Ephesians 5:2 “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Galatians 5:6 “In Christ Jesus, what counts is faith working through love.”
Living in the time of a new, dangerous, easily transmitted disease like the coronavirus, we are glad to be able to lean on Christian leaders who faced similar problems centuries ago and can give us direction.
The plague (a.k.a. “black death”) reached Europe via Genoese traders in 1330. It spread slowly until it reached a four-year peak, from 1347-51. Over 90% of those who contracted the plague died of it within a week. Historians estimate that Europe lost 30-60% of its population in the fourteenth century. In that era, priests, monks, and nuns courageously cared for the sick and the dying, knowing that it might cost them their lives; great numbers did perish.
The plague lingered, in a slightly less dangerous form, until the seventeenth century. Infections that killed 5, 10, or 15% of the population were common in European cities for centuries afterward, striking every ten or twenty years.
Dr. Dalbey recently shared a comment from Martin Luther when a plague reached his city, Wittenberg. Luther said:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.”
“If my neighbor needs me,” represents the attitude of godly pastor in plagues.
In Calvin’s day, quarantine of the sick in homes or hospitals was widespread. When the plague struck Geneva several times, some pastors tried to evade hospital visitation. Calvin quickly volunteered to minister to the sick in the hospital. Geneva’s other leaders forbade him, since they believed he was essential to the city, and he reluctantly acquiesced. Nonetheless, Calvin visited many in their homes and he conducted funerals, at great risk to himself.
Calvin and Luther illustrate the fearless faithfulness common to most pastors. In those days, those who could afford to flee the cities did.
Plague also struck London repeatedly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Puritan pastors like Thomas Gataker and William Gouge did not flee, although they could have. They stayed in the city and served their people. So they model faithfulness and fearlessness, born of trust in the Lord and a vibrant conviction that this life is short and that eternal life is our destiny. They show us how to be faith and fearless today.
Today, the front line includes pastors, health care providers, family members, even neighbors caring for each other.
Luther, Calvin and the Puritans never ran from trouble. They endured, preaching, teaching, and visiting as always. Today we have safer ways to visit and preach while we obey our authorities: we can call upon our congregations over FaceTime or Zoom. We can drive to our neighbors’ doorsteps and see them from our car. We can lead Bible studies over Facebook and sing hymns together. These things feel cumbersome for now, because they are not the ways in which we are used to doing life together as the church of Christ.
However, our union with Christ, by faith, empowers us to be brave and loving in an era of arduous ministry. May we lay hold of what is ours by faith in the Lord and by the strength of the Holy Spirit.