Nero, Jesus, and Viruses

In late 2019 and early 2020, SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 / “novel coronavirus” practically stopped the world. Workplaces either shut down or went remote. Houses of worship paused in-person gatherings. Face masks have been recommended everywhere and mandated most places. People clean, wash, and sanitize like never before — definitely not a bad thing. Coins aren’t circulating like they used to. Curbside and contactless have become norms for most and standards for many. The market of thought is full of rampant assumptions about the bigger story, long-term ramifications, the motives and actions of others.

The most confusing part about this whole thing to me is that both division and unity seem to be simultaneously at all-time highs.


When this all started, like most people, all I wanted was a sense of what to do next. It was jarring for me. For everyone. I went from working 4-6 days a week to barely leaving the house except to buy groceries, tag team church with just me and my pastor, and do landscaping with a best friend who wanted to help me. I started holding virtual tutoring sessions, and connecting with friends meant brewing our own coffee at separate tables, miles away on Zoom. And of course, my bachelor’s degree was already an online program, so that worked out nicely. It started out as just surreal, but it quickly got old.

Extroverted as I am, I quickly grew tired of not being able to hug people, hang out in public buildings, go without sanitizing everything every two seconds. I missed — I still miss — physical connection, being able to gather without potentially endangering others just in case I’m an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19.

Don’t get me wrong. I will do whatever I have to so that others will not suffer due to my actions. Having guidelines to follow temporarily is a very small price to pay for love.

What I’m trying to say is that I get that people are frustrated with what is happening. I even get why. Heck, I sympathize in a lot of ways. People are worried about keeping their businesses afloat, maintaining liberties that we in the United States of America have come to enjoy, holding onto their mental health in a world where it is already hard enough to maintain that… and the list goes on.

I get it. I really do.

But.

I don’t think that we who profess Jesus Christ are doing well with this.

And before you read on, understand that I grieve to say it, such that it has taken months to have the courage to do so.


Pause.

As someone whose dream is to see the church at unity as Jesus prayed for (John 17), I don’t want anything I say to divide people, but the division is already there, and there is no way that some division won’t come of what I say — what anyone says, for that matter. My heart, though, is not a divisive one. Most people are probably the same way. They don’t want to cause divisions, but their opinions, being different from others, naturally will do so. What we must come to is an agreement to seek the truth, regardless of each other’s opinions, knowing that there is more to reality that our perspectives will ever fully grasp. I’m not here to pick sides. I’m not here to accuse people or generalize, but if we avoid opportunities to assess ourselves and be wrong, then we are not living in light of the cross of Jesus, who died for all our wrong thoughts and deeds. I’m assessing myself, too. Please keep that in mind as you read, and please, do continue to read.


In America, we have been blessed with a great degree of freedom to do almost anything we want short of blatant evil. COVID-19 was something that we did not see coming. Neither did many of our government officials. They made decisions as quickly as they could as best as they could. I’m not speaking for them all.

No matter what state we live in (or country for that matter), someone somewhere is not happy about the way things have been handled. I live in Kentucky where Andy Beshear is governor. A lot of people are happy with how he has handled the pandemic. A lot of people are not. Some are just mad that there is a Democrat in office. Some have genuinely thought through what he has done and deemed it unwise. Others disagree.

As Christians, we are called to community. We are called to gather. It is only by connecting with one another that we can truly love one another and spur each other toward greater love. We are not supposed to make it a habit to intentionally shirk that responsibility. When all of this started, for the wellbeing of all, especially those who are considered high risk, we were asked to stop for a while, or at least to scale it way back.

Five months later, many restrictions on businesses and gathered organizations have been loosened. People are trying to get back to some semblance of normal.

But there’s a problem. Things are not normal.

Normally, if you are sick, you choose whether to stay home from work or not. Now, you stay home from work — period.

Normally, you choose whether or not to go to church. Now, you stay home and start a watch party on Facebook to fellowship before watching your service, or you hold a small group.

I could go on, but you probably get the picture by now.

