God and the Pandemic Lesson 3

God and the Pandemic

Welcome Back to Class.

This week we will focus on chapters 4 and 5 of God and the Pandemic, by N. T. Wright. This is an ambitious book – trying to glean wisdom about how people in ancient days dealt with really bad times.

Lesson 3 of God and the Pandemic

As we mentioned last week this will be the final lesson of God and the Pandemic. We had earlier reviewed some f the literature of the Old Testament and then the Gospels.  And we reviewed some of the literature that was pertinent to times of great suffering.

In this final lesson we will move past the Gospels to the remainder of the New Testament. Again reviewing some literature that might be pertinent tp God and the Pandemic.

Once we finish that we finalize by reviewing the last chapter of Wright’s book, entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Reading the New Testament

The New Testament refers back constantly (as most Jewish writings do) to the great foundational events of Passover, the time when God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt.

This is why Jesus made Passover a central symbol in his work of announcing the newly arriving Kingdom of God and his ‘vocation’ to go to the cross. It was not just a coincidence that he chose to go to the Passover celebration in Jerusalem that last time for fulfilling his vocation. And he gave his followers a meal (the last supper) which is an integral part of Passover.

Now the thing about Passover – is that when Israel was enslaved in Egypt nobody ever said it was a result of their sin.

Reading the New Testament (2)

It is true though that the later monumental tragedy affecting the nations of  Israel and Judah – namely being trampled on by the large empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and in effect losing everything that the later prophets interpreted that as caused by the sins of Israel – primarily the sins of idolatry and mistreatment of the weak in society.

So rescue from exile would require forgiveness of sins.

Yet Passover was never about forgiveness. Jacob and his sons were hardly paragons of virtue, but Genesis makes no connection when the great famine strikes the Middle East, they do not say “Oh, we have sinned”. Instead they say “Oh, we have heard there is corn available in Egypt, let us go buy some.” They were not looking backwards to what might have caused  the problem. They were looking forward to see what needs to be done.

Reading the New Testament (4)

And so Wright argues that this behavior from Genesis sets the pattern of one of the first small examples from the early Christian church. And maybe that could point towards our own appropriate responses to our current problems.

Acts 11:27-30

27 About that time, some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, Agabus, stood up and, inspired by the Spirit, predicted that a severe famine would overtake the entire Roman world. (This occurred during Claudius’ rule.) 29 The disciples decided they would send support to the brothers and sisters in Judea, with everyone contributing to this ministry according to each person’s abundance. 30 They sent Barnabas and Saul to take this gift to the elders.

Notice that this is the scriptural basis that Wright uses to suggest the best questions that Christians should ask rather than the "Why" questions ("Why isn't God solving this problem right now?"). Remember the what questions that Wright suggested might be better. They come directly from this brief 3 verse passage in Acts from the early church. Remember the following slide from week 1?

What Are Some Better Questions?

But Wright has his own thoughts about better questions – the kind the early Christians asked:

     1.  Who is being harmed by the latest crisis?

     2. What can we as agents of God do to help?

      3. Who do we send?

These come clearly from those three verses in Acts.

And this notion that we are agents of God is another common theme of Wright’s. What a lot of Christians seem to think is that saying God is sovereign means that God is so all powerful that he does everything when Wright has argued that the scriptures are indicating that in the Kingdom of God that God’s image bearers (people of faith) are the agents that God expects to take care of business on earth for God.

The Learning From This?

Some might look at this and say – “That’s not theological, that is just being pragmatic. But Wright argues that is just the point.

He argues that in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus in his death and resurrection, is all about restoring creation the way it was meant to be. God always wanted to work in the world, not alone, but through his loyal human beings. His image bearers.

And that is what ‘mission’ is all about. As  Jesus said in John 20:21:  “As my father has sent me, so I am sending you”.

The Learning From This? (2)

In fact Wright argues that the primary statement of the Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount is not about ‘ethics’, as some try to read it. It is about ‘mission”.

Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers… etc. Because these are the kinds of people that are to launch the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Too often, when people look out on the world and its many disasters, they wonder, why doesn’t God just march in and take over, or perhaps just send a thunderbolt the way pagan deities did.

But the answer is that God does send thunderbolts – human ones. He sends in the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, and the peacemakers. They are the way God wants to work in his new Kingdom on earth.

