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May 10, 2020: A Message for the Fifth Sunday of Easter by Joe Coalter

Walking with Ananias in a Time of Social Distancing?

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

By Joe Coalter

 

We are regularly counseled to keep our distance from our neighbor.  Social distancing prevents the spread of coronavirus, and that certainly is a good and necessary action of any responsible adult.  But I find that it also tends to make me insular in my thinking and actions.  I focus more on trusting God for my own wellbeing rather than attending to my neighbors’ need.

I have always been struck by the witness of Ananias after Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  We all know the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion from Saul to Paul.  In Acts 9, it is written

1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

 

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Of course, Ananias did not face the coronavirus.  But he hesitated to visit Saul because was sure that he was being called to visit a man who was potentially as lethal as anyone infected with a deadly disease.  Saul had contracted a virulent strain of hatred for the people of Jesus’ “Way.”  So much so that he sought them out so that they could be imprisoned.  It must have been hard for Ananias to walk that street called straight to where Saul, the prosecutor of Christians, lay.  Still, Ananias went as he had been instructed by the Lord.  And what was the result of his visit with Saul?  Well, quite simply, God turned a blinded Saul into the insightful Paul who would spread the gospel throughout the world.

The author of an article in Christianity Today entitled “Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years” reminds us that Christians followed Ananias’ example long before we encountered the coronavirus pandemic.  Lyman Stone observes that

The modern world has suddenly become reacquainted with the oldest traveling companion of human history: existential dread and the fear of unavoidable, inscrutable death. No vaccine or antibiotic will save us for the time being. Because this experience has become foreign to modern people, we are, by and large, psychologically and culturally underequipped for the current coronavirus pandemic.

To find the moral resources to tackle COVID-19, both its possible death toll and the fear that stalks our communities alongside the disease, we have to look at the resources built in the past.

According to Stone, the past shows that

During plague periods in the Roman Empire, Christians made a name for themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered an spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.

But the more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colorful account of this disease in his sermons. … the Plague of Cyprian helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s … fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

Nor was it just Christians who noted this reaction of Christians to the plague. A century later, the actively pagan Emperor Julian would complain bitterly of how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.”[1]

In another article from Christianity Today, Emmy Yang offers sage advice from Martin Luther as to how we might ourselves go about following Ananias’ lead responsibly.  She writes:

… are followers of Jesus right to flee an epidemic when people are suffering and dying?

In the 16th century, German Christians asked theologian Martin Luther for a response to this very question.

In 1527, less than 200 years after the Black Death killed about half the population of Europe, the plague re-emerged in Luther’s own town of Wittenberg and neighboring cities. In his letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” the famous reformer weighs the responsibilities of ordinary citizens during contagion. His advice serves as a practical guide for Christians confronting infectious disease outbreaks today.

First, Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee. Those in ministry, he wrote, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them and administer the sacraments—lest they be denied the Eucharist before their passing. Public officials, including mayors and judges, are to stay and maintain civic order. Public servants, including city-sponsored physicians and police officers, must continue their professional duties. Even parents and guardians have vocational duties toward their children.

Luther did not limit tending the sick to health care professionals. … Luther challenges Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46). Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for neighbor.

But Luther does not encourage his readers to expose themselves recklessly to danger. His letter constantly straddles two competing goods: honoring the sanctity of one’s own life, and honoring the sanctity of those in need. Luther makes it clear that God gives humans a tendency toward self-protection and trusts that they will take care of their bodies (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26). “All of us,” he says, “have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body.” He defends public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available. In fact, Luther proposes that not to do so is to act recklessly. Just as God has gifted humans with their bodies, so too he has gifted the medicines of the earth.[2]

Where do these ancient reflections on the predicament of facing the spread of a disease leave us?  As Luther suggested, we are called to straddle the two competing goods of honoring the sanctity of one’s own life while also honoring the sanctity of those in need.

But what exactly does such straddling involve?

At the very least, I think that it suggests that we must acknowledge that we moderns are blessed with certain media that the early Christians of the Roman empire or the faithful of Luther’s day did not have at their disposal.  These media allow us to keep “in touch” without actually physically touching one another.  We have telephones and email and social media of various sorts.  All of these allow us to reach out to those in our church family and beyond with words of concern and encouragement.  Some we may know are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.  All of us are isolated more than ever before by the “stay home” regimen that is currently advised by public and health officials.

We regularly keep in touch with our relatives by phone and email when we are unable to see them on a regular basis.  Indeed, all of us know how our hearts are lifted and the bonds of mutual love deepened by a call or email from a close friend or a cherished family member.  Why should we not seek to keep in touch in the same way with members of our church family?   Would it not also lift the heart and connect us more closely one with another?

But aid need not stop with a phone call or an email.  Those of us who are younger and/or less at risk could offer to do errands or get groceries for those who should not go out at all.  We have to be careful, of course.  We need to keep our distance if we deliver groceries.  We need to wash our hands repeatedly and wipe grocery items where possible with sanitizing towels before we deliver them to those we wish to help.

Whether we call, write or help with errands, the goal is always the same.  We are called to express in acts of kindness and concern the love of God for every mother’s child in creation despite the myriad factors that separate us one from another.  Ananias expressed such a love when he walked the Street called Straight in order to aid the Lord in bringing sight to Saul.  Jesus did the same for all us when he died upon a cross so that sin might no longer separate us from his Father.

Up against Ananias’ walk on the Street called Straight to Saul or Jesus’ death on the cross, a simple phone call or an email may seem quite meagre.  Yet these are nevertheless expressions of the love that God instills in the heart of every Christian for our neighbor, and it calls us to honor the sanctity of those in need even as we honor the sanctity of our own life.

[1]Lyman Stone, “Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years” March 13, 2020, Christianity Today website https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/

[2]Emmy Yang, “What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus,” January 30, 2020 Christianity Today  website  https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/january-web-only/martin-luther-coronavirus-wuhan-chinese-new-year-christians.html