Just on the eve of lockdown my optician sent me a reminder that it was time for my eyes to be tested again. I was rather pleased at first because I’d noticed that reading was becoming a bit tricky. The restrictions soon scuppered my plans and so I decided to hold off for a while. My eyesight, of course, didn’t improve and I found I was struggling with short-vision, particularly with reading the print in the bible during Morning Prayer; so many zoom, online meetings, live-streamings and recordings were not helping either.
Opticians aim to get us back to what they call 20:20 vision, when everything becomes clear again. Now that I’ve had my eyes tested, with my new glasses everything has become clearer, back in focus and I can read! Eyes are one thing, our sense of perspective and how clearly we can see what is going on are another.
It is a moot point as to whether we ever really get clear vision with what is going on. We struggle for so many reasons, not least some things just might not be in view which change the whole picture. It goes with life, it goes with faith, it goes with any matter we are trying to understand. And these times we are in can feel particularly foggy at the moment.
When we long for wholeness and healing, one of the things we may well need is to have our vision and perspective sharpened, our clarity of view of what is real, so that we can see more clearly.
The great New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, has just published a reflection on where we find ourselves, called ‘God and the Pandemic’. In this he reflects on where we find ourselves drawing on his immense biblical knowledge and scholarship. It’s quite short, just 76 pages long, short for him that is, but he aims to restore our vision, our perspective as we struggle with this virus and what it is doing to us.
Part of his aim seems to be to tackle head-on the apocalyptic theories with their cosmic struggle – the virus being a battle with evil – and those who like wallowing in God’s judgement seeing this as a punishment. He gives them quite short shrift. For Tom Wright, any Christian response has to be firmly rooted in God’s Kingdom, in the hope in and through Jesus Christ. We lament – that is a human, compassionate response to suffering, but we do this trusting in God.
One danger of looking at the bigger picture is we can be tempted to see life as being an illusion: what we are going to through is not real and there is a reality which means it doesn’t really matter. Hope goes deeper than that. The Kingdom response, the one which puts God in charge, always comes with a question – what are you going to do about it? And there the authentic church’s response has always been to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in.
Tom Wright traces this back to first and second century pandemics and the famines mentioned in the New Testament. The response of the first Christians was not to look for who to blame, to punish or even see it as a fight against cosmic evil, but to send relief or go and minister to those who needed help.
When we look for a Christian response we will find God has pitched up with those working tirelessly on the wards – and this weekend sees the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the NHS, staffing foodbanks and night shelters. We will find the God-response in reaching out to neighbours in need, friends in distress and those struggling as hope feels wobbly. It is holding the grieving and keeping services going. This is because there is confidence in the future; God can be trusted.
The result of this hope-inspired response has been that it has impressed. For Romans and others in the first century world, the poor and suffering were not where anyone with any status would devote their time. And it has been a persistent view. But each time those who follow Jesus roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, it makes others marvel at the devotion and dedication, the love in action.
It would make a good mission strategy, but only because it is to walk the authentic Christian way. It’s not a cynical PR ploy, but love in action and that always impresses and makes a difference. We can see it today. And it was one of the factors in the early church expanding and drawing people to join it.
Rather than a cosmic battle, in our reading, such a rich section from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul talked about creation groaning (Romans 8:18-28, 35-39). It is longing, as in labour pains, as it becomes what it has potential to become. Tom Wright goes on to talk of three groanings – first the world in its struggle and travail; second the church in response, lamenting with compassion and anguish at the suffering it sees; thirdly the Spirit groans as it helps us in our weakness to hold trust, to renew hope and confidence that nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As the world groans, the church groans with it and the Spirit groans to bring about fulfilment of potential and promise.
With that comes 20:20 vision; the picture viewed through the lens of God’s Kingdom established in Jesus Christ comes into focus and we see as if for the first time.
The prayer of St Richard of Chichester is one to hold in this pandemic. It gives thanks to God in Jesus Christ for all the benefits won for us. It prays that we will see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly, day by day. It does this because God’s kingdom is over all and that is the basis of our hope in pandemic and any adversity.
Sermon during Night Prayer with prayers for wholeness and healing, live-streamed from Peterborough Parish Church, Wednesday 1st July. 2020.