COVID 19: HOW SHOULD WE AS A CHURCH RESPOND?

If you are anything like me you have probably been reacting to the increasing worldwide and local impact of COVID 19 Virus with a whole variety of emotions. That has made me think a little bit more seriously about what my and our reaction as Christ followers should be. I wanted to share with you my thoughts.

I have come to the conclusion that our reaction to this Virus and its spread and impact can expressed best through three words HOPE, COMPASSION & PRAYER

HOPE …. I have always been struck by a kind of equation that Paul makes in the letter to the Ephesians. He describes how before we were saved that we “ lived in this world without God and without hope.” Ephesians 2:12 So to live without God in this world is to live without hope and to live with God in this world, is to live a life infused by hope. As Christians our lives are to be characterized by hope, the hope rooted in the Gospel.

I think that one of the reasons that this virus is having such an emotional impact on people, in the West, and perhaps especially in affluent Switzerland is because it is confronting them with their own mortality and vulnerability. People who live their lives basically by trusting the size of their bank balance or their importance in a company or position in society are suddenly finding that that trust is crumbling. How much you own and who you are, are not a firm foundation in life. Covid 19 touches the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. A healthy bank balance doesn’t guarantee a healthy or long life or immunity from this virus. People are sensing that they are vulnerable, that they could lose everything they have worked for and invested their self esteem in through a virus they have no control over. They are discovering what it means to, in Paul’s words, live in this world without hope.

God’s Word says in contrast that even when we face situations that make us realise how helpless and powerless,we as Christ followers, have someone to turn to for hope. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 Our God is the God of hope who, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, wants to fill us to overflowing with hope.

John Wesley’s journey to a personal faith in Jesus took a decisive step forward when he faced the prospect of death. A vicious storm battered the ship he was sailing across the Atlantic in threatening to sink it. Wesley was terrified but came across a group of ordinary Christians from the Moravian Church who were peacefully and yet joyfully singing Psalms of praise to God in the midst of the storm. Wesley recounts the event in his diary;

“In the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards; ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked: ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly: ‘No, our women and children are not afraid to die.’

The Moravians had hope in the face of even death because they knew the God of Hope. In our reaction to Covid 19 are people seeing that same hope rooted in God and the Gospel in our lives and actions as clearly? Michael Frost in a recent blog post said ” it is also worth noting that in a world where people are fighting over toilet paper, those of us infected with the love of Christ are called to practice the kind of serene and confident trust that death’s sting has been blunted forever by his resurrection.” Are people looking at our lives at the moment and wondering why we are filled with what Michael calls a “serene and confident trust?” Are we as willing to tell people that we are unafraid to die because of the hope of the Gospel as those Moravian believers of a few centuries ago?

COMPASSION …. I have been preparing a sermon that has meant reading up on how the Early Church responded to the plagues and epidemics that so often swept through the ancient world decimating populations. I came across some amazing words that a church leader called Bishop Dionysius wrote to his congregation at Easter 260 AD. They describe how they as a church had reacted to a recent plague that had hit their city

 “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”

While many of their fellow citizens responded to the plague with fear and often abandoned relatives who were sick. In contrast, Dionysius says the people of his church had responded with selfless compassion. Out of compassion they cared for the sick and took care of practical needs for those who had become infected. As the centuries progressed and churches became established throughout the Roman Empire Christians gained a reputation for being people of compassion. They were known for being people who showed practical compassion and care for those in need. I worry that, unfairly or otherwise, we as contemporary Christians have earned ourselves in the west a reputation for intolerance and anger. When I look at what some Christians say on social media, I have to confess that that reputation is not entirely unwarranted or untrue.

