A Pastoral Letter to Augustana Lutheran Church

Martin Luther, the church, and pandemic

My Dear Augustana,

In these days, as I pray for you, I wonder what can be said that may help us. I ponder what I could write that might encourage you as you live with this epidemic. So, I have turned to one far wiser than I, Martin Luther. I hope you don’t mind.

Granted, Luther had profound insights into the nature of the gospel, the Christian faith, the church, etc. I get that. But what could he offer to us, in this time of national crisis? Coronavirus and Covid 19 are too much for us to understand. What could know about such things?

Well, as it turns out, Martin can indeed help us. In 1527, the Bubonic plague came to Wittenberg, the Reformer’s home base. So, he penned a pamphlet, outlining how the church might live into such a public health crisis. Luther entitled his 14-page piece, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Much of his wisdom has surprising resonance for us here and now. Allow me to summarize:

The Reformer put his counsel in the form of an open letter (sort of like an editorial or a blog post or an email blast). And he approaches the crisis from the standpoint of vocation. What could God be calling each of us to do in this time and place? How do we serve our neighbors? Do what God has called you to do. Luther addresses pastors first—stay put, tend your flocks like good shepherds, despite the dangers. Do the ministry to which you’ve been called. The people of God need comfort and strength, as they struggle with illness, particularly as death draws near.

In his day, services were held daily in the local church. He recommended that such services of the Word continue. And, though the Prince of Saxony wanted him to leave Wittenberg, Martin stayed to lead worship every day, to gather around God’s Word. Not a bad idea, Martin. I’ve come to think of these daily notes as a practice akin to the Reformers…

Second, Luther affirms the vocation of political leadership. Martin saw public service as a calling—get this, from God! Politicians aren’t to be dismissed as low-life swamp dwellers. They are officials with important civic duties—serving the public good in behalf of their neighbors, near and far. The Reformer understood government as a gift from God, for the ordering of our common life. Politicians, like all of us, are flawed and our institutions are inadequate. Yet, God uses flawed people and inadequate human institutions, for good.

Third, Luther affirms the role of neighbors. Stay nearby to care for those who are alone or vulnerable. Be available, unless to do so would cause more harm than good (particularly if someone else is better able to tend one’s sick neighbors).

That said, Martin cautions us not to expose ourselves to illness needlessly. He criticizes the piously over-bold—those who reject prudent precautions with a self-righteous, “God will protect me” attitude. Luther tells them they’re tempting God. Our Lord provides medicine, reason, and science as good gifts. The Reformer writes that God protects us through the application of human intelligence.

So, we are called to care for our bodily health—and the health of others—as reasonably as possible. Faith-based recklessness is, well, reckless. It endangers others with whom we come in contact. Luther recommends that we use medicine, do what helps our neighbors and ourselves, and avoid unnecessary contact with the sick.

Martin is honest, even gutsy. It’s as if he knows what he’s talking about. Like that revulsion we feel when we nurse the sick? Yeah, well, Luther knows what that is. And he calls it a weapon of the devil to keep us from Christian love.

Besides, the Reformer contends, most folks who caringly nurse the sick are protected against the plague. And, if they catch it, God will be their nurse and physician.

Overall, he reminds us not to play around with the contagion. Those who deliberately spread the disease, should be arrested and executed!

Well, that’s enough from Luther for today.

Be well, dear friends in Christ,

Pr. Bill

[based on Luther’s Works vol. 43, pages 115-139]

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