Mask mandates. Social distancing. These are words we're all familiar with now, but most of us had very little knowledge of prior to 2020. And while those restrictions have finally been lifted in Oregon as of June 30, the feeling of relief is tempered by the reality that COVID is here to stay, and that at any time those same restrictions could be brought back to deal with the next "variant of concern."
As I reflect on this past year, there are many takeaways. But perhaps one of the most significant for me is how much this pandemic (an extremely survivable one no less) has exposed our collective fear of death.
Why do we fear death? The practical answer to that question is we fear death when we live as if this life is all there is and therefore, we must hold onto it and protect it at all costs. This is not consistent with a biblical worldview, nor is it reflective of how the apostles and Christ himself demonstrated to us, by the giving of their lives, that some things in life are more important than life itself. One of those things is the need and urgency for the preaching of the gospel ... a reality amplified by the exposure of this pandemic. Most people live in fear, not hope.
Fear, and especially fear of death, is a powerful motivator. It will clearly cause people to do things they would not ordinarily do or prevent them from doing things they are accustomed to in order to insure self-preservation. In short, it keeps us from truly living, and we become prisoners and slaves to it. The man or woman who is truly free is the man or woman who no longer fears death and it has no hold on them. This kind of perspective is uniquely Christian because only Christ truly brings that kind of freedom. The writer of Hebrews tells us:
"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." (Hebrews 2:14-15)
This year has exposed the reality that many in our culture, if not most, are enslaved. They are not truly free, but in bondage. Yet Christ came to set us free, and perhaps the greatest expression of that freedom is when we no longer live in fear of death. The man or woman who lives with this kind of freedom can accomplish anything. They are unstoppable.
I've thought about this frequently in the past few years when I read accounts of how Christians have risked all to go and take the gospel where Jesus has not yet been named, often into hostile conditions. Or, when reading accounts of believers and a thriving, growing church in China that lives under the threat and reality of constant persecution. Most recently, I've read accounts of Christians during the plague of the Middle Ages, who risked their own lives to go and minister to those who were sick and dying. Rather than running away in fear of death, they ran towards those in greatest need. Only the man or woman who does not fear death can risk all, including their very life, with that kind of abandon.
The Apostle Paul understood it when he wrote the Letter to the Philippians:
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Philippians 1:21)
Paul suffered greatly for the sake of the Gospel, and he regularly faced death at every turn. Beaten. Stoned. Imprisoned. He would eventually suffer a martyr's death in Rome. Yet Paul's perspective was not driven by a fascination with this world, but through an eternal perspective that transcended the temporary nature and suffering of this life and all that he gave up to follow Jesus. Paul was seeing things through the lens of eternity. He truly believed what he wrote, and it allowed him to live an extraordinary life. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of those who have not yet heard the gospel.
As I continue to reflect on these examples, I feel strongly that the Holy Spirit has challenged me to rethink what it means to be the Church. I've had discussions with our leadership team asking the simple question, "What does it mean to be the Church without a building and without our routines and practices?" What does it look like to pivot, and learn how to not only survive, but to thrive when the next shutdown order comes? Or, when the message of the Bible is no longer considered acceptable in a culture increasingly hostile to it?
If the doors of the church building closed tomorrow, are we in a position to not only survive, but to continue thriving in the local and global mission God has called us to? Those are big questions, but I believe answering them is critical in the weeks, months and years ahead as we prepare for the next "shutdown" that is almost certain to come in a society that has exposed its fear of death and how important it is to cling to this life at all costs.
The reality of this is also the very real need for the Church to continue to preach the Gospel to our culture. To speak Jesus (the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE) to this culture that is in such desperate need of hope. May we not be people who fear death, but rather people who live with the urgency that comes from living with a perspective grounded in seeing things through the lens of eternity. It is only through this lens that we can be truly free. And it is only through this lens that we can be effective in the mandate we've been given to "Go and make disciples of all nations." What's left are the hardest to reach places on the planet. We will not go to them with the gospel if we haven't already died to ourselves and died to our fear of losing this life. And we won't be effective in our own culture if we fear death and live in the same manner as those who do not truly know Christ.
The call to follow Jesus as a disciple is a call to die. In his masterful book, "The Cost of Discipleship," Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A fearful church is an impotent one, but a fearless church is an unstoppable one.
Aaron Mapes is the lead pastor at First Assembly of God. He can be reached at 541-447-7254.
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