Before COVID-19, people thought it was completely fine to go about their business if they were ill — many, not all. But those same people probably didn’t consider that by doing so they might be spreading, say, the flu or strep, or various other contagions bordering on pandemic. Now, we have a virus we know very little about, and this time our approach is very different. Masks and physical distance are the response. It really makes a person wonder if we should actually take infectious diseases more seriously all the time. Yet people are trying to go about their business as though everything is exactly the same as it was.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want normalcy back, too. When this all started, I was terrified that I was going to somehow infect my aging parents and grandparent, all of whom are at-risk. For three or four months, I worked from home, and our church did not gather in person — only a few of us met to play music and preach the word via live stream as the rest of the church worshipped from home. We wanted to be sure that people were able both to stay safe and to receive the gospel. We used Zoom as our “fellowship” lobby, not to mention just to gather while remaining physically distant. We checked on each other. I rarely saw anyone but my family and my fiancée, and while I appreciate them, I’ve missed the rest. I rarely got out of the house except to stock up on food, work on landscapes, and go for long drives to cope with feeling trapped inside my own four walls.

As a worldwide community, we as the church probably largely agree on these two things: we do not want to do harm to anyone by passing along a virus, and we do not want to be restrained from preaching the gospel or being in community. Yet there seems to be a delineation of those who really want their American liberty and those who are willing to except regulation as a viable response.

The truth? We can have both.

The hard truth? It will take sacrifice.

The harder truth? A lot of churchgoers just cringed when they read the word “sacrifice.”

What I’m about to say is difficult, and there is not a good way to say it. It will be uncomfortable, probably challenge you, and hopefully be fair. If it’s not, I’m sorry, and I only hope to get better at this with time.


Pause.

There is a lot I’m not going to address here about the nature of COVID-19. The pandemic is a problem, but it isn’t the problem, and I’m not going to address that here.


For months, I have watched people I admired in their faith and their boldness of speech using those very gifts to make abject fools of themselves in the way they sling mud at political figures and parties — both sides — and the people supporting them.

For months, I’ve watched people favor speculation to science, more concerned with who has what agenda than their own personal responsibility to handle themselves well for the good of all of us in the same society.

For months, I’ve watched people I have respected say things like, “It’s their health, so it’s their problem, not mine,” as a reason to reject the guidelines — people who are supposed to care for all people because they know Jesus, people in whom I am deeply disappointed, whose example I now question. Not to mention many of the same people talk about mask-wearers as though they are brainwashed, which is presumptuous at best and bullying at worst.

The sad part is that this is nothing new. It’s just extra visible now.

What is really getting to me lately though is the massive amount of people crying against what they have deemed the “persecution of the saints.” And to be fair, that is happening in ways and in places. It has always been present to some degree and in some form or another. It always will be. Jesus promised that.

I don’t think I fully understood why this bothered me until a few days ago, which is partially why I’ve chosen this moment to finally talk about it aside from not wanting to offend fellow Christians, which is a bit ironic.

I grew up here in America, where things are fairly easy, including faith. Compared to the rest of the world, we have very few things against which we must struggle from a faith standpoint. You can literally believe or profess anything without severe consequence. Sure, there will be those certain people at school or at work who make fun of you for following Jesus or try to pick apart your faith to start a fight. Sure, that can qualify as a degree of persecution.

But is that what would have qualified as persecution for the early church?

Check this out, and please stay with me. I know I’m going to lose some of you believers because of citing scripture.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

Romans 13:1-7

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:13-17

That’s a lot to take in. It’s even more to take in that Paul and Peter wrote these letters under the rules of Emperors Nero and Domitian of Rome in the first century A.D.

These emperors sought out Christians to put on trial, mame with animals and human weapons, and kill by burning or boiling a person alive, or by crucifixion. And it didn’t stop with these emperors.

This was similar to what happened to the faithful whom the rest of scripture describes, summed up by the author of Hebrews.

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (MEN OF WHOM THE WORLD WAS NOT WORTHY [emphasis mine]), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

Hebrews 11:32-38

Do you or I face a threat like that?

I’ll answer for you. If you live in the western world, probably not.

Right now, the biggest things we have to complain about, at least in the state of Kentucky, are reduced capacities of buildings, mask mandates, and social distancing, none of which preclude the conveyance of the gospel, save for those who cannot wear masks due to health issues or who are at risk, unless we who are able simply fail to rise to the challenge of finding new ways to love people in circumstances we as individuals have never before seen.

