The COVID-19 virus has dominated the news unlike anything we have ever seen. Thousands of schools across the country have closed, followed by restaurants and other public locations. Air travel has almost ground to a halt. Entire cities, and in some cases, entire countries, are on lockdown with many normal movements around the city prohibited. Some grocery stores have experienced “panic buying” and, of course, the phrase “social distancing” has been introduced to our vocabulary. Many of you have had to cancel your worship services. At the time of this writing (3/18/20), more than 216,000 people have contracted the coronavirus, leaving almost 9,000 dead around the world. The virus has not left any continent (except Antarctica) untouched.
I do not think any of you need much more “public” information about the virus or any need for a reminder from me to wash your hands or be particularly sensitive to those who are in high-risk populations or areas. However, we may not have had sufficient theological reflection on the coronavirus. Therefore, I would like to provide five reflections from a theological standpoint:
First, we are a people of faith, not fear. The gospel is, among other things, the triumph over fear. The apostle John says in 1 John 4:18 that “Perfect love casts out fear.” That verse is often quoted without reference to the context where John states three times that we have been “perfected in love” (vv. 12, 17, and 18). It is precisely that sanctifying work of God’s love in us which enables, through his empowering presence, for all fear to be cast out. The apostle Paul admonishes us in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” (ESV). This means that even if your church has cancelled public services and postponed many events or seminaries have cancelled their classes, it is not done out of fear, but out of love. It is because we have compassion and love for those who are most vulnerable among us. Whatever social distancing we do is an act of faith, not fear.
Second, reaching out and touching is a sign of the incarnation; therefore, the knot in your stomach about social distancing is actually tied to the temporary loss of this. It is only when you feel compelled to not touch someone or come within six feet of someone, are you fully cognizant of just how much we touch each other. Hugging, kissing, and holding hands are at the heart of all healthy family life. Hand-shaking is at the heart of friendship exchanges, and professional hand-shaking is an important way we interact with our constituents. When I became President (of the Asbury Theological Seminary), I talked to past Presidents to get a feel for what the job was like. I read several books about it. I even went through a three-year training program between 2005-2008 to prepare me for executive academic leadership before I became President of Asbury Theological Seminary in 2009. But no one ever told me how much hand-shaking is involved in the job. Over the next two weeks there will be many hands I will not shake, which I would have shaken, if not for COVID-19. Graduation Day was the real surprise. Over the course of one week, I shake hundreds of hands, on both campuses and multiple graduation services. When it is all over, my hand is swollen from the hand-shaking, because when someone graduates, they do not just casually shake your hand, they really shake it-and in our case they shake and hold it for a photograph! Post-graduation hand-rehab had never dawned on me before I became President.
But, I have thought a lot more about the theology of hand-shaking. That personal touch is a sign or a pointer to the very incarnation. God did not save us with a decree from heaven. He did not send us an email to tell us he loved us. God did not just think good thoughts about us. No, God loved us so much that he sent his one and only son to dwell among us. John 3:16 more precisely says, “This is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son . . .” (NLT). It was about embodiment. It was about touch. Jesus touched lepers. If we touch lepers, we catch leprosy, but when Jesus touched lepers, they caught his healing and wholeness. Therefore, whenever Christians reach out their hands to touch the face of the dying, to hold hands and pray with the grieved, to hug those in distress, it is fundamentally a Christian act. The absence of all of this hand-shaking and personal touch creates a godly ache in your gut, because we were meant and designed to touch. So, give yourself space to lament during this time. Let this time of social distancing remind us afresh how central and important personal touch is in the Christian community-it is the root of the incarnation, and all the ways we reflect the incarnation for the sake of the world.
Third, the coronavirus has reminded us anew of the fragile nature of the world system. Just a few weeks ago we heard boasting about how strong the economy was and how good trade was. The stock market was booming and all was well. Then, in a matter of a few weeks, it seemed like overnight, everything was changed. It is like a hurricane blowing through, or a tsunami hitting our shores, or an earthquake which suddenly shakes a city. God allows these phenomena because they serve a larger redemptive purpose. They force the world to look straight into the eyes of our own frailty. James makes this very clear when he says to us,
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15 NIV)
It is an important reality check in a world of pompous boasting about our strength, our capacities, our will to do this or that. Book 3 of the Psalms is filled with very troubling questions, mostly from the Psalms of Asaph, and climaxing in Psalm 88 from Heman the Ezrahite (brother of Asaph) and Psalm 89 from Ethan the Ezrahite. These are two of the five unresolved psalms: “darkness is my closest friend” is the closing line of 88, and 89 ends with “taunts” being heaped upon us. Book 4 opens with Psalm 90 from Moses (the only psalm from Moses in the Psalter). Famous phrases like “dust we are and to dust we return” and a “thousand years are like a day in your sight” and “our length of days is but seventy or eighty if strength lasts” and “our days pass quickly” and “I’ll fly away” come from Psalm 90, culminating in this word of advice: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12 NIV). It is a great wisdom psalm. It is considered the great re-set button of the Psalms-that important reminder to not forget who we are, and who God is. The coronavirus is like a global “re-set” button, reminding us of our frailty and his sovereign grace in our lives.
Fourth, the church is a people, not a place. Many of us have had our church services cancelled for at least two weeks. It is a strange thing for a Christian to wake up on Sunday morning and not be in the fellowship of God’s people. But, from a theological perspective, it is impossible to “cancel church.” Because, as the famous church nursery rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church of God is people!” We are the church whether we are dispersed in the world, inside our homes, or watching our services on livestream. The church cannot be “closed,” only buildings can be closed. Your parking lot may be empty for a few weeks, but you are still the living embodiment of the gospel wherever you are or wherever you go!
Fifth, the “white space” in your calendar may be a means of grace. It is important for Christians to remember that this coronavirus spread has been taking place during the season of Lent. Lent has always been designated as a time for deeper reflection. However, in the busyness of the season and the planning of services, we may not have taken time to stop for times of extended prayer. The growing number of postponed meetings, cancelled flights, and services stopped may actually provide more time to “keep Lent” well. Calendars, which once were filled with meetings and appointments, have been suddenly cleared, freeing up time. Many meetings are happening through Zoom or Skype; but the point is, there has been whitespace created in most of your calendars. This is a means of grace. Take time to pray. To seek God’s face. To listen to the voice of the Lord. To keep Lent well.
One of the central symbols of Lent is the thorny crown. It reminds us of sacrifice and self-denial. It is a symbol of the cost Jesus paid. The term “corona” in “coronavirus” is a word meaning “crown.” It is because the virus, under extreme magnification, actually looks like a thorny crown; therefore, it is-quite literally-the thorny crown virus. The coronavirus reminds us that as Christians we always-even when there is no virus in our midst-embody the sufferings of the world. Lent is the time when we are particularly reminded of that great truth.
So, in conclusion, brothers and sisters, be bold in your faith. Allow yourself space to lament. Remember the fragile nature of this world and long for a better one. Never forget that the church is always the church in the world. Take time to pray more and reflect more. Finally, during this holy season, remember that we bear in our bodies the blessed marks of Jesus as we retrace his passion in the world. Amen.
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary. He previously served 11 years as Professor of World Missions and Indian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton. He also teaches annually at the Luther W. New Jr. Theological College at Dehra Dun, India, where he has served as an adjunct professor since 1989. He is the author of several books, including Building Christianity on Indian Foundations, (ISPCK, 2000); Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, (Baker Academic, 2002); and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology, (Zondervan, 2007).