By Pastor John Johnson

March 22 -- Some theological reflections on COVID-19

March 27, 2020

Well I must say, this is a bit unusual, Sunday morning in an empty sanctuary except for Nancy Blank and BJ Tyree, who arrived before me — I did stop in Coolidge in the event that anyone whom we failed to reach by phone might show up, which was one reason that Nancy and BJ made a point of beating me here, today.

Indeed, and while I hope to make progress on either streaming or a program called “ZOOM” this coming week,  had we been ready to start streaming, Nancy was willing to play a prelude and we would have gone through more of a worship service.

And in case you are wondering, “How long will this last?” I can only offer that we shall review in nine days, the end of the CDC’s fifteen day period, but I am certainly apprehensive about Palm Sunday and really do not know about Easter.

Which might raise the question, “Well aren’t you praying that this will all end?” To which the answer of course is, “Yes,” which might then raise the deeper question, “Why does God let this happen?”

I want to wrestle a bit with that question in several ways, but one point I do want to make is in my wording of the question, “Why did God let this happen?” which I want to contrast with the suggestion of some that, “God has caused this to happen.”

I do not believe that God has caused this to happen, And that suggests yet another question with which I want to deal, which is why some people fare better than others: Is God fair?

Let me get that second question out of the way as we begin, and turn to some words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as presented to us in the Gospel according to Matthew: 

We see this same theme in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:45b “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and

sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”

This excerpt, by the way, helps explain why as counter to all my pastoral instincts as is this canceling of worship, I bowed to the counsel of several of the elders, for that last statement is preceded by:

Matt. 5:43   “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 

We are forgoing community worship not just as a means of protecting those of you — and most of us are in the age group of most concern with respect to the coronavirus and COVID-19, — we are forgoing community worship because we love our neighbors; we are in a larger community where our support of its efforts can matter and send a signal of our humility and of our oneness with all of God’s children. As I say regularly, whether those others know and accept that they are God’s children does not make them any less so.

(For those of you who are interested, you might also want to read a more complicated passage in Luke where I believe Jesus reaffirms what He said in the Sermon on the Mount and supports my argument that God did not cause the COVID-19 outbreak. That passage is Luke 13:1-5, but it deserves deeper discussion than I can provide here.)

God’s fairness in terms of one’s getting the virus and another’s not getting it, or one’s living where he or she must “shelter-in-place” and another does not live under such restrictions, simply is not an issue that matters in the larger scheme of events before God. God through Jesus has a bigger issue: wanting everyone to know the Kingdom of God — wanting everyone to know the Kingdom of God, and wanting you and me to carry that message to the world, and to show God’s love to others.

Which still does not deal with, “Why does God let this happen?”

Let me go all the way back to the allegorical story, by allegorical, I mean, the facts probably are not true but an important point is being made, all the way back to the allegorical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and of “the Fall” when they fail to be obedient to God’s instructions about not eating of the “fruit of the tree in the center of the garden.” The sin in the Garden of Eden, I always say, is hubris, human’s thinking themselves equal to God and able to ignore God’s decrees, and it is hubris to suggest that we are guaranteed that we can do whatever we want when the health and well-being of others is at risk.

But to return to the Garden, before eating the fruit, Adam and Eve were ignorant of right and wrong; they did not even know that the other was naked. 

We all know the story, but frequently not the very last thing God does as they are expelled from the Garden, which is that God clothes them; God protects them; God saves them.

But I always ask, “Do we really think we would have wanted that pre-fall life in the Garden, or that it was the life for which God made us?” As I humorously have suggested, “If our spouse is naked, wouldn’t we want to notice it?” But more importantly, “Do we really believe that God intended for us just to be marionettes with no will of our own?”

So my answer to, “Why does God let this happen?” Is that God, and we, prefer a world in which God allows us to make decisions; we have free will

God allows us the freedom to make decisions, but since God indeed made us a little-less-than-gods, to paraphrase from Psalm 8, we make mistakes, sometimes consciously, other times unconsciously; we err, or to be theological, “we sin.” The pandemic of COVID-19 represents a massive mistake by government authorities in China; of that there can be no question, and it is not a matter of racism. We can indeed say that the government of China sinned against its own people and the people of the world; sinned against God. It is an example of the horrors that can result from human errors, from sin: consider the Holocaust; consider the terrors of Stalin or Mao.  God’s giving us humans “free will” does not mean we are free from the consequences, free from the results, free from mistakes in the exercise of that “free will.”

Which leads to the classic theological question known as the theodicy question, one formulation of which is: If God is all good and God is all powerful, why is there evil” and I shall add, “human or natural” “Why is there evil in the world?”

For there is. And to me the answer can only be found in Christianity: Because there is a life to come in which not only is there no evil, there is no memory of evil.

And if we know and accept that, if we believe in Eternal Life through Christ, we might not escape the results that evil can cause, we might indeed be afflicted by disease and die before we wish, but we need not be despondent, we need not lose hope, for we know that we are not alone as we go through the trials the world faces. Not only are our fellow believers with us, but God is with us, Christ is with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit.

It is that Spirit that can sustain us in uncertain times and give us certainty that God has no interest in punishing us, only in having us know God’s love made known and made human in Jesus Christ, whose earthly body we are as we are together with Him as His Church.

And in His name, Amen.

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