Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2017
Here’s a cheerful question for Good Friday: Should Christians flee a deadly plague?
We may not have had occasion to ask ourselves this. We do have to think about how to manage our own viral infections and those of others. We watch helplessly as a stomach flu or cold rips through a whole household. More and more we are faced with outbreaks of things like Ebola or Zika, and we have to ask how to rightly respond to them.
But deadly plagues were a constant feature of life before modern sanitation and antibiotics. And so it happened that Martin Luther was asked, in 1527, whether a Christian was allowed to flee a city that had an outbreak of a deadly disease in a German city.
And his answer was interesting. He did not object to people who were strong in faith staying behind to accept illness or death as a just punishment from God. But he did not think that was required of everyone, or even necessarily a good thing to do.
Instead, he said that people who could get away from an outbreak without harming anyone should do so, and could do so with a clear conscience.
But some people, Luther insisted had a duty to remain. They would have to ride out the plague no matter what.
These people included civic leaders and officials responsible for the care and order of the city.
It included pastors to make sure the sick could make confession and receive the sacrament, and be encouraged in faith if they were dying.
It included servants, who could not leave masters, and masters, who could not leave their servants. Parents and guardians could not leave children, nor children their parents.
Finally, anyone whose neighbor needed help or care in their illness was obligated to stay and provide that help.
These people were obligated to stay during a plague, not because it is good to take risks or to suffer, but because their neighbor needed them. And if your neighbor needs you, you should be willing to take all risks and suffer any harm to help them.
This is one of the things I appreciate about Luther: when it came to ethical questions, he always urged people to think of their neighbor instead of their own virtues or sins.
Does no family member or neighbor need you to protect or care for them? Then get out of the way of the people who must stay and do some good. It is not for you, Luther insisted, to choose your own cross.
Does your neighbor need you? Then you stay. If it comes to it, you suffer, for the good of the one God has placed in your way. If that is the cross God lays before you, it is your duty to take it up.
To stay or to flee: that is the question that buzzes around the story of the suffering of our Lord. Soldiers advance on him and fall back. Disciples stay near or drift away. They move in and out of buildings and courtyards. Peter manages to do everything wrong. First he prepares to fight alongside Jesus, cutting of a slave’s ear in Jesus’s defense. But later he denies having anything to do with Jesus.
And surely he had reasons for fleeing. Understandable reasons. What good could he do in this plague of violence? Why should he risk adding his own needless suffering to what Jesus was going through? Why should he choose this particular cross?
And Jesus himself could have fled, gotten away, said the right thing, made himself useful to Pilate, and lived to preach another day.
But Jesus is the one who stays. Because he is the one who takes on all obligations and serves all humanity. He will embrace the curse of the cross, the deadly plague of Roman imperial power, the sacrificial love of all humanity. He will stay at the bedside of that great mass of flesh he has taken on and dwelt among.
Jesus is the one who stays. Who always stays. The cross stands while the world turns, as a monastic motto says. We move around him, now close, now far. Soldiers and people, Pilate and disciples, change their minds and make calculations and decide what to do. Christ stays. He never stops pleading with your conscience. He ever stops appealing to your faith. He never stops forgiving your sins or blessing your way.
He never stops suffering for the sake of those he loves, and who do not love him.
In the Revelation to John, at the very end of the New Testament, Jesus is called the Lamb who is slain from the foundation of the world. Think about that: the Lamb who is slain from the foundation of the world.
The cross was there from the beginning of time. And the world was created so that Christ could redeem it.
The world was set to turning, the galaxies to their massive spiraling, the electrons to their quantum blur so that Christ on his cross could stand at the center of it all, in this moment, for the whole fearful and fleeing humanity. For the people who want God to be something, anything, other than this.
In this moment, God is revealed as the one who has freely taken you as neighbor and child and servant and citizen. Who freely comes to you in your need:
To those who mock and strike him
However often they all flee the other way.