Perhaps this virus gives us as the church and as Christians an opportunity to regain a reputation for compassion that leads us to care for others in practical and perhaps even sacrificial ways?  I believe that there is a real sense that at the moment, as the church and as disciples of Jesus, we are on the Jericho road that Jesus describes in Luke 15. As a result of this virus we are going to be confronted by people who need help or need to be cared for. Jesus tells us that confronted by human need,  the Levite and Priest walked by, they refused to get involved. I think Jesus is trying to show us that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. We all know that the Samaritan, reacted differently, he did all he could to care for man by the side of the road. Do you remember what it was that prompted the different reaction from the Samaritan?

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, HE HAD COMPASSION. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Luke 15:33-34

The priest and the Levite saw the same need as the Samaritan, but their hearts were not moved by the need in the same way. In contrast, the Samaritan’s heart was deeply moved “he had compassion” The Greek Word that that is translated compassion here is the verb splagchnizomai,  It is based on splagchnon which means intestines, bowels, guts, or viscera. We sometimes talk about having a “gut wrenching” reaction to something, that is what the Samaritan had. A gut-wrenching reaction happens when see something and then have a deep, intense and powerful emotional reaction to it.

The interesting thing is that this word is most often used to describe Jesus reaction when confronted by human need

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (splagchnizomai) for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  [Mark 6:34]

 As Jesus approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion ( splagchnizomai) for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  [Luke 7:12-13]

Do you see what Jesus is trying to do in his parable of the Good Samaritan? He is trying to get us, when we see human suffering and need, to share his heart, or perhaps more accurately, his guts, for those in need. Indifference can never be our reaction to human need if we follow Jesus. Whenever we share Jesus heart, whenever we have compassion on people just like Jesus and the Good Samaritan, we will reach out to help those in need in practical ways. This apparently is just what the Chinese Christians in Wuhan have been doing in the face of COVID 19.

What will we do when we encounter people in need because of this virus, walk by, keep our distance, or share Jesus compassion for them? Scripture leaves us in no doubt what our reaction should be, it should be gut wrenching, As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion (splagchnizomai) Col 3:12

PRAYER … In the face of feelings of powerlessness and helplessness that this virus may stir in us we have a source of power and place where we can find help, prayer. In the HUB at the moment we have a large banner which has a simple two-word message for us. TRY PRAYING.

I think it’s a message we need to hear and respond to right now:

Whenever we feel anxious, TRY PRAYING.

Whenever we feel helpless, TRY PRAYING.

 Whenever we are concerned for other people TRY PRAYING.

 When we want to see things changed, TRY PRAYING.

When we want to see people recover, TRY PRAYING

When we are confused and don’t know what to do, TRY PRAYING

TRY PRAYING isn’t some sort of a mantra, its a personal invitation from God in His Word

 Just listen to that invitation

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7  (NIV)

It might sound like a cliché, but its still true “When life gets too hard to stand, KNEEL” There are situations that should drive God’s people to their knees in intercession and the Covid 19 outbreak is certainly one of those. Abraham Lincoln once commented that “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” The issues around this Virus should be driving us to our knees by the overwhelming conviction that we have no where else to go but to God.

In Romans 8:28 we are told “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” Even in the worst of situations God works to bring good from it for His people. I have been wondering if one of the good things that God could bring from the current situation surrounding COVID 19 is to drive us, as His people, back to him in intercession? I think intercession has become largely a lost art in the contemporary church. In fact, I wonder if many of us even know what intercessory prayer is and is all about? Here is one of the best definitions I have come across

“Intercession is prayer that pleads with God for your needs and the needs of others. But it is also much more than that. Intercession involves taking hold of God’s will and refusing to let go until His will comes to pass. Intercession is warfare — the key to God’s battle plan for our lives. But the battleground is not of this earth. The Bible says, “We are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and spiritual powers in the heavens above” (Eph. 6:12). Intercessory prayer takes place in this spiritual world where the battles for our own lives, our families, our friends and our nation are won or lost.

We should react to COVID 19 by getting on our knees and getting into the battle

I am sure we will continue to experience many emotions as the situation with Covid 19 develops but lets make sure as followers of Jesus that we always respond with HOPE, COMPASSION AND PRAYER.

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