Well, if it wasn’t quite Hamlet’s question, it was the question posed on a recent radio call-in show. Now that Alberta has lifted just about all restrictions on social gatherings, how do we feel about going out? Will we continue wearing masks in public or do we still feel cautious? And how do we feel about other former restrictions? Will we be quick to jump back in to large social gatherings—like church—or will we hold back a little longer? What’s our new sense of social distance as we encounter people on the sidewalk or at the grocery store?
All these questions have to be answered by us as individuals, and also by businesses and other organizations. You’ll read more in this newsletter about how we at Hope are addressing some of these issues, but here I’d like to ask, Does the Bible have anything to say about masks and social distancing? Do our scriptures provide any guidance?
Though it may seem strange to think at first—that the ancient Holy Bible might address such specific and contemporary problems—I believe the answer is Yes, the Bible does offer us guidance. Here’s how.
The Christians of Corinth were a troubled group. They suffered from multiple divisions. Some were rich, some were poor; some had liberal ethics, some were more conservative; some were ultra-spiritual, some more down-to-earth in their outlook. Each group tended to think of themselves as the most authentic Christians, while looking down on the others. At community meals the rich and upper-class people, thinking themselves superior according to conventional Greco-Roman values, would have a feast while the poor would get only bread; they called these gatherings the Lord’s Supper. In private gatherings some felt free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (temples in the ancient world were also the community butcher shops), while others’ principles wouldn’t allow them to touch such fare; each group felt morally superior to the other. In worship the ultra-spiritual had great pride in their gift of tongues, feeling they were more important than mere prophets or prosaic teachers. Each of these groups insisted on their own rights while giving scant regard to the needs or feelings of others.
Paul had a lot to say to this community he had founded, but which had strayed so far from his example in the years since he had travelled on. He had very detailed things to say about the proper practice of the Lord’s Supper, the ethics of meat-eating, and the place of spiritual gifts in worship—and you can read it all in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In every case his solution was to follow his own example and the example of Christ himself by setting aside pride and caring for the neighbour. The Corinthians’ task was to “discern the body” of Christ in the community itself (11:29). Everyone should set aside their own desires, opinions, and prideful “knowledge” of what was right out of consideration for the other members of the community, Christ’s own body. This way everyone’s dignity could be honoured at the Lord’s Supper, all gifts would be celebrated in worship, and each person’s conscience and principles respected in their food choices. "So whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offence to anyone, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:31–11:1)
The kind of things I’ve sometimes heard people say about the loosening restrictions around COVID-19 mirror the attitudes of the Corinthians all those centuries ago. Today the vaccinated judge and shame the unvaccinated (and sometimes vice versa), just as the meat-eaters shamed the abstainers once upon a time. Some are quick to shed their masks, declaring that no restriction holds them back anymore while others keep them on, feeling that caution is still warranted; each of these groups looks askance at the other, just as the spiritualists and pragmatists looked at each other among the Corinthians. Sometimes the privileged (the fully vaccinated today) argue for greater freedoms for themselves than the less privileged (people unvaccinated for whatever reason—e.g., underage, immune compromised, hesitant for real and legitimate reasons), just as the wealthy held feasts while the poor ate bread in the Corinthians’ time.
The guidance Paul would offer us is the same as he once gave to that fledgling Christian community: discern the body. That is, remember that the community is Christ’s own body; we should treat each member of that body as we would treat Christ himself, which would be with dignity, respect, gentleness, and ultimate love. In all things we are called to set aside our own agendas in the interests of caring for the most vulnerable. It is to the Corinthians that Paul offered his hymn to love, reminding them—and Christians of every generation from then to now—that “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Being members of the one body of Christ means that we act in love and we act together, contributing diverse experiences and perspectives to the community but feeling ourselves to be part of one single whole. We don’t divide ourselves into groups (e.g., vaccinated vs unvaccinated, masked vs unmasked, huggers vs distanced) but we stay together in one whole body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:12) In this body, acting as one in the interests of its most vulnerable members, empathy and compassion guide our actions. For “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:26)
So, to mask or not to mask. This will be a question each of us has to answer for ourselves as we move about in our public lives. When it comes to our own community of Hope, for the month of July we are asking people to remain masked while in the building, and during worship—this for all the reasons outlined above, most of all care for the most vulnerable in our midst. In August we’ll revisit our policies. More detail can be found later in this newsletter.
As pastor I am so grateful for the many manifestations of patience, love, and tender care among our members. As we begin (we all hope!) to see the light at the end of this tunnel of pandemic, I believe this is an experience that has strengthened us as a community, and built us up in love. I so look forward to seeing people’s smiling eyes at worship again, and breaking bread together.
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.
Let all that you do be done in love.
(1 Corinthians 16:13)