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Love in the time of Covid-19

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Posted by Steve Wilcox, 10 Apr 2020

Steve Wilcox takes some lessons from Martin Luther about how to love our neighbours in a time of plague.

How can I love my neighbour in the time of Covid 19?
We don’t have a choice whether or not to love our neighbour. All of us as Christians are commanded to love our neighbour at all times and we can’t stop simply because of this disease.

But the way we show that love will be different for each of us.

Learning from Martin Luther
I’ve been greatly helped by reading a letter written by Martin Luther in response to an enquiry from another pastor in an area dogged by great plague, asking what he should do. Luther replied with a letter combining Bible teaching with great wisdom and awareness of the situation. It’s been titled “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague” which shows their situation was different in some ways from ours. They had the option to flee; we need to stay at home and keep social distance. But there are many similarities too.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that how we love our neighbour depends on five things: temperament, responsibilities, condition, gifting, and Christ’s love.

Know your temperament
Luther describes two types of people – what we might call the fearful and the bold. Many of us are in the fearful category. We don’t want to be infected by Covid 19; we don’t want to infect those we love. Luther doesn’t condemn that temperament, although he does say that even the fearful need to take their responsibilities seriously.

Others are bold. Perhaps we are trying to carry on life as normal; perhaps we haven’t really thought about the impact the virus might have on us and others. Perhaps we are completely surrendered to God to do with us as he wishes. Again, Luther doesn’t condemn this temperament, although even the bold will need to consider their responsibilities to others.

What is your temperament and how might that affect what you can do in this situation?

Know your responsibilities
First, something Luther doesn’t mention but which is vitally important.

Obey the government
Paul writes in Romans 13 that everyone must submit themselves to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1). The government’s directives and advice at this time are for our good and the good of our neighbour and as Christians we must obey them.

Our personal responsibilities
Luther writes: “People should remain in the roles God has given them to fulfil their responsibilities – unless adequate provision has been made otherwise.” All of us have roles and responsibilities that we need to fulfil in order to love our neighbour. Some roles are clearly defined:
> Parents have a responsibility to care for their children,
> Children have a responsibility to obey their parents,
> Pastors have a responsibility to pastor their congregation,
> Adults have a responsibility to care for their elderly parents and relatives,
> Public officials have a responsibility to society,
> Employers have a responsibility to their staff.

What do we do if our responsibility puts us in the way of danger? Luther puts it like this, “If they flee but provide capable substitutes to ensure that the community/family/church is provided for – that is fine.” In other words it’s not wrong to flee – or to stay away - as long as we’ve put measures in place to make sure our responsibilities are fulfilled.

For example, if you are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and you have a responsibility to someone which could put you at risk, finding someone who’s less vulnerable to take your place would fulfil your duty. As Luther writes, “It is commanded that we seek… all that we need and avoid destruction and disaster whenever we can, as long as we do so without failing in our love and duty towards our neighbour.”

What are your responsibilities, and how you can make sure they’re fulfilled by you or someone else?

Know your condition
If you’re in a vulnerable or high-risk category, then loving your neighbour will be shaped by this. You should try to stay at home completely. But you can still love others by phoning them, showing care and compassion, and above all praying for God’s mercy and his will to be done in this crisis.

Luther also talks about the evil of hiding the fact you have the disease -  and the even greater evil of deliberately circulating the disease.

Know your condition and love your neighbour.

Know your gifting
Some people will have gifts that are particularly valuable at this time. If you’re working in an essential job – that is a great gift to society and you should work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord (Col 3:23).

Other gifts that are coming to the fore are gifts in technology: getting everyone set up with Zoom or Facebook or YouTube; ant the gift of listening: the ability to sit on the phone to people for hours. If you’re not working at the moment, for whatever reason, you may have the gift of more time than usual.

What are the gifts that God has given you for such a time as this?

Know Christ’s love
Finally, know Christ’s love. We’ve talked about temperament, responsibility, condition, gifting. But there’s one vital ingredient missing: love itself.

The Son of God could have stayed in heaven with his Father in perfect self-isolation: happy, joyful, lacking nothing, not even needing to go out to the shops to stock up on hand gel or other essential items. But he didn’t.

As the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2, he emptied himself and became nothing. He came to a risky, broken, sin-infected world where he knew he was going to die. He lived a life of perfect love. He went willingly, purposefully to the cross – dying with an agony that wasn’t just physical but spiritual as he was cut off from his loving heavenly Father, bearing the punishment for our sin. He rose again, proving that there is life beyond death for those who follow him.

Now he sends us, as those who have been loved, to love. He commands us to love God and to love our neighbour. He gives us his Holy Spirit so we don’t try to generate love in our own strength, but we love from the strength he gives us as we depend on him.

The more we think about his love for us, about his self-giving for our sake, about him facing hell so we could receive eternal joy, the more we will love him and the more we will love other people.

So how can we love our neighbour?

Who is your neighbour?
Certainly your next door neighbour. Certainly anyone you come into contact with at work, in your home, family, church and community. But love compels us to go further than that. People who have lost jobs and are having to visit the foodbanks are our neighbours. People in Zimbabwe who are facing a catastrophic epidemic with compromised immune systems and a handful of ventilators in the country are our neighbours. People who are grieving in isolation are our neighbours. People who are flouting government guidelines are our neighbours.
So how can we love our neighbours at this time of Covid-19? The answer will depend on our temperament, our responsibilities, our condition, our gifting and time available, and most of all our reponse to Christ’s love.

Some practical ways to show love:
We are still allowed to go out if it is to serve those who are vulnerable. Could you volunteer at a local foodbank? Could you help deliver food to those who are high risk? Can you offer technical support to someone who would love to join your church online?

All of us can still love our neighbour from home. Could you phone people you know are lonely, vulnerable, or struggling with mental health issues. Can you write letters and ask someone to post them for you? Can you sew facemasks or cloth bags for hospital staff to help them keep the virus out of their homes?

We can all pray. We know we are in great need – and only he can do something about it. What can be more important than that? Why not make a list of people in your life who you can’t currently be in regular contact with, and pray for some of them each day? You could also include other ‘neighbours’ from your community and across the world.

And finally, we can all be prepared “to give a reason for the hope that we have.” (1 Peter 3:15). People are looking for hope right now, and we have a message of great hope that endures even in the face of death. The most loving thing we can do for anyone now, as always, is to share our Christian hope with them.

Steve Wilcox is vicar of St Mark's and St Peter's churches in Anlaby.

Photo by Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

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