I spent some time reading through a tract which Luther wrote in 1527 when the bubonic plague reached the city of Wittenberg. Luther offered some sound biblical advise in order to anchor people’s lives squarely in the hope of the resurrection, while at the same time, encouraging people to be responsible citizens towards their neighbours. Some of you may have already seen this quote which has been circulating on Facebook, but it is worth repeating here. In summarizing his instructions, Luther writes:
“Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
– Martin Luther (1527) “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 43 p. 132)
There are some real gems of instruction in this work where Luther brings both our call to faith as well as our burden to love and care for our neighbour into sharp relief. As Christian people, we are bound to both – all according to our vocations – that is, where we find ourselves within the web of relationship and service towards those around us.
At one point, however, he asks the pointed question: “What would it avail you if all physicians and the entire world were at your service, but God were not present?” (p. 129) His point is important. All the medicines and precautions in the world don’t add one iota to opening heaven’s doors for you. Or, as Jesus put it in Luke 9:25: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
This isn’t a ‘scare yourself into heaven’ theology. What it does, however, is pose the very real question – where does Jesus fit into your life – even and especially at a time like this? It is far too easy for us to chase after the cares of the body and neglect the cares of our soul. And I’m not just talking about ‘inner peace’ and self-care, as it is thrown around by all kinds of secular authorities. Secular care is precisely that. Secular – dealing with things ‘of this age’ (saeculum). They have nothing to do with eternity.
It is at times like this, as Luther suggests, that we ought to be drawn beyond ourselves to look to Jesus (Heb. 12:2) so that our faith can be renewed. It is at times like this, where our confidence in our own abilities and routines has become shaken, that the Holy Spirit gives us an opportunity to return to the Lord with fresh eyes and ears so that we might be renewed and refreshed in the Gift of eternal life which He gives to us through His Word, in the waters of Baptism (where He holds us dearly as His own children, hidden away in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ Col 3:3). It is at times like this, that we are drawn especially to prayer – indeed, we are commanded to pray – not because our many words make any difference, but because in those prayers as we meditate upon God’s goodness towards us in Christ, that the Holy Spirit helps us to grow in both faith towards God and love towards our neighbour.
In every dark cloud, there is a silver lining. And as we prepare to enter into our Easter celebrations while locked down in a social quarantine, it is an opportunity for us to leave behind the worries and pressures of our daily worldly routines and to immerse ourselves in our Baptismal identity – the very birth, death, resurrection, and yes, ascension of Jesus Christ – so that leaving all our burdens on the cross, we can be raised up in that promise of the newness of life which comes from Him.
Stay tuned. I will be giving instructions on how to prayerfully meditate our way through Holy Week and Easter. I will be offering suggestions on how to celebrate this season together as families – especially for all of you who have smaller children at home. Do have your Bibles and Catechisms ready – Hymnals too, if you have one available – so that we can re-kick-start our home devotional lives and learn again how to be restored and renewed in God’s Word.