I’m thinking about oil changes, the Coronavirus and the spread of Christianity today.
Yesterday morning I brought my minivan (with 200,000+ miles) to the Jiffy Lube for an oil change. Basically, the automobile equivalent of a physical exam. Instead of checking blood pressure, they check the air filter and tire pressure. Instead of a thermometer in the mouth, they read the dipstick to see how dirty the oil has gotten.
Before I pay and drive off, they show me the dipstick to observe how clean the new oil is that will ensure my Toyota Sienna drives true and carries the goods for the next few months. Our bodies need a regular physical exam. Our vehicles need a regular oil change. What about a regular examination of our faith? How can we check the oil level of our soul?
Start talking about a pandemic and you’ll see the true color and substance of people’s faith. Are we spreading fear or faith?
You’ll see if people’s faith is running on the pure oil of Resurrection, or the dark and dirty oil of human futility and mortality. From what I’ve observed, many so-called Christians are responding in ways that reveal they are far from living within the central teachings and promises of the Christian faith when it comes to our posture toward the threat of illness and death. We need a history lesson to remind us of our heartier roots.
In his 1997 book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark explores the sociological reasons for the undeniable historical fact that from the death of Christ to 300 AD, Christianity grew from a tiny sect of maybe 1,000 in 40 AD in Jerusalem to over 5 million – over 10% of the Roman population.
In chapter four – “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion” – he talks about the various epidemics of plague that swept through Roman Empire. Here’s how one person tells the story:
In 165AD and 251 AD, two plages devastated cities and social networks. Death rates from 7% to over 50% were estimated. These plagues were socially and psychically devastating, killing a significant percentage of the community. Communities were shattered and individuals couldn’t make sense of the world in light of it.
Christian preachers like Cyprian and Dionysius helped people make sense of death and loss and reminded them of the hope of the resurrection. But they also urged Christians to keep showing love and charity no matter what. This is what made the difference. The Christian community rallied to care for people in the face of death and disease, while pagan family members fled for safety when the first signs of contagious disease appeared.
Galen, the most famous physician in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius had no ability to heal the sick and so he fled the cities and rode out the disaster in his wealthy country home. A few centuries before, Thucydides recorded what happened to the sick when they were left behind in a plague; people “died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention.”
Christians did not react in the same way. They crossed two purity boundaries – caring for the diseased in their own families, and caring for sick strangers and enemies left behind. Dionysius, an early bishop, wrote the following in an Easter letter;
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
A century later, the pagan Emperor Julian wrote to the high (pagan) priest of Galatia;
“that the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’” In a letter to another priest he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, every one can see that our people lack aid from us.” These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities “but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.
Did this mean that early Christians died of the plague, maybe at a higher rate than others? Almost certainly. But they saved more. And they rebuilt the communities with those who survived.
This was not strange for the Christians. After all, they were only following Jesus who said that ‘who visits the sick, in my name’ will surely not lose their reward (Matthew 25). What will be said about us, the Christians who face different crises in our cities and country today?
Now, I am not advocating a reckless disregard for common sense and I trust civic leaders will do their job to help us prepare for the continued spread of the Coronavirus. I’m not downplaying the tragedy of those who have already died from the virus and those who may yet catch it.
What I am doing is asking followers of the Resurrected One to start acting like those who believe Death has ultimately been defeated, and to start living as those who believe this earthly life is but a vapor compared to eternity, merely a warm-up act for the Big Dance. Christians don’t live our lives trying to avoid death; we have already been “crucified with Christ” and “raised with Christ” so that we can now live the rest of our lives with reckless abandon for the sake of loving others and telling others they don’t have to fear death either.
(We actually came very close to the virus in Israel. We were alerted that a group of South Korean travelers tested positive upon returning home from their Israel Pilgrimage. We compared itineraries, and we were scheduled to be in the same church at the same time in Jerusalem one day!)
Francis Chan, bestselling Christian author and speaker, who recently moved to Hong Kong with his family, has voiced similar concerns over our global Christian witness in a Tweet:
“So many people here in HK are terrified and paranoid. It’s so sad to see but a great opportunity for the gospel – as long as the believers show themselves to be different, fearless. The strong believers are walking around with the poor and handing out masks while sharing the gospel. Meanwhile too many Christians are isolating themselves. It’s a test of our faith- not to be foolish but to show that we fear nothing, especially not death. And we are anxious about nothing.”
If we take an eternal perspective for a moment, we need to acknowledge that on average 160,000 people die every day around the world. Every single one of these souls has contracted the spiritual virus we call “sin” and many, if not most, of these 160,000 people will die “in their sins” with their eternal fate hanging in the balance. This is not the crazy opinion of some Bible-banging, fundamentalist preacher, but a very basic Christian doctrine found in our common creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
If you had the vaccine that could save people from the Coronavirus, would you have an obligation to share it with those who are dying? Every Christian reading this has the antidote that can save their neighbors next door from the disease of sin and spiritual death — it’s called the gospel of Jesus Christ. But how many of us live with a sense of urgency to share this cure with others? How many of us live with “the peace that surpasses understanding” even in the midst of death?
‘Fear’ is the dirt in the oil of many Christians’ faith, and we need to get it changed quickly – in a jiffy! Christians need to stop raiding the grocery store shelves for hand sanitizer and bottled water, and start pillaging the eternal resources of the Church and stockpiling the Living Water that can heal body and soul! Be people for whom death is but a bump in the road, or an annoying crack in the windshield of life. Be Resurrection people!
“Do not be afraid of that which can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” -JESUS
I shared a similar reflection 11 years ago when the swine flu was the big threat. Read it here.