This is not the time or place to rehearse the life-changing and, in some cases, devastating effects COVID-19 (coronavirus) continues to have on people’s lives near and far — in our families, churches, communities, workplaces and neighborhoods around the nation and world. But it is for just such a time as this that Christian communities are called to live out and share in the Gospel of healing, wholeness and hope. And it is for just such a time as this that congregations call pastors and church workers to proclaim that Gospel in word and deed. And it is for just such a time as this that Concordia Seminary continues to prepare pastors, deaconesses and church leaders rooted and centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we continue to face so much uncertainty, the Gospel calls all of us to a way of life that looks familiar but is even more important now.
A TIME FOR REPENTANCE
The Christian life is one of daily repentance. The baptized are called to die with Christ in order to be raised with Him to new life. When we hear of and see great numbers of people suffering and dying around us, the primary response is grief. Grief is our form of death at this time. It is deep contrition over the inescapable and universal reality that, as heirs of Adam, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Pandemics increase exponentially our awareness of this tragic state of affairs. Repentance calls us not to avoid this reality, but to make room for grieving it.
This is not fatalism, which panics, despairs and gives up at the sight of death. Christians grieve, but not without hope. We look through death to resurrection. As heirs of God’s promise of new life in Christ, the last Adam, we are called even in the worst times to hope in God’s deliverance from the power of sin and death. This hope against all hope is a bold confidence in God’s promises, and it is most needed at a time when tragic news fills the air and tragedy itself threatens to squelch our spirits.
A TIME FOR VIGILANCE
The Christian life is not an easy one. It is a perilous journey in the desert, in the wilderness, where the devil attacks and tempts God’s children. Times of crisis especially make us aware of our vulnerabilities to such assaults. So we must be vigilant, watchful. Temptations can make the fatalist, who despairs over tragedy, doubt God’s promises of protection, provision and life. But the enemy can just as easily tempt the perfectionist, who is overly confident in his or her own health, resources and power, to ignore or minimize the present trial. Bold confidence in God’s promises is about faith in Christ and His words of life. It is not the same as a triumphalistic view of things, which in the name of self-confidence makes light of or flirts with danger. In these times of temptation, however, Christians also are reminded that the wilderness is the place of God’s presence, the place of testing where He refines us to be resilient and to stand firm in His promises when times are tough.
We are in the desert, but not alone. God’s Spirit accompanies and leads us. This is the time to be neither a spiritual Debbie Downer nor a spiritual superman. It is a time for seeing God alone as our oasis in the desert, to grow in our dependence on His mercies through prayer and the Word. In these times of temptation and testing, set time aside to call upon the Spirit in prayer for protection from all assaults of the devil and for guidance and strength in the Word.
Yes, we are in the desert, but not alone. God’s Spirit calls and gathers us together among our brothers and sisters in Christ — even when we have to stay at a safe distance — to encourage one another and to hear once again the words every pastor loves to speak: that we are forgiven, that God is our refuge and strength, that our future is in His hands.
A TIME FOR SACRIFICE
The Christian life is one of conformity to Christ in His sacrifice, in His self-giving to others even unto death. Times of suffering put into question the popular notion that being a Christian is about being happy and prosperous. It is really about joyfully sacrificing for others. In unprecedented times, sacrifice may take different forms. Some serve ailing patients on the front lines, at times at the risk of their own personal health. Many are learning that, in times of pandemics, sacrifice, oddly enough, can also mean staying home and keeping a safe distance from neighbors so as not to put them in harm’s way. This is not the time to claim some individualistic version of freedom without concern for others, but rather a time to learn anew that Christian freedom is ultimately freedom for the sake of others.
“Through our unity in Christ, we are in communion with one another and thus share each other’s burdens and joys.”
In times of crisis, we die to self in order to make room for the neediest neighbors in our midst. We learn to put on the form of the servant, and put ahead the interests of others before ours. But let us also remember that pandemics make us all vulnerable, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. For this reason, it is honest to think of ourselves as a communion of both givers and receivers of divine generosity. Through our unity in Christ, we are in communion with one another and thus share each other’s burdens and joys.
Obviously, as we have gone through this time of social distancing and sheltering in place, our unity in Christ has taken new and different forms, and so has our servanthood. Not only online worship and virtual Bible studies, but mask-making clubs and contactless food drives — all of it shows forth the love of God in the lives of our neighbors.
What joys can you share with others at this time? Perhaps it is the joy of having meals together as a family. Perhaps it is the joy of making meals available to an elderly member of the congregation. What burdens can others help you go through nowadays? Perhaps a phone call to check in on you, to help you deal with the anxiety of family members traveling or not yet reunited. Or maybe a word of encouragement from people who know how hard you are working to continue to care for people in new ways, even if mostly online. In times of isolation, finding ways of sharing life together with patience and grace is more important than ever.
A TIME FOR HOSPITALITY
The Christian life is one of welcoming strangers into our lives, even when the welcome is not physically possible. Pandemics make us painfully aware of large numbers of suffering neighbors we never heard about. Hearing of many lives lost in places here in the United States and in places that seem so far away, like China and Italy, we suddenly realize how much we share with these strangers. At times like these, we put a human face on strangers, especially those who are most vulnerable to the virus. We think of the elderly, the homeless, refugees and asylum seekers, the poor and record numbers of underemployed and unemployed neighbors.
What can the church do to practice and embody hospitality toward strangers at this time? Some are ordering in from restaurants, giving baristas additional tips, sending donations to relief and humanitarian agencies. In times of financial distress and economic uncertainty and fear, the default mode is to play it safe and focus on those closest to us. This makes sense and is prudent, and yet the church also is called to exercise a hospitable disposition toward those who are not as close to us, but still require our prayers and love. In these inhospitable times, let us not give up on extending our love for our closest neighbors to other suffering neighbors, to keep our eyes open beyond the confines of the familiar.
A TIME FOR DEVOTION
The Christian life is one of devotion to God in good and bad times. We were created to embody devotion to our Creator in the rhythm of repose and movement, of rest and labor. There are gardens to labor in, to tend to and care for, as stewards of God’s gifts. God continues to provide for His world through many laborers who are doing their best to care for lives on earth. People are busy figuring out the next step. In the midst of daily updates, difficult news and uncertainty about the future, our minds are also filled with fear and anxiety. They are busy with thoughts that get in the way of receiving from God.
Living in isolation might not be enough to give us much needed rest — literal rest to keep us healthy, to take care of our minds and bodies, but also rest to go to the mountain and spend time with God in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. The garden is filled with thorns and thistles. We need to retreat to the mountain, not to let the anxieties of the moment rob us of our time with the Father. Retreat not to leave the world, but to be fed with the Word in order to engage the world rightly. This is how we live in Jesus’ own promise: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28 ESV).
Crises suck the life and joy out of people. We lose the ability to play or to rejoice in God’s gifts. In restless times, reclaim the playground of God’s creation: Play your guitar, enjoy a beverage, do some gardening, catch up with friends on the phone. When it seems like the world is ending, take time to pray, get some extra sleep, and sing, play or listen to a favorite tune. These are acts of defiant hope against all hope, acts of bold faith in the God of Jesus Christ, who has the whole wide world in His hands.
Dr. Leopoldo A. Sánchez M. is the Werner R.H. Krause and Elizabeth Ringger Krause Professor of Hispanic Ministries, professor of Systematic Theology and director of the Center for Hispanic Studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Note: This article appeared in an earlier form on concordiatheology.org and was expanded here with the assistance of Dr. Travis Scholl, managing editor of Seminary Publications.