Proclaiming Christ During the Pandemic

Sermon delivered on Easter 6A, Sunday, May 17, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

This sermon is a bit different from what I normally preach so I was feeling anxious about it until I realized that I am not subjecting you to Father Bowser’s or Father Sang’s preaching and I immediately felt better about myself and the sermon. Besides, given the delay of our worship service, only about a third of you will hear it anyway, so it’s all good!

As we continue to deal with the effects of this pandemic, our readings remind us that we have a wonderful opportunity to proclaim our resurrection hope to folks who are afraid or who wonder where God is in it all. This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

A word of clarification before I begin. When I talk about proclaiming Christ, I don’t have in mind you all jumping up in your respective pulpits and preaching a sermon. I have in mind the many opportunities we have in the circumstances of our various lives. There is great fear out there, my beloved, and we have the only real antidote to that fear. So in our conversations and interactions with others, when opportunities arise, let us take advantage of them, thanking God for giving us those opportunities to proclaim our Easter faith to others.

In our NT lesson, we see St. Paul proclaiming his resurrection faith to a society that was essentially ignorant of the one true and living God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. While we don’t live in first-century Greece, we do live in a society that increasingly does not know the God we worship, and like St. Paul as he observed the various idols the Athenians worshiped, God will give us opportunities in this pandemic to connect with those who do not know Christ and witness to our Easter hope of resurrection and new creation.

How might we do that? Well, for starters we are to meet people where they are, just like St. Paul met his audience where they were. Many want to know if this pandemic is from God. While we must be very circumspect in answering this question because frankly none of us knows the entire answer to the issues it raises, we can say with certainty that God has allowed this pandemic to take place, even if God’s reasons for doing so are less clear. So the better question to ask, perhaps, is what spiritual resources do Christians have available to help us cope with this plague and sustain us with real hope? This we can readily share with those who are perhaps now more ready to listen to our message than they were before this pandemic struck, always keeping in mind St. Peter’s admonition to us to proclaim our faith gently and with reverence.

Like St. Paul did with the Athenians, a good place to start is to challenge society’s false gods. The Epicurean gods of St. Paul’s day made a roaring comeback with the 18th century Enlightenment movement. The false, largely monotheistic god of the Enlightenment is an absentee and fickle god who is hard to please and who doesn’t seem to care about the affairs of this world. This deist god of human invention is made popular by increasing biblical ignorance and capitulation to the Enlightenment movement that is essentially hostile to God. This false god gladly allows pandemics and other nasty things to ravage our world and its people because he is essentially a cruel and angry god, who cares little about creation; hence, he doesn’t get involved in human affairs. 

But if we spend any amount of time in the Bible and learn its overarching story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—you do know what I refer to, right?—we quickly realize this distant, cruel god who gladly inflicts suffering and unhappiness on people is a false god and not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we know how important creation and we are to God. After all, we humans bear his image and God created us to run his world on his behalf. While we have gotten that part terribly wrong, that isn’t about the nature of God; it’s about us and our sin and folly. But as both the Old and New Testaments proclaim, God loves his world and us and has promised to heal and redeem us, along with God’s beloved creation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as living testimony to this truth. Our God cares deeply about us and the affairs of his world, and from the very beginning has actively sought us out to heal and restore us. We see God’s love made known supremely to us in Jesus Christ, crucified for our sake to restore us to God as St. Peter proclaims in our epistle lesson, and raised from the dead to announce death’s ultimate destruction with the coming new world. So first of all we are people with Good News, the Good News of God’s rescue of us, despite our hostility toward him and our ongoing rebellion against him. This is the God who promises to be with us always as our Lord himself declares in our gospel lesson. Here we have it. Jesus, God become human, promising to be with us always through the Spirit’s presence until he returns to finish his healing and saving work. Scripture is the story of our God who loves us and seeks us out to heal and restore us to himself. This God is actively involved in his world in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and this God flatly contradicts false narratives about an absent and uncaring god who actively seeks to punish us with pandemics and other catastrophes because he hates us. The world desperately needs to hear about this God, my beloved.

