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Social-Distancing and Drawing-Near

Corona-liturgies and Counter-liturgies, part 5

"Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37)

One of my daughters restarted school last week. She said that social distancing at school the moment is a little bit like first learning to ride a bike: You have to keep thinking about it all the time and it feels slightly weird, unnatural, and really the concentration required is really tiring.

But of course riding a bike doesn’t always feel weird and unnatural does it? Eventually it becomes habitual, like, well, riding a bike.

But there’s something uncomfortable about social-distancing becoming a habit isn’t there? The other day I was out for a run, and it suddenly hit me that three or four times I had spotted someone walking on the pavement towards me, and crossed the road to the other side so we could avoid each other. Maybe some feel a sense of relief here. Yes, it seems to have actually become socially acceptable to see that person we vaguely know coming towards us and go 10 metres out of our way to avoid them!

But for anyone with even a superficial knowledge of Jesus’ parables, there’s a potential for nagging guilt. After all, ‘crossing to the other side’ is something the bad guys do!

Yet here we are, in this strangest of situations where the very thing the priest and Levite did which showed lack of love for their neighbour has become something we’re being asked to do as an act of love for our neighbour. It’s counterintuitive to say the least. And, like all habits, it will be shaping each one of us.

The problem is, this is a corona-driven habit which is genuinely dangerous if we become too used to it. When the Triune God made us in his image, he designed us to reflect that eternal other-person focussed relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. We are designed to reach out and connect with one another.

That’s kind of the whole point of the Good Samaritan story. Jesus is asked about what he elsewhere calls the second greatest commandment: what does it mean to love my neighbour as myself? So he tells that famous parable. And of course we focus on the huge social and racial difference between the Samaritan and the beaten-up man. We apply it: our neighbour is anyone and everyone, no matter what ‘differences’ there may be between us. In a globalised world we become conscious of our 7 billion neighbours out there.

And that’s absolutely right. But it does miss something really important. The reason the Samaritan helps the man is, in part, because he’s on the same road as him. Our quickness to point out the differences between the men can sometimes cause us to miss this vital point: the Samaritan helps his neighbour with whom he shares the same space.

Which is why social-distancing is difficult. We need to actively avoid the same spaces as others. The physical distance we put between one another could be in danger of emphasising other distances.

So, perhaps the counter-liturgy here requires careful thought about how to move towards others when we can’t do that physically. It may be as simple as (dare I suggest it in South East England?) making eye-contact with and smiling at those we’re crossing the road to avoid. Or thanking them if they’ve made that move. It may be more complex, as we see those in need and find practical ways to help, or take up the opportunity to bring someone living alone into a social bubble with our household.

The question that raises, though is, how? How can we find the power to love people like that, especially when even the very fabric of our society is giving us the message that we need to move away from people, for our and their safety?

It’s interesting to notice that ‘social-distancing’ is actually in the Bible. The term may not be there, but the idea of distancing from contagion is, very clearly. The book of Leviticus, in particular, is filled with it. Skin diseases, mould, death, blood, and all sorts of other things are sources of ‘uncleanness’ which make anyone who comes into contact with them, or is unfortunate enough to suffer from them, unclean themselves.

So God’s people are encouraged to socially-distance. Unclean items are removed destroyed if need be. Meanwhile, unclean individuals are to stay ‘outside the camp’ until such a time as they become ‘clean’ once more. We shouldn’t be too quick (as some are) to jump to the conclusion that all this uncleanness is somehow the same as sin, as though having a skin disease or coming across a dead body marks someone out as sinful. No, a lot of the time uncleanness as Leviticus describes it is simply an effect of normal life.

Rather, for God’s people the regulations around uncleanness were to function as a constant reminder of the fallenness of the world, and our need for a deeper purification.

And it’s that context, and that world into which Jesus steps.

As he does, he brings a whole new kind of ‘contagion’ (if I can put it that way). Instead of becoming unclean when he touches unclean things, Jesus has power which works in the opposite direction. He makes unclean things, and unclean people clean!

Whether it is the poor woman who has been afflicted with bleeding for 12 years, or the leper who cries out “if you are willing you can make me clean!” one touch from Jesus is all that’s needed. As he affirms, “I am willing!” he shows us something incredible about God:

He doesn’t do social-distancing!

Instead he comes near, sometimes uncomfortably so. In Jesus he becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us (John 1:14). He is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27) and he promises to draw near to us as we draw near to him (James 4:8).

So here’s the power we need: We can move towards others in love, because in Jesus God moved towards us first.

So let me suggest a simple counter-liturgy. When you are next walking along a path, and you see someone coming towards you, make the first move if you can and give them space. As you do, smile, make eye-contact, and offer up a prayer in your heart:

“Lord Jesus, thank you that you came near to me to draw me near to you.

Please help me to love the neighbours you put in my path with a love that helps them meet you.

Make that simple act a habit and it could have powerful effects on your love for God and others.

Onwards, to glory!

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