feeling - a feeling that many of us are naturally having toward the Covid-19 virus right now - and apply it positively to God that we find true peace, hope and happiness. He alone is our secure rock. He alone is powerful and in control. He alone is to be feared. “Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints!” (Psalm 34:9)
2. Live by Faith
Which brings us to our second response to the Covid-19 outbreak as Christians: We live and walk by faith. Faith is trusting in God - in His goodness, His total control and His plans. Faith if the fruit of fearing God. We recognize God’s supremacy, goodness, and control - and so we trust him. “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!” (Psalm 115:11). But what does this mean for our current situation? What is involved biblically when we say we are people of faith? Many things, but for our current concern with this pandemic, I will point out two aspects of biblical faith. Firstly, faith is ultimately trusting in God (and not in circumstances or yourself) and secondly, faith spurs us to act (and not be passive).
As for the first, when we say faith is ultimately trusting in God, we mean that, although the world may panic and fear this virus, and although society may put its hope and trust in policies, social distancing, and time, - we ultimately put our faith in the Lord of all creation. As Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1). Our God is the object of our trust and our hope. We rely ultimately on His word and His ways. But that leads us to the second aspect of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a trust in God that always leads to action. This is why Paul doesn’t just talk about Christians having faith, he says we “live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 2:20) and “walk by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is why our Lord’s brother, James, can say, “I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 1:18). And this is why the famous Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 is full of people who didn’t merely have faith, but acted in faith (“By faith Abraham…By faith Moses…By faith…etc.”)
Our faith is not passive - it can't be. Truly believing that God is ultimately in control and good and on our side must lead us to live and act accordingly. Our actions then will take many forms (see once again see Hebrews 11 for various examples). But our faith, by definition, cannot be dead and action-less (James 2:26). There is a reason the now-famous idiom “Let go and let God” is not in the Bible. We are not called to passively stand by while God fixes everything. We certainly let God call the shots, but more often than not God answers our prayers by mobilising us in some way. We Christians walk and live and do and pray and read our Bibles and serve and struggle against selfishness - all by faith. So what exactly does this faith-filled action look like? That leads us to our final response, which fits perfectly with our current teaching series. We are to walk in love.
3. Walk in Love
We do not fear the Covid-19 virus or the circumstances it has produced. We fear the Lord, we live and act and do all things by faith. But what is the breathtaking pinnacle of the Christian’s life? Where is this all going? Love. This is our final and greatest response. The clarion call from our Lord and the Head of the Church as we respond to the global pandemic is to be people of love. Love is the culmination of fearing the Lord and having faith in the Lord. It’s not mainly about who we say we are, or about how spiritual we say we’ve been, or about how much faith we say we have, it’s about our true faith which is evidenced in love: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
What does this mean in our current situation? It means we will pray. It means we will put others first. But besides these general principles, there is Christian freedom concerning what love will look like for each of us because the Bible does not directly address the Covid-19 virus outbreak in 2020. Each Christian - and each Church community will have to decide, prayerfully before God, what it looks like for them to love in this situation. It may involve social distancing. It may mean submitting to quarantine for a time. It may give rise to intentionality in contacting and praying specifically for those at high risk. It may entail buying groceries for a family in need. It may include giving generously to someone who lost their job because of the outbreak. And the list could go on.
But whatever the specifics, God’s love through us will be beautifully displayed when we, the Church, seek to be humble and wise and gracious and generous and prepared and prayerful, with purpose and planning about how we can love - first our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and then the world which so desperately is longing for a better, more solid hope. We will not act out of fear of this virus, we will not think that God has lost control, but we will act and make decisions, even very hard and perhaps sacrificial decisions, in love. Such actions and decisions of love must be rooted in faith, soaked in prayer, empowered by grace, and, to the best of our ability, drenched in Biblical wisdom, but above all our actions will be birthed in genuine love - for God’s glory and our neighbour’s good.
HOW THEN SHALL WE LIVE?
How we are to live in the face of this global pandemic is nothing new. It has always been the call of the Church to be the Church, to be God’s people shining forth God’s presence into God’s world. God is primary - we fear Him alone. God is the object of our faith - we trust Him first and foremost. And God’s love is our life - we act in love for His glory and the good of our fellow pilgrims.
The difference in our present situation is how this pandemic has ramped up the stakes. Will we, by God’s grace, heed His call to demonstrate we are His people? Will we be people who fear the Lord or fear the virus; who trust God's goodness and control or look elsewhere for hope; who walk in love toward the Church and the world or live in selfishness? These are questions we must answer, by our words and works.
Now in the midst of all these Bible verses and this encouragement to trust God and not fear this pandemic, there is Romans 13:1-2. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”
Our federal and state Governments have issued many directives in the past week about social distancing, personal hygiene and self-isolation for people who may have been exposed to those with Covid-19. These directives are not fear-based or alarmist nonsense – they are just common sense instructions from our medical experts. Our self-sacrificing love and witness in the midst of this crisis will be seriously undermined if we ignore these directives.
I have spoken to people in our town who are very relaxed and are saying that until there are confirmed cases in our community we don’t need to go to those lengths yet. It is grossly naive to assume Covid-19 is not here already, detected or not, and we don’t need a medical degree to work out that following the Government’s directives is the only way to make sure there is no outbreak in our community. So Christians need to also lead the way in our submission to authority. For hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters across the Church that means they are no longer gathering for worship in their Church buildings. It may well mean we join them in the very near future.
Some of us may think the Government restrictions are too severe in our circumstance, just as many believe a 50 kph speed restriction in some areas is too severe. The fact is, we don’t get to make these judgements – the authorities do and our God calls us to submit to them whilst placing our ultimate trust in God Who is the only One Who is really in control of any of this.
So in conclusion we ask, who is sufficient for these things? The answer is: Not us! We are weak. We are sinful and needy. We can’t do this on our own. And yet, at the same time, we are sufficient for these things because God’s grace in us is powerful in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10), and, as Paul said so well, “Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:16-17).
So it’s true, we can’t do this on our own. But by God’s grace, we can heed our Lord’s call - full “of sincerity, as commissioned by God.” As God’s Church, then, let's aim to Biblically navigate fear, faith, and love in this trying time, for however long our Lord sees fit for this pandemic to continue. It's a high calling, but we have God on our side – and that fills us with hope and gives us the best reason I know to press on and trust that God will take what is meant for evil and use it for good.
Come, Holy Spirit, draw us closer to the One Who loves us with an everlasting love and has promised to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. Lord, we believe – now help us in our unbelief. Amen.
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