Throughout the pandemic, pastors have found themselves under fire from two sides. For some, every decision to conform with guidelines, providing online services, introducing social distancing, asking people to wear masks has been seen as an act of compromise with the state driven by fear of death. Thy are told that they should not fear death and they should encourage their congregations not to as well. We should trust God, have faith and focus on worship and witness.
At the same time, there have been those who have attacked every decision to enable in person gathering, fellowship, worship, teaching, singing. Pastors have been accused of recklessness and putting lives at risk.
Whilst we are probably about through the worst of the pandemic, I suspect those challenges are still going to be there for some time and whilst we may not have the specific challenge of a pandemic to face in future years, similar types of controversial challenge requiring difficult decisions will come up again and again.
So, I thought it might be helpful to share a few further reflections in writing based on comments I made on The Daily Dose when looking at John 15:12-13.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
This is important because as with 1 Peter 2, we see here that Jesus’ own death is offered both as substitutionary atonement and as an example for how we should seek to live and relate to each other. It helps us to see what love is. Just as in Ephesians 5 where a husband’s love is to be like Christ’s sacrificial love, so too, here love for each other is sacrificial. It’s life giving. Let’s not lose the force of that. Sacrificial love doesn’t simply mean that I’m meant to go without. It is meant to be life giving. I have to be willing to give up my life, to count it as loss and to put the lives of others first.
Now, rarely will I find myself in a position where I’m literally asked to risk my life. However, COVID may be about as close as some of us will get. Perhaps there is a challenge for some people here, at this stage in the pandemic. If you are continuing to stay home and to shield because you are so afraid of catching the virus that you’ll go to any cost to avoid it, then are you willing to put Christ’s command into action? I’m not saying that this means that you must definitely come out of shielding and ignore medical advice. But, and particularly where concerns and actions are no longer based on the best medical advice but on personal decisions, does there come a point where some of us need to recognise that others we love need in person contact and fellowship. Maybe we’ve over emphasised the risk of illness to ourselves and need to re-balance our thinking a little to consider those needs. Are there small steps that we could make towards rebuilding in person contact.
On the other hand though, I think there is a word here for those who have been more gung ho. You see, it isn’t a sinful thing or a faithless thing in and of itself to seek to protect life. Jesus even warns his listeners to be ready to flee Jerusalem when they see the abomination of desolation coming. That advice has been heeded throughout the ages and people like Luther saw the importance of wise responses to plague that protected lives. Calvin took exile in Geneva and because of that was able to teach and to write.
But here also is I think a question of willingness to die. In this case it is a step removed from literal death. However, there is a willingness to die to ourselves involved in recognising that I might want all of the familiarity of packed in, in person normal church with singing and hugging. I may have missed those things deeply. It is then so tempting when we see people still holding back from in person church to say “Oh well never mind them. Leave them to it.” However, I wonder if that shows a willingness to lay down my life for my friends/brothers/sisters.
That’s why I think it is crucial that we keep making the effort to find ways to care, provide for and share fellowship with those who are still struggling with anxiety about the pandemic. Perhaps “laying down your life” might mean keeping the You Tube service running a bit longer, or agreeing to meet with someone via Zoom to talk and pray even when you think they could come round in person. If that’s what is being asked of us then surely it’s not too hard a step.
What I think we then see is a good example of mutual submission. Those who are concerned about their physical well being are prepared to lay aside those concerns for the emotional well being of others, those who are concerned about their emotional well being are prepared to put the physical well being of others first. Perhaps we can then reach a place of mutual love and care for each other?