How Do We Live in the Present During a Pandemic?

with tears; with locked doors; and with doubt.

The Church’s mission began (according to John 20) with three things which have become very familiar to us in recent days. It began with tears; with locked doors; and with doubt.

On the first Easter day, Mary Magdalene was weeping in the garden outside Jesus’ empty tomb (John 20:1-18). To her astonishment, Jesus met her, spoke to her – and gave her a commission. She was to go and tell the disciples, who were in hiding that He was alive, and that He was now to be enthroned as Lord of the world.

That same evening the disciples were still in hiding, with the doors locked (John 20:19-23). They were naturally afraid that the people who had come after Jesus would soon be coming come after them too. But the locked doors didn’t stop Jesus. He came and stood with them. He shared a meal with them. He gave them their mission:

‘As the Father has sent Me,’ He said, ‘so I’m sending you.’

What did that mean? The most obvious way of taking it, as we’ll see below, is to say, As Jesus was to Israel, so the Church is to the world.

The next week the disciples were in the same room, locked in once more. Thomas hadn’t been there the first time. He had spent the week telling the others he’d never believe it until Jesus showed up and proved it was really Him (John 20:24-29). Jesus came again, and invited Thomas to touch and see the wounds in his hands and his side: the scars which proved his identity, the wounds that revealed his love.

Tears, locked doors and doubt seem to go together.

Different ways of saying similar things. Together they sum up a lot of where we are globally at the time I’m writing this. Tears in plenty, of course: so many lives cut short. Locked doors: well, precisely. The fear isn’t just of certain people who may have it in for us; it’s a larger, more nebulous fear that every stranger in the street might, without knowing it, give me a sickness which could kill me within a week. I might be able to give it to them, as well. So: lockdown. And, like a weed growing between the weeping and the lock-down, there is doubt: what’s this all about? Is there any room left for faith, for hope? If we are locked away from all but a few, any room for love? These are hard and pressing questions.

They are the kind of questions the Church ought to be good at answering. At answering not just verbally (who’s listening, anyway?), but symbolically.

If the earliest disciples found Jesus coming to meet them in their tears, fears and doubt, perhaps we can too.

But how?

What, in particular, might it mean to say that ‘as Jesus was to Israel, so the Church should be for the world’?

As we saw earlier, John’s Gospel displays the signs that Jesus was doing. These were not things like earthquakes or famines, plagues or floods. They were not meant to frighten people into submission or belief, or to warn them that the world was coming to a shuddering halt. They were signs of new life, of new creation. They were signs of God coming into the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Coming to bring healing to a world of sickness. Giving bread to the hungry; sight to the blind; life to the dead. They were signs that the world was coming into a new springtime. A new beginning.

In the upper room, Jesus was commissioning His tearful, fearful, doubting followers to do the same.

And so they did. Right from the start. In Paul’s very first letter he tells the Galatians to ‘do good to all people, especially those of the household of faith.’

The outside world couldn’t believe it. As we saw, when faced with a plague, the early Christians would pitch in and nurse people, sometimes saving lives, sometimes dying themselves. Their strong belief in God’s promises for life beyond the grave gave them a fearlessness which enabled them both to keep cheerful in the face of death and to go to the aid of sufferers whose own families and communities had abandoned them for fear of the disease.

This is well set out in Rodney Stark’s famous book The Rise of Christianity (1996, Ch. 4). Stark makes a compelling case that the way the Christians behaved in the great plagues of the early centuries was a significant factor in contributing to the spread of the faith. Stark, and others who have followed him, have collected the evidence from the plagues of the 170s AD, which killed the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the 250s. (Nobody is quite sure what diseases they were. One might have been smallpox, the other measles, both killers when attacking unprepared populations.) The emperor Julian, who tried to de-convert the Roman empire in the late fourth century after it had become officially Christian under Constantine, complained that the Christians were much better at looking after the sick, and for that matter the poor, than the ordinary non-Christian population. He was trying to lock the stable door after the horse had bolted. The Christians were being for the world what Jesus had been for Israel. People took notice. Something new was happening.

The tradition continued. It was the Christians who built hospitals and hospices. The followers of Jesus were first in the field, too, in making education available outside the circles of the elite, and in the care of the poor. All were needed, as they still are.

As for medicine, it’s only in the very modern period that there has been something of a lull in major epidemics, as germs became identified and understood, and vaccination and other preventative measures became the norm. So from the time of Jesus until the last century or two, plagues and the like have continued to come and go, often with terrifying consequences. If we thought that because we now lived in the ‘modern world’ we were exempt – that our science and technology had now produced ‘progress’ that would eliminate all such things – we were obviously wrong. Just like those at the end of the nineteenth century who thought that Western society was now advancing smoothly towards the Kingdom of God.