The reality is this. We can live stream services for those who need the church “experience” — and to be clear, the early church didn’t gather for productions but for the Spirit and the word. We can allow people to enter our buildings while keeping safe distances, wearing masks when necessary, and cleaning. For those who cannot come due to the risks or capacity restrictions, we can go to them. We can visit them, call them, write them, bring them what they need.

In other words, there are ways of gathering that many of us normally wouldn’t do either because we are so immersed in a consumeristic culture that we just don’t think about it, or because we just don’t want to. Many of us don’t actually reach out to fellow Christians, bring food to those who need it, spend time in conversations with those whose emotions may have been shut up even before COVID-19, sing with a guitar or a piano and a handful of voices, invite our non-Christian friends over for dinner to show them we love them just as much and we love one another, knowing that if our love for one another is visible in meaningful ways other than a large-scale production in a “church building,” that it is this love that will prove that God is really real.

We are offered opportunities to really become a part of advancing the gospel like never before and to love even stronger than ever.

Why are we not doing that?

While one method of gathering and gospel declaring has been paused, it seems like the door is open in the right ways to refocus on the right things, the very things Jesus called us to, the very reasons Christ called us to gather, the very thing we have lost in many of our gatherings, something that even the non-Christian world is well aware of.

No, it’s not the same. It is painful to the heart to not be able to get as close to every person and do every little thing we use to be able to the way we did it — like hugs, which I miss. And the cruel irony of this is that we keep calling this the “new normal.” Well, it may not be “normal” for life without a pandemic, but in the midst of one, do these things not make sense? Is being extra cautious not perfectly normal when trying to keep people safe when there is extra risk due to extra unknowns?

People keep accusing mask-wearers as living in fear, but that is not a fear response. That is a love response. Are we not called to that very thing?

But this is not about wearing masks or physical distance, is it? It’s about liberty, or so they say.


So many people are using this opportunity to cry against the very ones about whom scripture says that God has instituted so that good would prevail and evil will diminish.

And yes, I know, Hitler existed, as did Nero and Domitian as I mentioned. I’m not pretending to fully understand that.

And yes, I know, corrupt officials with corrupt agendas are everywhere.

And yes, I know, persecutors exist and have existed and will continue.

And yes, I know, Christians are called to gather (Hebrews 10:23-25).

And yes, I know, we are to obey God rather than men.

Let’s dwell on that last bit. Where in scripture is that passage? — it’s Acts 5:29, by the way. The apostles had been imprisoned by men for preaching the resurrection and name of Jesus (v. 12-18), released by an angel (vv. 19-20), resumed teaching (vv. 21-26), were brought back peacefully for questioning (v. 27).

Why were they in trouble?

For preaching the resurrection and name of Jesus.

Not for failure to behave carefully toward others during a pandemic.

For preaching the resurrection and name of Jesus.

Jesus didn’t promise persecution over whether or not wearing masks or social distancing was a governmental mandate, or even because we defy governments at all. In fact, he encouraged people to obey Caesar (Matthew 22:21). Yes, Caesar. Jesus did so, too. He obeyed Caesar even unto death on a cross, the same cross he calls Christians to.

He promised persecution because the world rejected and hated him and his message — just like he was persecuted and killed, which he did in loving obedience to the Father to save us all. He promised persecution because the power of his love frightens those who think power is found anywhere else. He promised persecution because humility goes against human pride.

Read that again.

Hear this clearly. I am not denying that there is a degree of persecution in America, nor am I denying the possibility that officials don’t always play by the rules, nor am I denying that there are ways this pandemic has been handled poorly at a governmental level on all counts on both sides.

What I’m saying is that those things are givens, not options or possibilities.

But there is a difference between being persecuted for the message of Jesus and being rebuked for refusing to follow very, very simple rules.

Many are fighting back against that which government officials have mandated. In a human sense, especially in a democratic republic like America, this may be fine. We have laws and protections for liberties, and as such, it is biblical to hold our leaders to those because our very government is designed that way. But how many of us are pushing back because it’s right, and how many are pushing back because we don’t want to be PERSECUTED FOR THE CROSS OF CHRIST (Galatians 6:12)? Just like those who wanted to impose the law of Moses on the church so that their own righteousness would be an excuse to not suffer for the grace of God (see the rest of Galatians), are we clinging to the law of America so that we stay comfortable and don’t have to show anything for the faith we pretend we have but is really more cultural than biblical and historical — more American than Christian? Or are we secretly ashamed because we know it isn’t real, so we are too afraid to give up our lives to bring the gospel to others, just like Jesus gave up his own life to bring it to us?