A second place to start witnessing our resurrection faith is to be willing to talk truthfully about the reality of death. As we saw two weeks ago, we Americans have lived in La-La Land when it comes to death. We deny it as best we can and prior to this pandemic we foolishly believed we are masters of our own destiny. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown us emphatically that we are not masters of our destiny and death is a constant reality. As Christians, we can bring to bear something that no one else can: the love, power, and promise of God to defeat and abolish death in and through Jesus Christ. We believe that on the cross, God made peace with us and dealt with our ongoing sin, folly, and rebellion once and for all. Much of that remains a mystery to us because we look around and see sin, folly, and rebellion everywhere we turn. But it is the NT’s proclamation that God has indeed dealt with all that separates us from him and makes us sick as a result, the ultimate sickness being death itself. We know this is true because God raised Christ from the dead to usher in God’s promised new creation and with it the abolition of death and everything evil. Because God does care about creation and us, God has acted decisively on our behalf to heal and restore us. Christ raised from the dead means that death will ultimately be abolished forever and the hope and promise of our baptism proclaims that because we belong to Christ we will share in his resurrection, learning as we do how to live as the truly human beings God created us to be, beings who reflect the love, goodness, mercy, and justice of God. We can’t do this on our own, of course, because we are too profoundly broken. But we don’t have to do it on our own because we are promised and have been given the very Spirit of Christ himself who helps heal us and shape us into his own likeness, and promises us that we will be his forever. No other religion proclaims the new creation and the resurrection of the dead and when we truly believe that this is our destiny, a destiny made possible by the love of God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ, we no longer have to be afraid of death or of dying. Again, Christ himself promises to be with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, so that even if the virus strikes us down, we are not separated from him. Hear St. Paul beautifully describe this unbreakable bond made possible by Christ’s death on the cross for us:

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?  …No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow [nor Covid-19]—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-39, NLT).

Here is great hope and power to help people deal with their fears during this pandemic. When we give our lives to Christ, we become resurrection people, whose destiny is life, not death. Mortal death comes to all humans because all have sinned and death results from sin. But God in his great love and mercy has conquered death for us through his Son and we no longer have to fear death or dying. None of us deserves this great love and grace of God, but it is available to anyone who is willing to enter into a relationship with our Lord Jesus. If this is not an appropriate conversation during this pandemic, I don’t know what is. Eternal life in a world devoid of any kind of evil or sorrow is a great antidote to the despair of pandemic. For the love of Christ, how can we remain silent?

Of course there are other ways to talk about our faith to non-believers and sadly not everyone will be interested or willing to hear us. But these are two good ways to start and the love of God demands that we try. When we do, we are assured that Christ himself is with us to strengthen us and use us to advance his good purposes in the world, despite its opposition to God and us. 

But before we can proclaim our faith to others, we have to know our own story well enough to proclaim it. That comes through regular Bible study together, prayer, fellowship, and worship. The Christian Faith is essentially relational and as with every relationship, our relationship with Christ requires us to do our part. While we have a God who loves us passionately and pursues us relentlessly, we will never know him or his love for us if we continue to run away from him or refuse to listen to his voice contained in Scripture, in the lives of our parish family and other faithful Christians, and in the Eucharist. When Christ tells us he will be with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, we have to learn what that looks and sounds like in the living of our days so that we can recognize his spiritual presence and voice. We learn this and receive guidance from Scripture, from the lives of his saints, in the Eucharist, and in studying his word. Just like married couples come to know each other more intimately with every passing year, so we too can expect to grow in our knowledge of Christ and appropriate his promises to us as time goes by. When we do, we discover that we actually are supremely loved by our Great Shepherd despite our unloveliness and learn to imitate his love to others. Whenever we forgive when no forgiveness is warranted, whenever we are generous to others where no generosity is deserved, whenever we learn to bless our enemies instead of cursing them, we are given power to grow in our knowledge of Christ, and when that knowledge grows, so too does our faith in his promise to us that we really are resurrection people whose destiny is the new heavens and earth where we will live in God’s direct presence and protection forever, thanks be to God!

So proclaim the Good News we must, especially if we claim to love God and others. But first we must come to know and believe our Story and make it our own by faith. As our psalm reminds us, we will not have all our questions and concerns answered in this mortal life because we must live and walk by faith, and faith requires an abiding trust in the power of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and creates things out of nothing. But we can walk by faith, confident that God the Father in his great love for us gives us the resources we need to grow in our love and faith and so imitate his dearly beloved Son so that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. We believe this is true because we believe that God really did raise Christ from the dead, thereby demonstrating that all his promises are trustworthy and true. It is a spectacular promise and one the world desperately needs to hear, whether it knows it or not. Let us give thanks to God that he loves us enough and deems us worthy enough by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us to call us to this great and sacred task. Let us resolve with all our might to be obedient to his call and proclaim boldly the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.