The Learning From This? (3)

These human thunderbolts may not get results as fast as actual thunderbolts, but again they are the ways God wants to work in his world. They will use their initiative, they will see where the real needs are, and go to meet them. They may weep at the tombs of their friends, as Jesus did. Some of them may get hurt. Some may be killed, as Jesus and several apostles were.  That is the entire story of Acts – thru and thru. There will be problems, setbacks, and shipwrecks.

These people will be the answer, not to the question Why?, but to the question What?. What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help? Who shall we send?

God works in all things with and through those who love him.

God and The Pandemic

Where Do We Go From Here?

This is the last chapter in Wright’s book – where he begins questioning where do we go from here. The answers are not easy.

I should explain at this point that as we read this last chapter in which Wright is discussing where we go from here there is a tendency among modern readers to assume he is talking about what each of us should do. Nor so. Wright's focus is on what should the Church do. Church with a capital C. You will see what I mean as we proceed.

And he begins with the question – “Why Must We Lament?”

Roughly one-third of the Psalms are lamenting that things are not as they should be. The words they use are words of complaint: of question, sorrow, anger, and frustration and, often enough, bitterness.

They all are part of the prayer-book of Jesus himself, and the New Testament draws on them freely to express not only our own laments, but those of Jesus too.

Why Lament?

In a time of acute crisis, when death sneaks into houses and shops, when you may feel healthy yourself, but may be carrying the virus without knowing it, when every stranger on the street is a threat, when we go around in masks, when churches are shut, and people are dying with nobody to pray at their bedsides – this is a time of lament.

‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’, said St. Paul, ‘and weep with those who Weep’.  And the world is certainly weeping right now as the death toll mounts. The initial response of the church, first and foremost, is to take  our place humbly among the mourners.

Grief, after all, is part of love. Not to grieve, not to lament, is to slam the door on the same place in the innermost heart from which love itself comes. Our culture is afraid of grief, not just because it is afraid of death. That after all is natural and normal, a proper reaction to the Last Enemy.

We often feel that we have to keep going and be strong, or grief will cause us to collapse.

Well, yes. But strong like Jesus who wept at the tomb of his friend. Strong like the person who learns to wait patiently for the Lord, and does not expect easy answers nor easy words to say to the world.

And Groaning?

And in addition to lament – scripture talks about groaning - what is that about?

Romans 8:22 & 8:26

22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. 

Paul is telling us that when all creation is groaning, we are participants in that groaning.

And Wright suggests that one thing all the Church should be doing is praying. But this is a strange prayer. Right here in the heart of Romans 8, one of the most glorious chapters in scripture, Paul is telling us we don’t know what to pray. But we now have the Holy Spirit and the Spirit pleads our case with unexpressed groans. We are at a loss, even God the Spirit cannot help. But Paul implies that this is not something we should be ashamed of – it is a natural place to be.

Lament is Trinitarian

God the Son

Mark 14:32-34

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 

God the Holy Spirit

Romans 8:26

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.

God the Father

Genesis 6:5-6

The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.

What Can We Do?

Recall form our earlier discussion, there was a gritty wisdom at the heart of Luther’s Letter of Spiritual Counsel to pastors and preachers. Luther clearly believed that the ‘normal’ course of action was for a Christian to stay and help, rather than leave when a plague strikes a district.

Luther clearly believed that the ‘normal’ course of action was for a Christian to stay and help, rather than leave when a plague strikes a district. Yet he knew, even before  people understood how germs and viruses worked, that it was quite possible for a well-meaning person to make matters worse.  We know today, only too well that someone can carry the Covid-19 virus without even knowing they have it.

The generous one-dimensional desire to be a hero needs to be rounded out with the equally willingness to restrain apparent heroism when it might itself bring disaster. 

What Can We Do? (2)

Yet this cannot become an excuse for doing nothing. Out of lament must come fresh action. At the very least clergy or trained lay people (properly trained, authorized, and protectively clothed) must be allowed to attend the sick and dying. If, as sometimes seems to be case, secular doctors suggest that such ministry is superfluous, this must be challenged at every level.

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 50 years has largely been a Christian innovation, mostly privately funded, witnessing to a hope that secular medicine has sometimes ignored.

What Can We Do? (3)

And we can do more. We can initiate more actions and signs – not just words. Signs which represent, like Jesus’ signs, of New Creation.: of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and so on. This means heling expand food banks, working in homeless shelters, volunteering to help in prison ministries, and so on.

This means helping expand food banks, working in homeless shelters, volunteering to help in prison ministries, and so on.

These can be rewarding tasks, but also demanding. For which we will need the powerful breath of the Holy Spirit – but that is what we were promised.