Not an accusation. Just a question.

We are even too afraid to give up one half of our faces and the luxuries we have been granted. How then can we expect to give our lives for the gospel?

It’s a question I have to ask myself. By staying in my American bubble, am I really taking up the cross of Christ as we are all called to do?

And that’s not to say that God hasn’t still worked in and through those who have decided not to obey human rulers. That isn’t vindication for disobedience to God’s word. It’s God’s sovereignty taking supremacy over our stubbornness. He has just as easily made servants of disobedient nations like Babylon (Jeremiah 27:6). It isn’t even a compliment to say that Israel was also his servant because, despite that Jesus came through Israel and covenants were made with her, she was still idolatrous and was still destroyed in the end, just like Babylon. What it says is that he will make a way with or without our obedience to his word and that we will only make things worse in the end by disobeying what isn’t idolatry, and that we are willing to sacrifice our credibility as people of Christ over something basic, not issues of tyranny.

Those who stood up in the reign of Babylon should not be seen as full-on rebels. They stood when it counted, when their loyalty to God was being threatened by human kings (Daniel 1:8-13; 3:16-18). Ours is not. They didn’t even throw a fit about it. Somehow, they managed to behave respectfully toward their captors. And we are not captives.


Christian brothers and sisters, our kingdom is not of this world. America is not and has never been a Christian nation, regardless of the guidance of Christian or Christian-esque principles, values, and beliefs, and regardless of the involvement of Christians in the making of this government. America is not God’s kingdom come. It is a brief blip of passionate autonomy in the history of mankind, and we should hold it loosely as such. God’s kingdom has come inasmuch as the Holy Spirit has inhabited his church, and it will completely come at the fullness of time, but that time is not now, regardless of whether or not it is close.

I’m not saying that it is wrong to try to keep the freedom we have, but when doing so costs us our ability to obey scriptural mandates to obey authority, except if it would cause us to betray God, then we have a problem because part of our witness to the world is our honor for those God has decided to rule. Should we forsake that, we are demonstrating to the world that we don’t actually follow the word we preach, even for the health and safety of others.

And in the event that we do choose to obey mandates that are in no way idolatrous or even close to absolutely preclusive to the spread of the gospel and loving the church, we gripe about it. It’s sad that it seems as though we only do what’s right until someone tells us to do it. Then we don’t because we want to choose. So what if there had been no mask mandate? Would people have worn them? What about capacity restrictions, or literally anything else that we have been told to do? Or have we been told what to do precisely because we would not have done it were we simply asked? I fear that may be the case.

Yet again, this isn’t new. The church is supposed to be the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny to display God’s love to all the nations, right? And just like them, we favor what is right in our own eyes, our own shallow notions of what liberty really is — we prefer that to actually living as Christ did and sacrificing the things he called us to sacrifice throughout the gospels, for love’s sake and for his Father’s name.

And for those of you wondering, I’m not going to sit here and say this disease is the only problem. Suicide rates are up. Domestic violence is up. Businesses are dying. Unemployment is skyrocketing. So many problems have been exacerbated by staying home, and this won’t be the end of it. But why are we arguing for one statistic to reduce at the cost of another rising? Why are we so willing to value some lives more than others? Does it not seem sick to argue whether it is worse to die by suicide or by disease? One way or another, people are dying, and that is a problem.

Contrary to what Joseph Stalin would say (“One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic”), there is no amount of death that is not a tragedy. We cannot start reducing people to numbers and statistics. That is more reflective of tyranny than wearing a mask.

No, I’m not calling anyone a tyrant or a mass murderer. I’m simply saying that the people who have said similar things in the past did not have a good track record.

What I’m saying is that if we are trying to decide who lives and who dies, or who gets to be affected by this madness and in what way, then we have a much deeper problem than a failure to wear a piece of fabric.

And no, we are not arguing about whether or not masks are effective. We are talking about whether or not we are actually trying to love others, or at the very least respect them.