So, throughout Church history, Jesus’ followers have usually avoided such lines of thought. Instead, like the church in Antioch, they have got on with the job. They have visited the prisoners, cared for the wounded, welcomed the strangers, fed the hungry. And they have tended the sick. In most past ages that has been done day and night, in good times and bad, in the Black Death and the Bubonic Plague, in war and peace, in the slums of the city and the isolated farmhouses. Clergy and laity alike have done it, at considerable and often fatal risk to themselves. The urge to meet the Lord Himself in the faces of the needy – in accordance with Matthew 25 – has always been strong.

When the present pandemic began to take hold, a passage from the writings of Martin Luther went the rounds on the internet, with Luther’s usual combination of down-to-earth wisdom and practical piety. Luther faced several plagues in Wittenberg and elsewhere in the 1520s and 1530s, and in his letters to church and civic leaders he insisted that preachers and pastors should remain at their posts: as good shepherds, they should be prepared to lay down their lives for their sheep. Likewise civic and family leaders should only flee from a plague if they had made proper provision for the safety of those left behind. He offers advice which sounds as relevant today as it was five hundred years ago. Plagues, he says, may perhaps be messengers from God; but the right approach should be practical as well as faithful. This, he says, is how one should think to oneself:

With God’s permission the enemy has sent poison and deadly dung among us, and so I will pray to God that He may be gracious and preserve us. Then I will fumigate to purify the air, give and take medicine, and avoid places and persons where I am not needed in order that I may not abuse myself and that through me others may not be infected and inflamed with the result that I become the cause of their death through my negligence. If God wishes to take me, He will be able to find me. At least I have done what He gave me to do and am responsible neither for my own death nor for the death of others. But if my neighbour needs me, I shall avoid neither person nor place but feel free to visit and help him. ~ Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. T. G. Tappert (London: SCM Press, 1955), 242, from a letter of 1527.

There is a gritty wisdom at the heart of this. Luther clearly believed that the ‘normal’ course of action was for a Christian to stay and help, rather than run away, when a plague strikes a district.

Yet he knew, even in the days before people understood how germs and viruses worked, that it was quite possible for a well-meaning person to make matters worse. We today know that only too well: someone may carry, and transmit, the Covid-19 virus without knowing they have it. So the natural inclination of a Jesus-follower, to obey Jesus’ call to go and help at the place of danger, even at the risk of one’s own life, looks rather different when that apparently heroic action might easily make matters worse. The generous one-dimensional desire to be a hero, to ‘do the right thing’, needs to be rounded out with the equally generous willingness to restrain apparent heroism when it might itself bring disaster.

Yet this cannot become an excuse for doing nothing. Out of lament must come fresh action. At the very least, clergy (properly trained, authorized and protectively clothed) must be allowed to attend the sick and dying. If, as sometimes seems to be the case, secular doctors suppose that such ministry is superfluous, this must be challenged at every level. As we thank God that in the last two or three centuries the long-term calling of the Church to bring healing and hope has been shared in the wider secular world, we must work with the medical profession, not least to ensure a fully rounded, fully human approach. This applies particularly when people are near the point of death; the hospice movement of the last fifty years has been largely a Christian innovation, privately funded, witnessing to a hope that secular medicine has sometimes ignored.

The call to Jesus’ followers, then, as they confront their own doubts and those of the world through tears and from behind locked doors, is to be sign-producers for God’s Kingdom.

We are to set up signposts – actions, symbols, not just words – which speak, like Jesus’ signs, of new creation: of healing for the sick, of food for the hungry, and so on. This means things like running food banks, working in homeless shelters, volunteering to help those visiting relatives in prisons, and so on. These can be rewarding tasks but they, and all similar things, are also demanding. For them we will need, as Mary, Thomas and the disciples in the upper room needed, the living presence of Jesus, and the powerful breath of His Spirit. That is what we are promised.

Excerpted with permission from God and the Pandemic by N. T. Wright, copyright Tom Wright.

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Your Turn

In case of doubt, tears, and understandable fears, our call as believers is to ‘do good to all people, especially those of the household of faith’, to be sign-producers for the Kingdom of God. We don’t have any more control over this pandemic than the people of centuries past. But God is the same and our mission is the same. And, He is with us! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

N.T. Wright

Wright is an English New Testament scholar, Pauline theologian, and retired Anglican bishop. The author of over seventy books, Wright is highly regarded in academic and theological circles for his "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series.

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