No hugs, no kisses, no handshakes. That’s the media mantra currently trying to control public and private behaviour in 2020 as fears of a viral pandemic escalate. Just what mankind doesn’t need: More isolation from his fellow man.
How should Christians view the fears of their neighbour and what does it mean in a situation like this to love our neighbour as ourselves?
Some think the need of the hour will be solved through political means. Some are bent on self-preservation while others are looking for a miracle saviour to arise from the pharmaceutical swamp.
But while medicine, politics and honouring our own bodies are all important issues, the Christian response has historically laid elsewhere.
Between 250 and 270 A.D, a devastating plague hit the Roman Empire. In Rome alone, 5,000 people were dying every day at the peak of the plague.
The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Trajan Decius. Not surprisingly, Trajan blamed the Christians for the plague.
However, writes Eric Metaxas, his claim was severely undermined by two inconvenient facts:
First, the Christians died from the plague just like everybody else and second, unlike everybody else, they chose to plant their beautiful feet in the midst of death and stayed to care for the sick and dying, including their own unbelieving neighbours.
4th-century historian, Eusebius, wrote,
All day long the Christians tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all. Their good deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.
What the Christians saw was an opportunity to love at great cost (Hebrews 10:33-34). What those suffering sickness and death saw were the beautiful feet of the gospel bringing comfort and hope to their door (Isaiah 52:7).
A few decades after the plague, the Roman Emperor Julian (who was no friend of Christianity) admitted that it was this sacrificial compassion that transformed Christianity from a small religious sect on the edge of society to an empire-wide phenomenon.
Julian attributed the explosion and reception of the gospel that followed in Europe to the love and compassion of the Christians during those dark days.
This wasn’t new. Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity”,
Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.
In 1527, less than 200 years after the Black Plague had wiped out half of Europe, the plague re-emerged in Martin Luther’s own town of Wittenberg.
Writing to the believers on the subject of Christian duty during the outbreak he said, “Anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee.” And of those in ministry, he wrote that,
They must remain steadfast before the peril of death. The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them.
He did not promote recklessness but emphasised the sanctity of honouring one’s own life alongside the need to serve and love their dying neighbour.
Closer to our own day and we have the testimony of David Brainerd. David Brainerd was a missionary to the Delaware Indians in the 18th Century. His autobiography is one of the most widely read and inspiring biographies of any missionary.
He died of tuberculosis at the age of only 29. In the last few months of his life he was nursed in the home of Jonathan Edwards by Edwards’ 17yr old daughter, Jerusha. Jonathan, Jerusha and David all knew the risk to Jerusha but she willingly cared, washed, fed and nursed David until he died.
Jerusha died four months later of the same affliction.
Jonathan would later describe Brainerds’ presence in the family home as a “gracious dispensation of Providence”, and wrote,
…we had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, and to show him kindness in such circumstances, and to see his dying behavior, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers.
Our current situation is another opportunity to live out that kind of sacrificial love for our neighbour.
When the world withdraws and withholds natural human affection and love; when the guiding motto is, “every man for himself”, there the Christian has an opportunity to surrender his own self-interest as the Spirit of God enables him.
Such service done in the name of Jesus is not motivated by bravado or reckless indifference. It is motivated by love for our neighbour because Christ has loved the world.