By Timothy D. Sprankle
I never look forward to my drive into Chicago. Once I cross the Illinois State Line and merge onto I-94, traffic is imminent. I crawl toward the Jane Byrne Interchange that circles the city, losing speed the closer I come to downtown. I dodge countless cars that dart into my lane to get an inch ahead. The trip has always put me on high alert.
In recent years, traffic control officials have added to my stress. They placed marquees every few miles with a traffic death count. In glaring red font, the signs shouted: 238 fatal accidents in 2019. Drive with caution. 238 lost lives within the same lanes of traffic I am currently trapped in: how disturbing!
A similar feeling has gripped me when I look at the spread of COVID-19. The state of Indiana announced its first fatality a week ago during my phone call with two area pastors. Death struck my home state. I could see the virus crawling toward my county. With each passing day, the number of positive cases and casualties increased exponentially. By the weekend, the count of infected Hoosiers had eclipsed 100. COVID-19 claimed seven lives.
Across the United States the numbers were bleaker. 33,400 inflected; 400 deaths.[1] Worse yet were the global tallies across 190 countries: 334, 981 infected: 14,652 deaths.[2]  Our country ranks below only China and Italy in confirmed cases. The numbers are alarming, disturbing, and daunting. They’re also misguiding.
Christians and church leaders must not focus on the numbers. A more important focus must prevail: our neighbors. Although the next few weeks may call for a period of “extreme social distancing,” hunkering down at home, and vigilant hand-washing to “flatten the curve,” followers of Jesus cannot forget our responsibility to love our neighbors.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus went above and beyond. He provided a two-for-one response. First, love God with everything. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus placed vertical love for God snugly beside horizontal love for other humans. These loves are inseparable, mutually reinforcing. Other New Testament authors picked up Jesus’s accent, marrying the love of God with love of others (Rom. 13:10; James 2:8; 1 John 3:16–18; 4:7–22).
On a separate occasion, a lawyer tested Jesus’s two-for-one Love Law. Looking for a loophole, he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” In reply, Jesus shared his classic parable of the Good Samaritan. A good neighbor is not defined by her zip code, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. A good neighbor is one who sees a fellow human in need and reaches out to meet it even if it costs her discomfort, disrepute, or, perhaps even disease.
The early Church gained attention for focusing on neighbors not numbers. Before the Church boasted numbers to claim a majority in the Roman Empire, she grabbed headlines by her heartfelt sacrifice. During a plague in 260 AD, unbelievers hid indoors, while disciples of Jesus served cups of cold water and carried corpses to their burial places. Dionysius, an ancient author, captures this in a letter recorded by Eusebius:

The most, at all events, of our brethren in their exceeding love for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending them in Christ, and so mostly gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willing taking over their pains…  so, too, the bodies of the saints they would take up in their open hands to their bosom, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, carrying them on their shoulders and laying them out; they would cling to them, embrace them, bathe and adorn them with their burial clothes, and after a little while receive the same services themselves for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before. But the conduct of the heathen was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads, half-dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuge.[3]

While I am not advocating a brazen disregard for governmental “stay at home” orders or universal appeals to “social distancing” (because God commends wisdom and submission!), I do suggest Christians live differently amid crisis. Love of neighbor, not fear of numbers, must compel us (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).
Fortunately, I’ve been hearing stories of Christ followers loving their neighbors.

  • A lady from my church had a neighbor drop a bag of homemade soap at the front door of every house on her block with an offer to pick up groceries and household items, if needed.
  • A man from my church stood outside the Salvation Army and took a video encouraging his friends on social media to “buy a little extra” to drop off at the local Food Pantry.
  • Folks in my community have pooled money to buy carry-out from local restaurants to give to medical workers and police offers as a sign of appreciation for their sacrificial labor.
  • Some business owners have assumed great financial loss to continue supporting their staff.
  • Our local teachers are tirelessly reaching out their students to help them learn and know they are loved in the face of tremendous change.
  • A counselor at my church has leveraged teleconferencing to help others navigate their fears.
  • My wife smiles, makes eye contact, and gives greetings to everyone she passes on her walks.

Even with “social distancing” in effect, practical ways to love our neighbors are boundless. Spreading Christ’s love must be our focus, not numbers of spreading disease. The fatality rate—updated daily in glaring red font—may alarm us, but it must not disarm us. The church is the hands and feet of Jesus. His resurrection assures us that death does not have the last word, and we have work to do (1 Cor. 15:50–58). Let’s fix our focus from numbers to neighbors. Let’s watch Christ’s love abound more and more among our neighbors (Phil. 1:9).
[1] Source: on 3/24/20
[2] Source: on 3/24/20
[3] Quoted in Hellerman, Joseph. When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 118.