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The Beauty of Pentecost: God and the Pandemic

Reflections from Dr. Howell

   N.T. Wright, arguably the world’s best known and wisest New Test ament scholar, just published a little book of biblical and theological reflections on the pandemic. Let me share his best thoughts.

Noting the frontline workers, and how retired doctors and nurses returned to work – and some of them have died! – Wright says “This is what Christians do,” as we follow our Lord who put his life on the line for us. Rightly he points out that this is how early Christianity spread so rapidly: with boldness and great risk, they cared for the poor, wounded and suffering in the world. Onlookers were impressed, wanted in on a movement that loved any and everybody.

Some want to ask why God did this, what kind of sign the pandemic is for us. Wright suggests that any sign that actually is from God will be “Jesus-shaped.” So no, God didn’t hurl a pandemic down upon us. God sent his son to save us – and to show us how to be God’s people in the direst circumstances.

But what can Christians shut in their homes do? First, last and always, we pray. But what do we pray? For such a time as this, Paul’s words truly work (and I quoted these words myself on Sunday #1 of the pandemic shut-down): “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” If you are at a loss to know what or how to pray, you are very close to the heart of God. Maybe we just sit in silence before God, pondering the pain of the world, and we groan, or sigh. Paul, still in Romans chapter 8: “The whole creation is groaning together… God helps us in our weakness… the Spirit prays in us with sighs too deep for words.” When you sigh, when you overhear the groaning of our world, it feels like despair – but it is actually God’s Spirit praying in, through and around us. I cannot think of anything more hopeful and comforting than this.

Toward the end of his book, Wright quotes Martin Luther, who dealt with plagues in Germany in the 1520’s: “I will pray to God that he may preserve us. Then I will fumigate to purify the air, give and take medicine, and avoid places and persons where I am not needed.” We do our part. We don’t politicize staying well and keeping others well. Wright does worry that churches being closed with only strengthen the dangerous feeling many have that religion is really just a private, consumer matter anyhow. As we watch on screens, without the company of others, we have to remember that worship is something we all do together for God, with others.

He concludes by quoting a lovely sonnet Malcolm Guite wrote for Easter 2020 – when we were not in our church buildings: “Where is Jesus, this strange Easter day? Not lost in our locked churches, any more than he was sealed in that dark sepulcher. The stone is rolled away, he is up and risen, at large, making his strong way into the world he gave his life to save.”

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