Sacrifice and Service: The Christian Witness During the COVID-19 Pandemic ©


The Pandemic swept through the world.  It is said that 5, 000 died in one day in Rome. Anyone with resources and means fled from major cities and sought sanctuary in remote locations.  Social distancing was practiced long before the term was ever invented. 
 
The year was not 2020 but rather around the year a.d. 260. There was no understanding of germ theory or transmission of disease. The term virus would not be employed for roughly another 1700 years. What people did know was that friends and neighbors were dying around them. They knew that no cure existed. They were painfully conscious of the fact that safety meant fleeing the sick. If a loved one was ill, you placed food and water near them and left. It was the only safe and sane thing to do.
 
And yet, there was one group that instead of fleeing the epidemic moved forward in sacrifice and service. Strangely enough, this group was often persecuted by the very people they moved in to help. It was considered illegal to even be a part of this group – a group known as Christians.
 
These called Christians would move in and take care of the sick and dying themselves. They did so not only for others of their group or family but for all people, especially the poor and abandoned. In doing so, many of these “Christians” contracted the disease and died. Sacrifice and service were their watchwords.
 
At the height of the second great epidemic, around a.d. 260, an Easter letter was written by Dionysius chronicling the response of these people called Christians.   
 
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. 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 the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead …. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”  (from The Rise of Christianityv by Rodney Stark, pg. 82)
Today, we think of those we call “first responders,” of medical personal, of others in society who show up and go work to keep things running at great risk to themselves.  They are heroes and rightly we should stop to give thanks and cheer.
 
And yet, recently, a different group has gained attention. There are those who clamor for their “rights” (as they understand them) above and against the safety of others. There are those who insist that the elderly, or those more at risk, should sacrifice their safety to the personal fears and demands of those who insist on their own material well-being.
 
With care, I think I understand and sympathize with the depths of the economic crisis that is engulfing us alongside the pandemic. Fear is an understandable reaction. The best of us wrestle with how and when to “reopen.” And yet, especially we who call ourselves “Christian” should give pause. Our basic response should not be defined by demanding our rights but by sacrifice and service. Such is the lesson of the earliest Christians and such is Christ’s claim upon us today.
 
“Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.’” (Luke 9:23-24)
I write to lift up a Christian response. In doing so, I am not advocating reckless sacrifice or senseless service. This is not a time for careless indifference to health risks or civil orders from city, county, state and/or federal officials. I would remind that from the beginning of this crisis, the position of the Cabinet has been that we will follow all orders and mandates by civil authorities. That position has not and will not change. Prudence is appropriate. I am conscious that the financial threat is tangible and present for many. Those who claim the label Christian (i.e. followers of the way of Christ, see Acts 11:26) are bound by a different standard. One of our pastors recently reminded me of a quote by A. W. Tozer, a well-known pastor and Christian leader of the 20th Century, “A scared world needs a fearless church.”
 
I am in awe of the courageous Christian witness of so many lay people who are “on the front lines.” Thank God for them and for all who so courageously work and serve.
 
Recently, a colleague on the Cabinet pointed me in the direction of an article written by Maggie Gallaher entitled “What Do Christians Do in a Plague?”  She wrote,
 
“I am astonished by how many people [Christians?] think a deadly pandemic is the right time to foment the spirit of rebellion and pick a fight with the government over what many will inevitably see as our right to infect others. That’s what it looks like to our neighbors. They do not see this as a testimony of our unshakable faith, but as evidence of callous unconcern for their lives and the lives of the police, grocery workers, mailmen, health workers, and garbage men with whom we all interact.” (“What Do Christians Do in a Plague” by Maggie Gallagher, April 12, 2020)
Our neighbors are watching. Non-Christian America is watching our response. So too is the rest of the world.  Ms. Gallagher continues:
 
“Now would be a good time to reconsider St. Charles Borromeo’s example during the Plague of 1576. … When the civil authorities fled at the height of the plague, St. Charles Borromeo stayed in the city, where he ministered to the sick and the dying, helping those in want. He shut down Milan’s churches. And then he set up a handful of altars outdoors, to say Mass. He did this so people could see that the Mass had not been suspended. The great sacrifice was still taking place. … St. Charles Borromeo also gave his fortune to feed the famished and imposed severe penances upon himself. … The classic Christian response to plagues and pestilence is not to stand on our rights and complain, but to serve relentlessly and sacrificially. The spirit of whining is not the Spirit of Christ. … To focus on the self, rather than others, is the basic orientation of sin. . . The traditional Christian response in an epidemic is clear: Serve. Share. Sacrifice. Pray.”
I invite us to lift up a line from her perceptive article. “To focus on the self, rather than others, is the basic orientation of sin.” Now yoke that comment to Tozer’s reflection. “A scared world needs a fearless church.” Take the two and weld them to the witness of our Lord and Master Jesus. “Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.’” (Luke 9:23-24)
 
At a minimum, this is time for sacrifice which may present itself dressed in the simple clothes of patience, perseverance and kindness. From such a stance we are led by Christ to service in a host of different forms and ways.
 
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)