The world is hurting. There is a good chance that if you aren’t directly affected by the coronavirus, you know someone who is. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty across the globe. Philip Yancey in his brilliant book, Where is God when it hurts? says: “Today, if I had to answer the question “Where is God when it hurts?” in a single sentence, I would make that sentence another question: “Where is the church when it hurts?” We form the front line of God’s response to the suffering world”. If there was ever a time for Christians in this generation to form the front line of God’s response to the suffering world, it is now.
I wrote last week that the coronavirus crisis was an unprecedented opportunity for each of us to grow closer to God and deeper in faith. However, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to showcase Jesus Christ to the world as we serve and encourage our neighbours and communities in this season. William Temple once said that “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The world needs to hear and see the gospel we profess especially in a season where many are fearful. This is crucial because we have a gospel of perfect love which drives out all fear [1 John 4:18]. Furthermore, we can do this confidently because God has promised to be with us always [Matthew 28:19-20].
That said, it is worth highlighting that God’s promises don’t give us the liberty to ignore the measures put in place to slow the spread of covid-19. I have heard some Christians claiming promises such as Psalms 23:4 and Psalm 91:3-7 while blatantly flouting the advice of those in authority, which the Bible says we shouldn’t [Titus 3:1]. Like Daniel’s friends [Daniel 3], we should only disobey those in authority if what they ask of us contravenes God’s Word. That isn’t the case here. Moreover, those promises are predicated on certain conditions [Psalm 23:1 & Psalm 91:1]. Are you fulfilling these conditions in your life? Is the Lord your shepherd? Do you listen to His voice and follow it [John 10:4-5]? Are you dwelling in His secret place? To anyone flagrantly ignoring the social distancing measures on account of these promises, Solomon’s words are instructive: “A prudent man sees evil and hides himself, the naive proceed and pay the penalty [Proverbs 27:12].
Many countries are banning mass gatherings which means church buildings are closed and we cannot assemble as normal. However, I see in this an opportunity to turn our focus from church events to being the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities in very practical ways. We serve a God who is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort [2 Corinthians 1:3]. As such, we know how God feels about those who are fearful and struggling in various ways at this time. Paul tells us that God comforts us in our afflictions so that we can comfort others in their affliction [2 Corinthians 1:4]. So we can be certain that God wants us meeting the needs of the elderly, the poor and any other vulnerable groups in our communities. Are you willing to be someone who offers encouragement and brings comfort to others in this season?
Sadly, there have been other pandemics in history. One of such occasions in the Roman Empire was the plague of Cyprian 249-262 AD, named after St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage at the time. The pandemic, which reportedly killed about 5000 people a day at its peak, broke out at a time when Christians were being persecuted for refusing to offer sacrifices to idols. As expected, many of the inhabitants of Carthage fled when the outbreak occurred. However, Cyprian asked Christians to stay and care for the sick. He urged them not only to care for the Christians but their pagan neighbours too, including those who may have persecuted them. Rodney Stark, a sociologist, says that “the minority Christian community in Carthage which didn’t flee but stayed to nurse the sick had a higher survival rate than their pagan neighbours and the pagans that had been nursed through the crisis by Christians were likely to be open to a faith which unlike their own had worked.”
I wonder, will my faith be proven true in this season like those who stayed back in Carthage? How will history remember the Church’s response to covid-19? Mercifully, no city is experiencing the death rate recorded in Carthage. I pray that things never get that bad. Yet, the message of St. Cyprian is just as applicable today. Can we focus on the needs of others at a time when many are looking out just for themselves? It could be as simple as calling a lonely person, picking up groceries for the health worker in your neighbourhood, helping deliver medications to the vulnerable, making time to encourage your friends and neighbours who might be struggling, etc. There are many simple things we can do which can have a profound effect on others in this season.
For a season, the Body of Christ has been pushed out of buildings into communities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at the end of this crisis when the buildings reopen, a multitude of new faces join us because of the way the Church responded in this season? I want to encourage us to pray earnestly for our communities at this time and also seek opportunities to serve our neighbours in practical ways. This is one of the avenues we can demonstrate our faith to the world and glorify our heavenly Father [Matthew 5:16].