Do we devalue human life so deeply that we have to be told to do something so incredibly simple to protect others?

So much for “all lives matter.”


We have become so accustomed to our freedom that we seem to do whatever we want, damn the consequences much of the time. And that’s without the prevalence of postmodernism and moral relativism. Even with those things very blatantly in the limelight of human thought, we have always been prone to do what is right in our own eyes.

Yes, church. You, too. In fact, it should send chills down your spine that you, being the fulfillment of the nation of Israel, have a nation of idols and self-seeking for your spiritual ancestry. And that is not to say anything about the God who ransomed you. It is to say that we are no better than the people we accuse of following their own ways instead of Jesus’ way. God’s revelation to you through Christ, so that your faith may open the door to salvation by grace, is a gift that says everything about his goodness and nothing about ours except that we lacked it.

Therefore, how can we blame parties and politicians for our failure to do something that is a very, very helpful sign of love for the wellbeing of others? We should see to do no harm to others, and in doing so, we shall fulfill the law of Christ (Romans 13:10). Are we not also being blown about by every wind of doctrine? Do our never-ending conspiracy theories about governors and senators and presidents, Democrat or Republican, actually make sense, or are we just looking for someone to yell at so that we can get back to our “liberty,” as if a piece of fabric is a shackle?

And what is it, really, that we lose if we obey?

Comfort. Familiarity.

But we weren’t content with that, anyway.

We seem to just want reasons to get more of it and to keep complaining that we don’t have enough.

We like being in charge of our own worlds, so much so that we naturally turn a blind eye to God’s word, and we don’t even know we are doing it.


And all of this being said, I know grace must come. I know that for as angry as I can get when I see people not covering their faces, slinging mud at people who don’t think the same, spouting conspiracy theories like they are verifiable facts, and so on, I do not have another option as a Christian but to extend grace. And if by speaking what I have assessed to be the truth in light of scripture, science, and the sociology of our predicament I have in any way failed to extend grace, I am deeply sorry and shall willingly repent. When I signed up for this, I became a slave to Christ. I forfeited my ways because his are better, and his way is to oppose the proud and give grace to the humble.

I’m not even saying the guidelines we have are blanket solutions that will work every time or that it can be done perfectly, or even that every single person is able to do it at all due to their own health conditions. But am I being “proud” by being upset when people blatantly, needlessly, and almost spitefully disobey their governors and shrug off the health and safety of others when clearly enough people have died from COVID-19 to warrant precaution? Well, I guess that depends on whether or not I start withholding love from people because they seem to be withholding love from others. Yet Jesus never withheld love from others despite how much was withheld from him.

Love is supposed to be the most unifying force on the planet. It unifies God with sinful, rebellious human beings through Christ. It unifies believers with one another. It even unites non-believers with believers because it gives people something worth believing.

It’s no wonder we are so divided — the nation and the church.

And we call it “normal.”

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe “normal” is the problem. Christians are usually really good about understanding that. Why not now?

This is our time to either love better or sit down.


And if I wore a mask and stayed socially distanced for a year, and somehow it was all meaningless, I lost nothing.

And if persecution increases, nobody will be surprised — not because we failed to love by all possible means but because it was promised.


TL;DR?

My opinion doesn’t really matter much. In fact, none of ours really do. There is much more to this than individual perceptions, our judgments of others, assumptions about the motives of leaders and parties. What matters is that we are being conformed to the image of Christ in the way we visibly love others. The reality is that Jesus in his infinite liberty made himself obedient unto death — that is, the cessation of the liberty to live — for the sake of love. Can we suspend our very, very shallow notions of liberty for the sake of loving others?


[…] Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.

Philippians 1:27-2:16

1 Comment

  1. “I’m not saying that it is wrong to try to keep the freedom we have, but when doing so costs us our ability to obey scriptural mandates to obey authority, except if it would cause us to betray God, then we have a problem because part of our witness to the world is our honor for those God has decided to rule.” Yes!! That’s so good. I enjoyed your message and have some things to ponder. I appreciate your following Holy Spirit and being obedient despite possible push back. I agree that the most important thing we as Christians should be doing these days (and all our days) is loving those around us. Period. No differentiation. And when we fail, as we surely will, let us repent and give grace.

    Like

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