March 13, 2020

A Pandemic Church. Or, Love in the Time of COVID-19


by Jim Janknegt

It’s not often that we live in a time like this. A viral pandemic is a scary reality that we must go through together. We aren’t used to shutting down our lives. As a church we aren’t used to living without our regular Sunday worship and the community formed around it and other gatherings and activities. We can barely imagine cancelling our Holy Week and Easter celebrations, but now we must contemplate this, too. Social distancing feels like the antipathy of Christian community.

We are not unique, however, in going through such times. The past is filled with periods when plagues swept through cities and people suffered greatly. The usual response to a plague was to flee. The wealthy and powerful in particular were able to leave an area until it was safe to return. The poor were left to endure the ravages of disease without the social and political support they needed. During a number of ancient epidemics, the one group that intentionally stayed behind to care for the sick and the dying was the church.

During a fourth century plague in Caesarea, a large Roman city already ravaged by war and famine, many fled. The Christians stayed behind. It was one of many examples of how the church understood its mission to live the love of Jesus by caring for neighbors in need, any neighbors, suffering neighbors.

Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea during that time. He was also a great early church historian. He wrote of the church during the plague:
All day long some of them [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.

Many attribute the large growth of the church in the middle-East during these early centuries to the church’s radical acts of compassion such as caring for their neighbors during plagues, not running away and thinking only of themselves, and feeding the hungry without hesitation.

Many of these courageous and compassionate Christians died because of their choice to stay with the suffering around them rather than run from it. Did they do it because they thought they were trying to convert individuals to Christian faith or to grow the church into the largest religion of the empire? No, they did it because they knew they existed in the world to embody the love of Christ with words and actions, concrete expressions of God’s love in real times and places. They did it because compassion flowed through their veins as the very blood of Christ and love strengthened their bones as the very body of Christ.

Church, we are in such a time. It is our calling now to be the love of Christ for our neighbors. We don’t need to spend much energy wondering if those we care for will join our churches or learn to love Jesus like we do if we do this or that good deed. We need to spend our energy doing all we can to bring health and healing, compassion and love into reality.
Fortunately, we know much more about how disease spreads than they did in the ancient world. They knew contact was hazardous, but they didn’t understand the means of transmission. We have the great gift of medical science to help us. We need not place ourselves in unnecessary risk. Part of what we must do now is join with the whole society and globe in reducing unnecessary risk. But that does not mean abandoning our vulnerable and anxious neighbors to fend for themselves. We can’t do that. It’s in our blood and bones to be love and compassion.

You may recall the story from Matthew’s Gospel:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)

When Jesus is asked what is the most important commandment, he responds not with one but two, because you can’t sum up what is most important about the God of the Bible without saying both at the same time: Love God. Love your neighbor. For followers of Jesus, we cannot separate our love of God from our love of neighbor. We hear in the First Letter of John that these two are deeply connected:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  (1 John 4:7-8, 21)

by Josette Atme
This love is real and concrete, expressed in words and deeds, actions that heal and bring justice. It is not romantic. It is not necessarily feel-good. I confess I have not read Gabriel García Márquez’s book “Love in the Time of Cholera.” I’ve been reading about it, though. The author has said that those who read it need to be careful “not to fall into my trap.” He sets up the reader to think of love in romantic ways when all the while he is undoing such simple notions. Love itself can be a kind of cholera or disease when we only think it is a feel-good thing.

I’m contemplating the ways we are called to be church today like the ancient world – to stay instead of flee, to show love and compassion instead of act only out of self-concern, to have courageous faith instead of fear that runs rampant, to love even if it doesn’t feel good. We can’t avoid having fear and anxiety, and caring for ourselves is wise and good. We must listen now deeply to what our faith in a God of loving care means and let it guide us even as we acknowledge we are anxious and afraid.

It’s time to redirect our energies and resources to respond in our communities in new and beautifully loving ways. I’m imaging some. Maybe you are starting to think of others. Here are some of mine:

1. Be willing to be part of the large effort to slow down the transmission of the virus. We must sacrifice much that is precious to us in the short term to join in the work of preventing our health care system from being overrun, and thereby increasing suffering and death as those who need medical care don’t receive it.

2. Take actions that minimize risk for those most vulnerable to this disease: elderly and immunocompromised persons.

3. Develop new ways of caring for one another during this crisis, such as:
              a. Checking in regularly with those who are vulnerable in your church.
              b. Offering assistance to those who need to isolate themselves from exposure: grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions, helping them learn how to use delivery services.
              c. Be aware of those who might have a difficult time managing their own emotional health with increased anxiety and social isolation. Keep in touch through phone, text, email, and social media even more than normal.
              d. Listen to health care for professionals for safe ways to visit the sick and care for them. Some will get sick and not have family or friends nearby to help them with meals or other personal needs.

4. Encourage church members who are able to do all of these acts of compassion for their neighbors. Love of neighbor does not distinguish between church and unchurched. Now more than ever we must believe and live this.

5. Explore and experiment with all the ways we can use social media to connect. Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection and it might be more important now to do these things. Live streaming worship services, posting devotionals, setting shared prayer times, conference calls for conversation groups… there are so many ways to connect and uplift. We can redirect our energies now to see what works for people.

6. Look for ways this crisis will impact the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured, immigrants, refugees. Help them as we can, but also, name the injustices and call our political leaders to enact policies that protect people and provide adequate health care, food, and shelter all the time, not just during a pandemic.

by Olga Bakhtina
During this global shared experience of pandemic, we are observing what happens when a virus spreads because of one person making contact with another. We can also experience another kind of pandemic and spread another kind of virus: the love of neighbor. Yes, this is how the early church grew quickly. No, I’m not suggesting we use this moment to grow the church. I am suggesting that we spread the virus of love of neighbor by rising above our own selfish concerns and showing what God’s love looks like when it really matters. These embodied examples of Christ’s love will certainly spread from person to person, infecting hearts and imaginations with compassion, and love will abound.

This is surely what God is up to in Jesus and in us by the Spirit’s power: not to grow the church, but to grow compassion and love in this world. This is what we hear in the word of Scripture and preaching when we gather for worship, which we may need to fast from for a short while. This is what we are nourished by in the bread and wine of communion, which we may also need to fast from for a time. But having been so thoroughly loved and fed for so long, this is a fast we can endure. We can continue to love in this time of COVID-19 and spread the pandemic of love because compassion flows through our veins as the very blood of Christ and love strengthens our bones as the very body of Christ.

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