Pastor’s Bookshelf: Christianity, Epidemics, and Death

With all the buzz surrounding the coronavirus, I thought it would be helpful to examine topics like diseases, mortality, and fear as they relate to faith. We often struggle with thinking about important issues from a non-Christian lens. Instead of thinking and acting with Christ in mind, we panic and go bananas!

First off, no, God is not punishing the world through the coronavirus. Read John 3:16-17 to remember the true nature of God. We live in a broken, sinful world, and that includes things like viruses and illness. God seeks to save humanity, not destroy us! Neither is this an obvious sign of the “end times.” Read Matthew 24:36 for Jesus’ reminder about the foolishness of predicting the future. When faced with the uncertainty of this life, the bible is consistent in teaching us to simply trust in God and live righteously.

In seminary we studied the early church quite a bit. These were extremely formative years for Christianity. In many ways we have such a rich heritage to remember, which, believe it or not, actually included problems with epidemics! A devastating plague struck Rome at around 300AD. Countless people began to flee the city during this tumultuous time. War and famine during this period also contributed to a lot of fear and uncertainty. A historian named Eusebius noticed something unique about Christians during this particular social panic. They behaved differently:

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 Christians stayed behind to care for the sick during the plague. They would offer comfort for grieving families by having burials. Additionally they distributed food to those who were unable to flee, including the elderly, widowed, disabled, and young. They were willing to risk their lives to care for those who needed it most.

Many historians notice a direct connection between the ministry of the early church and the formation of hospital care. Before, people did not have access to medical care on a grand scale. Many diseased persons were simply pushed to the outskirts of towns and cast aside. In the worst cases, the sick were left behind to die during epidemics. But Christians, following the commandments of Christ, knew that their devotion to God ought to include loving their neighbors. That also included loving infirm neighbors, too. In fact, Jesus in Matthew 25 spoke of how if we tend to the sick, we are actually caring for him!

John Wesley, in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick,” once noted that we ought to tend to people regardless of their personal beliefs. In fact, visiting and caring for non-Christians opens up opportunities to share even more about God’s love:

These little labours of love will pave your way to things [of] greater importance. Having shown that you have a regard for their bodies, you may proceed to inquire concerning their souls. And here you have a large field before you; you have scope for exercising all the talents which God has given you.

He also offered a grave observation that many people do not have sympathy for the needy because we don’t visit them in the first place. I see this played out nowadays with how calloused people can be towards victims of disease or poverty. We want to protect ourselves at cost of loving others.

These stories are helpful for us to remember nowadays. There have been many news stories of people showing hostility (both on social media and in-person) towards people of Asian heritage, immigrants, healthcare workers, and members of the military. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the early church and Wesley. If coronavirus turns into a much bigger epidemic, why not see it as an opportunity to support various health ministries and lend a helping hand to those who need it?

Fear is one of our more common emotions. We still worry and in a twisted way, cannot stop focusing on bad news. Even in “worst case scenarios” let’s remember the “big picture” of our faith. Suppose coronavirus gets far worse than it is now. We as Christians shouldn’t even be worrying about death itself!

Stanley Hauerwas is a Methodist theologian at Duke Divinity School who frequently dives into topics like medicine, healthcare, and death. Here are some brief reflections on the gospels in his book A Cross-Shattered Church:

Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. But Lazarus is still to die. We are still to die. Jesus, by contrast, has been raised never again to die. His death makes possible a communion that overwhelms the loneliness our sin creates. Our God has made his home among the mortals by assuming our deadly flesh so that we might be made friends of Jesus and even one another. Such friendship means we rightly mourn the loss of friends, yet we can rejoice in the knowledge that the living and the dead share the common reality of this new city, a city of the martyrs, the New Jerusalem.

Never forget that life is a gift and we ultimately belong to God. All the people Jesus healed still died. Fullness of salvation only comes once we go back “home” after leaving this earth.

It is so important to remember that even in the face of death itself, we ought to have our hope fixed on Christ. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming fearful. Instead, see the countless opportunities around us to spread the good news, and place your trust in God alone.

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