As I write this, Ohio’s “stay-at-home order” has been in effect for two days. While the official mandate to isolate ourselves from others in order to combat the new coronavirus and its sickness (COVID-19) is new, many have been trying to separate themselves from others for several weeks. Throughout this crisis, we have seen a wide variety of responses, from fear to indifference to defiance. At the extremes of the responses, we have seen panic and hoarding in grocery stores; we have seen willful disregard of health guidelines and official mandates.
However, as we try to live between the extremes, we see a remarkable paradox in which people are finding themselves banding together as they work to keep themselves separate from one another. In focusing on individual goals of staying safe and healthy, many people are developing closer ties to people they cannot be near, even to people they don’t know well.
This is a phenomenon that the Church has experienced from its foundation. On the day of Pentecost, the founding of the Church, thousands from all over the world were brought together by the Holy Spirit, joined by the Gospel and in baptism, and then sent back out into the world. We know that the early church, separated by distance and culture, cared for one another as a united body, as made evident through the offering collected from among the churches in Asia Minor and Greece for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 24; Romans 15; 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8, 9). We know this was Paul’s mindset, as we read his letters when he reminds the churches he is with them in spirit (1 Corinthians 5; Colossians 2). We are separate but together.
This is not only an attitude or mindset but an important spiritual reality, a foundational truth about the Church, the Body of Christ. Paul describes it this way:
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Romans 12:4, 5, NIV 1984)
Each individual Christian is part of the Body of Christ, serving different functions within the Body but belonging to all the others. We are all different; we are all connected. We are separate but together.
Because of this foundational truth, we must live in a way that reveals that truth. We cannot go to one extreme or the other. We cannot focus on our differences and separateness to the exclusion of our togetherness. We cannot insist on being united together while ignoring our differences and separateness. We are separate but together.
Our example in this is Jesus. Paul reminds the church in Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (NIV 1984)
Even though Jesus was fully God, he became fully human, like us and yet unlike us. He did this with a purpose, to restore a relationship between God and all people. We were separated from God, but through Jesus, we can be brought together – with God and with each other. Because of Jesus, we are separate but together.
So we ought to live as Jesus lived, with Jesus’ attitude. As government mandates and personal choices keep us separate from others, we need to make sure that we hold together. In order to look to the interests of others, some might have to give up our own wants, needs, even rights. In order to look to the interests of others, some might have to risk our own health, safety. As we are separated, we must work to stay together, for each other’s sake, for the sake of the Body.