“For none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”—Romans 14:7–8
The Novel Coronavirus may be novel to 21st century Westerners, but plagues of various kinds were the norm for most of world history. Modern medicine has alleviated much suffering, yet it has not redeemed fallen creation. In the Middle Ages (ca. AD 500–1500) what we now know as Bubonic Plague decimated western Europe, notably in the years 1347–51. Nearly two centuries later, Martin Luther (1484–1546) was asked by a fellow pastor, Johann Hess, whether or not a Christian should flee a plague. Luther’s reply, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527), which you can read here, captures the tension between boldly trusting God and heeding wisdom—of keeping the razor’s edge between cowardice and recklessness.
Most surprising about Luther’s letter is his concession that a fearful person is not obligated to unduly risk their life. There is, however, one important caveat: you are bound by Christ to love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, a Christian should never under any circumstances abandon a brother or sister in their time of need.
In Luther’s context, it was not uncommon for priests and Bishops, especially those with wealth, to abandon their parish and wait until the plague had passed. These men, Luther writes, forfeit their share of eternal life. On the other hand, certain priests were eager to help the sick and threw all caution to the wind. Filled with zeal, these men believed they had great faith, but as Luther observed, they actually made the problem worse by infecting greater numbers of people.
As was his custom, Luther made a prayer in the first-person to make his point. The following example captures the inner workings of a person who risks their life for what he considers the right motivation.
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
Luther comments, “See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
Most of us are not facing the decision between preserving our lives, or helping our neighbor. This should make us all the more eager to serve and make sacrifices on behalf of our brothers and sisters. We are “not our own” (1 Cor. 6:20) and thus do not “live for ourselves” for the very reason that in life and death “we are the Lord’s.” We can give ourselves away because God has already given us everything in his Son Jesus Christ.
The busy tribes of flesh and blood
With all their lives and cares
Are carried downward in thy flood,
And lost in following years.
Time like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening Day.
Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard whole troubles last
And our eternal home.
– “Man Frail and God Eternal” by Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of your servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by your gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – Book of Common Prayer