By Brian Stiller on Dispatches from the Global Village
Hidden during this pandemic is another virus, one affecting our church communities, countries, and the world. It doesn’t raise the body temperature or cause shortness of breath; it doesn’t diminish one’s ability to taste or smell. It can’t be detected by a nasal swab or discovered by taking one’s temperature. Neither can one be cured from it by therapeutic drugs, resuscitated from its takeover by a ventilator, or protected from it by a vaccine.
This virus moves stealthily through our personal and community systems, not only in times of crises, but even in the best of times. In certain conditions, it can even be considered not only as normal and natural, but as desirable.
And what is that virus? Self-interest.
Not surprisingly, in times of public fright, when we are unnerved by crisis, overwrought by fear, and frozen by anxiety, “me first” becomes our deafening mantra. Neighbors say it. Political leaders say it. And, in an understandable reflex, I say it too.
Self-interest is a potent cocktail of personal, familial, corporate, and national propensities. It’s an obvious human instinct, be it an adult hoarding toilet paper, a politician denying export of virus-related therapies and equipment, or a pastor proudly defying their government’s request to not hold public services.
“Me first” began when we were infants. Our overwhelming instinct was about self: comfort, warmth, food, attention. As we grow through childhood and then adolescence, we should come to a point in life when our personal needs, interests, and comforts are replaced by an otherness, an ability to see that life is not just about ourselves.
It is test time
Pastors, let us be under no illusion: during this time of global fear and need, we will be tested. We will be seen for our deeds and judged for our generosity. We will be interpreted not by our words but how we move among our community, how the love of Jesus is manifest as we interact with our leaders. There is no hiding today. We may be sequestered, but as we emerge and show our faces in public, the gospel is on trial.
The tough question we might ask is, “How will we pass the test?” How are we leading in helping others do what identifies that which we believe? Our deeds will be seen. Our identity will be noticed. Like a sticker, it will be pasted across the doors of our churches once we are able to meet together again. How we handle our own needs and those of others will define our witness of Jesus. The way we live now will imprint itself on the memories of our children and grandchildren with a clear picture of what it means to follow Jesus.
Yes, a vaccine will be found for COVID-19. Therapies will mitigate its power. Distancing will tamper its infectious spread. But what will be the test for the church of Jesus Christ, both during and following this virus? The test is how our words of faith match our care for people. It is not complicated by our view on pre- or post-millennial theology. We won’t be asked if we are closer to Calvin or Wesley in our theology. I doubt anyone will wonder if glossolalia happens at Spirit baptism or after.
Jesus spoke the test:
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt. 25:35-36)
How the early church responded
The early church, swept up in the epidemic in the mid-3rd century, became a force in treating those sick and dying, a public narrative of the gospel. Christians were outliers in their culture, despised on many sides. But when disease claimed up to a third of the population, their testimony blazed a new era of witness.
Bishop Dionysius wrote,
Heedless of 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 disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.” *
The Gospel provides a thoughtful framework of human life. For the many questions of life, Jesus not only gives answers, but is in himself the answer to ultimate questions. An Orthodox bishop in Europe during World War 2, troubled by the seducing messages of both Hitler and Stalin, was heard to remark, “When confusion reigns, help children.” What did he mean? Regardless of confusion, misinformation, or competitive narratives, he said, “Do good.” We never have to wonder what to do, when we know the call from Jesus is simple and straightforward: “Love God and love your neighbor.”
The world is transcribing our testimony. The Acts of the Apostles will add a chapter, describing how we as Evangelicals served during the pandemic.
At our summer church camp, a banner graced the platform of our worship center with these words from Jesus: “By this shall all people know you are my disciples if you love each other.”
Let me suggest three questions to frame our daily lives:
1. On my to do list, what includes helping others?
2. This month, what of my personal income is designated for others?
3. In prayer, what inclusions do I have beyond family, friends, and church?
In grade school I had a paper route, and there I met a veteran of World War l. I loved to stop while delivering papers and hear his wartime stories. One I remember this way:
“One day, splashed by mud and spattered by the blood of slain comrades, a Salvation Army volunteer came by offering new socks. For me, this was a gift from heaven. But with a difference. While others came by, distributing needed items, there was always a price attached. When I asked the volunteer the price, to my surprise he said it was a gift. No charge.”
They passed the test, a witness to Jesus of Nazareth.
*Rodney Stark, 1997, The Rise of Christianity, HarperCollins: Princeton NJ, see Ch, 4.
Brian C. Stiller