Fifteen months ago, as I prayed about what the Christian response to the pandemic ought to be, my thoughts went to a book by sociologist Rodney Stark: The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. From a historical perspective, there was nothing inevitable about the rise of Christianity. As Stark pointed out, paganism had been a vital part of the Greco-Roman world for centuries, and therefore “must have had the capacity to fulfill basic religious impulses.”
But then the plagues struck.
Stark said, “In a sense paganism did indeed ‘topple over dead’ or at least acquire it’s fatal illness during these epidemics.”
From the beginning of the Jesus movement, Christian values of love and charity had translated into social services and community solidarity.
When disasters struck, Christians were better able to cope.
As the pagans fled the cities, Christians went in.
They provided food and basic provisions for the sick, even for the pagans, even at the cost of their own lives. It turned out that just seeing to the basic needs of people dramatically increased the survival rate. When the crisis subsided, pagans wondered why the Christians had stayed.
Of course they had stayed because they had experienced the selfless love of Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection.
So if the response of the early church was to go into the city, how does that inform the Christian response in our time?
By 2020, we knew more about how viruses spread, though not nearly as much as we needed to know. The faithful response of 2020 was still to see to basic human needs, but also to limit our exposure in order to limit the spread of the virus.
In 2020, part of the faithful response meant staying away instead of going in.
But what about today, now that vaccines are available?
The faithful response today is not dying, but living. It’s about going into a clinic and getting a shot.
But now it seems that the folks most reluctant to get the shot are evangelical Christians.
Friends, for every objection you have to getting the shot, I can name five more. I agree with you on most of them.
The collective response to the pandemic reflects our nature as fallen human beings. Our government wasn’t ready for the pandemic. Officials have been inconsistent, reluctant to admit mistakes, and sometimes flat wrong. Some said vaccines would take years to develop and might never come. Some probably should be prosecuted.
But it was fallen people like that that the early Christians died to save.
Today, God is working a miracle through his fallen creatures. Through vaccines, God’s healing power is once more going out into the world.
But first it has to go into our arms.