In these days, which have become weeks and will perhaps become months, we have been absorbed and sometimes overwhelmed by the tide of information and emotions related to the coronavirus. From an initial phase in which it seemed a far-off problem and a matter of prayer for China and the east, to a second phase in which it became an Italian problem but limited to just a few people and certain geographical areas, to today where it is something that has upset our lives on a national and European scale.
Right now the whole of Italy is a protected area; you cannot travel freely and you cannot gather in public or in private, not even outdoors. People are scared and there is fear and suspicion of your neighbour. You have to stay isolated, but at the same time there is a great need for comfort and support from one another.
As a church, how can we live the Gospel in practice in these days?
1. A moment to be still.
In these hours we are experiencing what in English is called a "lockdown", that is, an emergency situation in which people are literally "locked" without being able to get out. For some, this literally means that they must stay at home because they are in quarantine, or because they fall into the risk categories and therefore cannot see anyone. For others it means that their workplace or school is closed and they are having difficulties activating smart-working or remote learning. Others find that since they are not allowed to leave their municipality and with shops, cafes, restaurants, gyms and every type of gathering place closed, they don’t have much to do or anyplace to go. How can we live the Gospel when we can't do anything or see anyone?
“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” Psalm 46:10
As a local church we have encouraged each other, in the midst of our hectic modern lives, to embrace this involuntary moment to be still. God can use this time to spur us to recognize that he is the God who is and remains in control, to devote more time to reading His Word, to prayer and to personal and family spiritual growth, in the certainty that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, God will be exalted among the nations and will be exalted in the earth.
2. The necessity to intercede.
For other people this lock-down takes on diametrically opposite aspects. There are those who have to go to work anxiously facing the moments of coexistence in the workplace or on the means of transport, while they have small children or elderly family members at home for whom they must find care while they are out. There are many involved in the huge organizational and health operation that is managing this crisis situation. We think of the medical and nursing staff in the hospitals, of the police and civil protection forces, of the local administrators who work incessantly, exposing themselves directly to the risk of contagion.
We do not fail to bow our knees to our Father, asking that he renews strength, raises the tired, gives hope to the exhausted and the peace that only he can give to those who spend themselves in caring for and saving lives, so that they can know first what is the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ's love.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21
As a church we are interceding for parents who have to go to work and for each of the above realities, and whenever possible to encourage them by letting them know. It is in this way that we have responded to several communications from our town Mayor and to messages from municipal employees explaining in practice how the government’s decrees apply to our church. Let's not underestimate the encouragement that a “thank you”, or a “we appreciate you” or, above all, a “we pray for you”, can have in the hearts of exhausted people!
3. An occasion to honour.
In western culture there is an innate sense of distrust and criticism towards those who govern and those who administer, which is even more evident in times of crisis and difficult and unpopular choices. What a counter cultural opportunity to live the Gospel of Christ which calls us to be:
… subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13-17
During this coronavirus how can we honour the authorities instituted by God and those who are constantly attending to this very thing as ministers of God (Romans 13)?
Surely by obeying the decrees of the Prime Minister, waiting outside the shops when there are already some people inside, washing our hands and paying attention to the needs and health of our neighbour. But also, by avoiding criticizing, especially on social media, the choices or actions of the government or the opposition that we believe are inappropriate, fuelling the climate of stress and scepticism. Instead, we can thank the police officer who stops us during the checks in these days and help to spread the official communications from our regions and municipalities.
4. The need to stay united.
The media claim that coronavirus is the first “social virus”, as it is the first one to be addressed by the hyper-connected social media culture in which we live. In fact, one of the most recurring hashtags of these days is #distantbutunited.
How can we live as the body of Christ when we cannot physically meet as a church, when public buildings are closed and private meetings in homes are strongly discouraged?
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:23-25
What an opportunity for the Gospel to live the sovereignty of God also over our technology and to redeem these instruments for the glory of Christ. So, when we cannot physically meet and embrace each other, each of us can use our cell phones and telephones without limit to call other believers, to pray together and to encourage one another. Sermons can be listened to online or in streaming.
As a church, for a very modest amount, we have chosen to use a video conferencing app that allows you to connect up to 100 people live. This enabled us from the beginning to continue holding our prayer meetings, Bible studies and Sunday services, interacting together over the Word of God, worshiping together and celebrating the Lord's Supper. We can still offer activities for children and have continued our work of discipleship, experiencing the joy of seeing one another "face to face" and of finding ourselves #distantbutunited in Christ!
5. The privilege of blessing.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16
How can we be salt and light during the coronavirus? How does the Gospel guide us to live creatively and to discern the good works that God has previously prepared for us to do in these days in which #istayathome?
In the end, without having to try too hard, there are so many ways we can bless our communities. Maybe before we go shopping, we can send a message to our neighbours to ask them if they need anything. We can help the less tech-savvy to install video calling apps to communicate with their loved ones. We can exchange ideas to entertain and stimulate our children and the elderly closed in the house.
In this moment of increasingly serious economic difficulty for various shopkeepers and small entrepreneurs, our Municipality has published a list of shops offering home delivery of goods and services. We have not only re-posted that information on the church's Facebook page, but we have encouraged Christians to have meals from the local cafe delivered to their homes to support our community in a practical way. A lady from our church asked a technician to upgrade her pc for the video conference app we use, and she asked him to do a "quality check" with her on Sunday morning during the service!
We take every opportunity, in season and out of season, to live the Gospel of Christ as his people in the midst of the coronavirus!
Stefano Mariotti is married to Jennifer, and they are missionaries with the European Mission Fellowship. Stefano is pastor of the La Piazza church in Budrio, an Acts 29 church plant in rural North Italy and he is a councilor of The Gospel Coalition Italy.