Situations and opportunities will vary , but out of the lament of God’s people new possibilities can and will emerge, both of healing and and wisdom. And of holding up a mirror to those in power to show what has needed be done.


Of course, once you have a major National Health Service, as we do in Britain, the current thinking is that the State runs health, and the churches should stick to being ‘spiritual’. Ever since the 18th century the State has done its best to take over a great deal of what churches used to do.

And the Church has often gone along for the ride. Yet when government funding is cut and health services can no longer do what they should be doing, the Church should be raising their collective voice in protest and to actively step in and help.

The Church has a long track record on medical work, much longer than any society or any government. Suddenly to be told we cannot and must not do it, feels like being told we cannot and must not be the Church. We should not be afraid to take the high ground and strongly disagree.

How Do We Recover? (2)

Wright now turns to the question of how do we eventually move towards whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to be.

Some have expressed hope that when this is all over, we will have a kinder, gentler society.  We will be prepared to give more taxes to support health services and give more to help the hospice movement. We shall have enjoyed the fresh air so much , unpolluted by thousands of cars and planes, that we will travel less, and spend more time with family and neighbors.

How Do We Recover? (2)

I wish I thought this were true. I fear though that as soon as the restrictions are lifted there will be a rush to start up as much business as possible.

And that is understandable – anyone trying to avoid bankruptcy will not think twice about using cars and planes again to save their businesses. And it appears that the economic effects of the lockdowns have been catastrophic to many.

And the huge government handouts to those in need because of job losses from the lockdowns sooner or later, will have to be paid back.

How Do We Recover? (2)

But if all of this is approached pragmatically (and politically) the result will be predictable. The weak will go to the wall again.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the banks and businesses, having accepted huge public bail-out money, quickly returned to their old ways, while the poor in Britain just got poorer and stayed there.

Someone needs to stand up and read – not the riot act, but Psalm 72.  This is a list of the priorities that the Church should be articulating to the politicians.

Psalm 72: (1-4 & 12-14)

1 God, give your judgments to the king. Give your righteousness to the king’s son.

2 Let him judge your people with righteousness and your poor ones with justice.

3 Let the mountains bring peace to the people; let the hills bring righteousness.

4 Let the king bring justice to people who are poor; let him save the children of those who are needy but let him crush oppressors!

12 Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out, the poor, and those who have no helper.
13 He has compassion on the weak and the needy; he saves the lives of those who are in need.
14 He redeems their lives from oppression and violence; their blood is precious in his eyes.

Wishful Thinking?

All of this could be mocked as wishful thinking. But it is what the Church (at its best) has always believed and taught, and what the Church on the front lines has always practiced.

So, what does this mean in a world where some of us find being locked down a minor nuisance while many others are crowded in refugee camps or in third-world cities where social distancing is about as easy as flying to the moon.

We need to think globally and act locally and in doing both, to work with Church leaders form around the world to find policies that will prevent a mad rush back to profiteering  with the devil taking the hindmost.

And in the middle of all that, we need to strengthen the World Health Organization and insist that all countries stick to its protocols.

Wishful Thinking? (2)

And in all of this, I return to the theme of Lament. It is perhaps no accident that Psalm 72, with the agenda that puts the needy and poor at the top of the list, is followed by Psalm 73, which complains that the rich and powerful are getting their way as usual.

Perhaps that is how we are bound to live: glimpsing what ought to be, then struggling with the way  things actually are.

But the only way to live with that is to pray with that; to hold the vision and the reality side by side as we groan with the groaning of all creation, and as the spirit groans within us so that the new creation may come to birth.

What we need to right now is someone to do in this challenging time what Joseph did at Pharaoh’s court, analyzing the situation and sketching a vision for how to address it.

Wright’s Conclusion

It isn’t for me to tell church leaders, let alone leaders of other faith communities how they ought to be planning for the coming months, and what they ought to be pressing on our governments.

Yet those of us who watch and wait and pray for our leaders in church and state must use this period of lament as a time of prayer and hope.

What we hope for includes the wise human leadership and initiative which will, like that of Joseph in Egypt , bring about fresh and healing policies and actions across God’s wide and currently wounded world.

Next Week

There is no next week.

We will begin taking several weeks of break around the Christmas – New Years time period as we always do.

Tomorrow I will post the complete 2021 class schedule on the Third Well Website. It will begin with  four weeks of teaching in January from Sandy Kress.

God and the Pandemic Lesson 3

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