I am struggling with this concept of “social distancing,” which is really about physical isolation. I am an extreme extrovert, and pretty outgoing, which is generally a good thing when my identity revolves around shepherding God’s people. However, right now my community is working to curb the tide of COVID-19 infection and spread, so we are all trying to do our part to keep from spreading it, even if our normally healthy immune systems would not be devastatingly impacted by it.
Today I showed up at my church to film a truncated version of our worship for digital distribution, and standing in the Chancel of the Sanctuary with four other people in the sacred space that holds well over two hundred on a Sunday was a shock to my system. Even on our worst snow day, I had over seventy-five people. I had not felt the full force of this isolation until it slammed into Sunday morning. I really just miss our people, their faces, their warmth, and their presence. The interactions of Sunday worship are so profoundly meaningful to me that their loss is acutely felt. Yet today I was also keenly aware of something else: this is not about me. Maybe it is not about you either. This attempt to slow and even stop COVID-19 is about us, our church, our Body of Christ, our community made up of people that would not claim us in the same way that we yearn to have them. It is to put our wants and desires, even our immediate needs, to the side and focus on others.
Today was about making the means of grace, the Ministry of the Word, available in the midst of this isolation. It felt honestly weird, because this is different from what I am accustomed to and yearn for each week. Where are all the smiling faces, the words of greeting, the handshakes and embraces? Where are the sounds of children and their awesome questions? Where is the embodiment of community and the intentionality of gathering together in one place in the name of Christ, our Lord? It is still here in a strangely technological way. It did warm my heart to see people check in online, make comments of gratitude and support, and share in the modern digital way of evangelism. It gave me hope that we could still bless from afar.
As Christians, but even more so, as disciples, we are learning to be selfless and follow the example of Christ, the one for whom we are named. In the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that he has come not for the healthy, but the sick (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). He is pointing out that the sick in our midst need to be our priority, because they are certainly God’s. Christian tradition has often taken this as metaphor: Christ came for the spiritually sick, those sick with sin. But what if now these words and prophetic utterances are just as true about those who are physically sick? Jesus literally healed the sick in his earthly ministry, too: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14). I believe that in our current context we are being called to a new form of discipleship, one that gives up some of its liberty to grant healing and life to those who are sick and vulnerable to sickness. It is not easy or without great sacrifice, but it is worth it. To save even one, would be to fulfill the parable of the Good Shepherd:
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost (Matthew 18:12-14).
To not lose even one, would be a triumph, and should be our goal. Jesus never said, “Well, some are going to sin anyway, so oh well.” Jesus continually preached, taught, and went out into the world to show love, compassion, and grace. He never stopped even from the cross, when he prayed for intercession for those that crucified him: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Our model is Jesus Christ himself. Our duty on this path of discipleship is to be willing to be selfless in the face of unparalleled selfishness in the culture. While others hoard, we shall share. While some openly revel in the aspect of gathering in spite of consequences, we shall endure isolation with patience. While we are criticized for our decisions to suspend worship and cancel gatherings, we shall look to God to uphold us and lead us forward into a bright and beautiful future of health and reunion. None of the freedom, the autonomy, and the joy of the moment is worth the loss of a being of sacred worth, a beloved child of God, and a member of the Kingdom to Come. Not one.
So for now, we reframe our current situation, and make our decisions from a place of selflessness. Instead of saying, this hurts me, or this makes me feel bad, we should try asking how can I help someone else? How can my decision to limit my movement and my liberty allow someone else to live and experience more of life on this gift we call Earth? Jesus never took the selfish route. Even when he was exhausted and need time to refresh, he responded with radical compassion:
On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured (Luke 9:10-11).
May it still be so, that Christ will heal those who need to be cured. Only this time, it will be because we make room for them through our willingness to step back and out of the way, making space for healing.