A few weeks ago, I received a call from a fellow Pastor telling me about a certain individual who had tested positive for Covid-19 and had been quarantined for close to a month now. He asked me to call the person up and so I did. As we conversed, I realised that he was spiralling into a severe depression because of his situation. Worse still, he had decided in his heart to end his life that very night convinced that Covid-19 would eventually kill him. I had anticipated that even in our small town of Lamka this pandemic would have adverse psychological and spiritual effects, but I had never actually thought someone would be so affected as to have suicidal tendencies, that too a Christian. The person is now psychologically and spiritually recovering, praise be our Lord! Our conversation, however, made me ask several probing questions about what exactly is the church’s role in times such as this. This article is my attempt at answering those questions from a historical and biblical perspective.
In the past…
One of God’s ways of speaking to us now is through the past. History is truly a great teacher especially for Christians, and whenever we are faced with hard questions we can always look to history to help us find the answers. The books of the Old Testament prove this point. The Israelites were no strangers to hardships. We find many instances of wars, famines, and epidemics resulting in great loss of lives in the Old Testament, and the one thing that is similar to all of these events was that God was always in control. There is never an instance where God is out of His elements or out of control. This seems like a lame point to make but hear me out, it is actually a very critical point that Christians today keep ignoring. When the Great Flood drowned everyone except Noah and his family, when all firstborn sons in the land of Egypt died, when the fiery serpents killed many Israelites in the wilderness, God was in control. We are not here concerned with the why of the circumstances but rather with who’s in charge.
Fast-forward a few hundred years to 165 CE, and we find the world is reeling under the clutches of a pandemic, the Antonine Plague. Over 2000 deaths per day was recorded in Rome alone. Then in 249 CE, another pandemic “Plague of Cyprian” broke out resulting in more than 5000 deaths per day at its peak. I mention these two because of the way in which the Christians conducted themselves during these pandemics and the impact it had on Christianity. We can assume that there were no proper health facilities or vaccinations then; all they could do was run away from infected areas and persons. There are even mentions made of people leaving their infected family members behind to escape the plague. Even the pagan priests fled their temples where people were coming for comfort and healing. The Christians, however, had other plans. They had no supernatural ability nor were they medically more knowledgeable, but they did not run away. They tended to the sick, irrespective of religion or race, and shared what food they had with those left behind. One historian mentions that during the Antonine Plague there was a saying, “If you knew a Christian, you were more likely to survive.” We have no records of the names of these Christians or the details of their efforts but what we do know is that they exhibited Christ-likeness when it mattered. We also know that the Christian population increased from just 1.2 million in 251 AD to over 6 million by 300 AD.
There are many other such events in history where Christians exhibited unconditional love for others. Martin Luther’s service during the Bubonic Plague of 1527 is one that every Christian can proudly recall. His letters to the churches during the plague shows that he was socially responsible and never acted in disregard for the life of his fellowmen. In fact, it was his priority to be present where he was needed no matter the circumstance. We can safely say that Luther was not concerned about his survival but rather saw the urgency to reach out to the lost and practise what he preached, the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. The plague did not suspend his ministry, the plague opened new doors for him to preach and live the Gospel.
History thus tells us that the church, although very much a victim, never ceases to grow or exhibit Christ-likeness even in the hardest of times.
In the here and now…
Our brief look at the past shows us that God is sovereign and even now, He is sovereign over the Coronavirus Pandemic. If God is in control, then the church has no reason to panic. As God declares in Isaiah 46:10b, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure”, the world is experiencing what God has permitted. This does not mean that the pandemic is God’s punishment for a sinful generation. The punishment has already been meted out at the cross; Our Lord Jesus has seen to that. It is best to confess that at present we do not know God’s reason for allowing this to happen. The church must rather focus its attention on how and what God wants us to do at this time. So, whatever we do or plan to do, we must act with the assurance that our Father in heaven is running the proceedings and knows the outcome.
Secondly, the church must look to Christ and not be swayed by the world. The church is but the body of Christ and must act accordingly. In recent times, we have been paying too much attention on the material aspects of the church that we have forgotten the basic principles that Christ taught us. The world may see us as a charitable or humanitarian organisation, but that does not change God’s definition of who we are and what we are to accomplish. In our attempt to be relevant, we tend to complicate things that have already been made explicitly clear by our Lord Jesus. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” This encompasses the whole teaching of Christ. Jesus does not give us a condition as to when or where we ought to love one another, which is to say that we are to love one another at all times. What Jesus emphasise is how we ought to love; we ought to love as He loved us, by giving us His life. Christ’s love for us saves not just our physical body but more so our spiritual being; and that very reason is why we have eternal life through Him. The spiritual role of the church during this pandemic is therefore to love our fellow men as Christ loved us. And by so doing, we are proclaiming the Gospel not just by words but by deeds. It sounds rather simple and easy when put in words, but it is a commandment that requires utmost sacrifice when put into action. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any man will come to me, let him deny himself, and take up the cross, and follow me.” It is not a matter of loving others while putting our own self as priority, it is a matter of putting our own self, our own life on the line out of love for others.
Thirdly, the church must focus on the individual. Often times, we ignore the person and set our eyes on other things. The individual is what makes up the church, and without the individual there is no church. In the parable of the lost sheep (ref. Luke 15:3-7), the owner of the sheep leaves the 99 to search for the one that is lost. The early churches probably knew very little about best practices or crisis- management, but they knew their duty was to the person next to them, and they acted as Christ would, with some even losing their lives in the process. The spiritual role of the church has not changed even today, there is no greater responsibility for us right now than to cater to the individual next to us. Everyone is affected in one way or the other, there are people around us dying to be comforted. Yes, prayer and the Scriptures are our weapons; we must pray and meditate on the Scripture. Yes, charity is indispensable; we ought to give and share to those in need. Yes, we must provide sound and relevant sermons and letters through the means we have at our disposal. But these are not enough, the need of the hour is our human touch. The church cannot limit its duty because of health restrictions if we are to obey the Lord’s command. We must go out and physically reach out to those in need if we are to exhibit the love of Christ. This is the difference between us and the rest; the church cares first not for its physical survival but for the spiritual regeneration of the lost through Christ. We cannot go beyond what God has set for us, we cannot expand or modify our role in order to fit in with the rest of the world. By this, it does not mean we should take unnecessary risks, what it means is that we ought to show that we love them just as Christ loved us and that we are there for them just as Christ is always there for us.
Finally, dear fellow servants of Christ, we are the church and we represent our Saviour wherever we are. The Coronavirus pandemic will come and go, but our actions during these times of hardships will be in our Father’s records forever. The world will go on regardless of our actions, but souls may be lost or saved because of our actions. There is a person close by waiting for you to show him/her the love of God.
Written by Rev Chinkhengoupau Buansing