Peace in Pandemic? A Reflection on Romans 5:1-11
Verse 1 in our passage today names how we have peace with God because we are considered part of God’s family not because of anything we have done or could do, but because of faith. Paul says we have peace with God through Jesus. Our world lately has not exactly been characterized by peace, has it? Globally, there has been significant fear. The World Health Organization named the corona virus as a pandemic earlier this week and as stories have been emerging from different parts of the world about the impact of this virus, there have been weighty reasons to fear. There is a lot of uncertainty. Some say the coronavirus will radically change this country and our world. It is difficult to anticipate what to expect. For those most vulnerable to having serious complications from corona virus, to those who are financially unstable and worried about being out of work, to worries about the healthcare system being totally overwhelmed, there are many reasons for uncertainty and fear.
What does the peace we have with Christ that Paul describes in our passage look like in the midst of a pandemic? I believe that what Paul has to say in this passage speaks directly into this situation we find ourselves in. I’d like to explore that together this morning. It’s going to take a bit of groundwork, so I’ll ask that you stick with me. But I hope to explore together how the peace that God gives us has the power to totally transform our response and action in situations where there is suffering, uncertainty, and fear.
I’d like to take a moment to orient us again to what Paul’s been talking about in Romans so far. Paul’s in a context where what is at stake is the question of who belongs in God’s family and how they get that belonging. That’s what all the conversation about circumcision and being a part of Abraham’s family has been about in the previous chapters. In Paul’s context, some were saying that only Jews could be followers of Jesus, or only people who were circumcised, that that needed to be the sign of whether you belonged. Paul is saying the only thing that marks out people as belonging to God is that they have faith and trust in God. Nothing else. What’s more, Paul says that this faith is itself a gift.
Part of what Paul is getting at is that Jesus didn’t die for perfect people or the people who always do what they should. He didn’t just die for people who grew up in the church, or who look like we think a Christian should. At the very heart of things for Paul is this: This is what God’s love is: while we were sinners, Christ died for us. While we were broken, while we were rebellious, while we were out not doing what we should, while we were lying, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, having multiple sex partners, while we were depressed, while we were accessing pornography, while we were confused, doubting, swearing and abusing others, while we were afraid and hiding, while we were out doing and being everything and anything “good Christians” shouldn’t, Christ died for us. But you know what else? Christ also died for those of us who weren’t doing things that make for a juicy testimony. Christ died for those of us who maybe just lived what we thought was a good life, a decent life, maybe even a moral life, but a life of indifference to God. Christ died for us who weren’t regularly rude, who didn’t steal, who were generally kind, who tried to speak truth and live with integrity, but were indifferent to him. While we were indifferent to Him, He still died for us. Because he knows that indifference is what makes humanity so sick in the first place. The heart of everything that Paul has been driving at is this: At the centre of things is a God who laid down his life for all types of people, not because of anything we did to earn it, but because of his great generosity in loving and for the sake of joy—ours and his.
This fact is grounding and orienting reality of our lives. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. I John says: this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died and laid down his life for us.
This is so vital because we can tend to get mixed up Sometimes we say that there are strings attached, things you have to do to be worthy somehow and be apart of God’s family, like this: Clean up your life, your language, your culture, then you can belong here, then you can be made right with God. But that is not the order of things. We can get mixed up in different ways too. We can get mixed up about what love is. Real love, the kind of love that Jesus showed us is one that doesn’t require anything in advance. It doesn’t look out for itself first. It doesn’t ask for change ahead of time. Instead, love sacrifices itself for the sake of the other. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
If what is true at the heart of of all things, is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, it changes things. If at the centre of all things is a loving God who lays down his life for the sake of his people in love and in joy, it changes things. It changes the orientation of our lives. It changes our posture towards living and loving and what it means.
I’d like to share with you a story of how being oriented in this reality transformed the lives of Christians who lived in the 200’s and who, believe it or not, were facing a similar situation to the one we find ourselves perhaps facing now. In the 200s, there was a highly contagious disease that was spreading all over the ancient world that’s known now as Cyprian’s plague. People were dying by the thousands. Huge portions of the populations of cities died. People were gripped by fear and uncertainty and faced incredible loss. If the supermarkets had toilet paper, you better believe it would have been sold out. At this same time, Christianity was spreading as fast as the virus. Some scholars say this was because people needed some source of comfort in a time like this so they turned to God. It’s well attested though, that during this plague, many Christian communities took it on themselves to care for those who were sick and offer them palliative care at great risk to themselves. At this time there weren’t any hospitals or healthcare systems. In fact, our hospitals now are born out of Christian communities like these who chose not to just let sick people die on their own. If you work in the healthcare system, you can be very proud of this legacy. One scholar estimates that in communities where there was no Christian nursing presence, 30% of the population died from the plague. Whereas in communities where there was a strong Christian nursing presence, only 10% of the population died. As they cared for others, these some of these Christians became infected with the disease. They did so with their eyes open to the type of death they would soon have to embrace. They did it because they learned what love looks like from Jesus.
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to suggest at all that you should needlessly put yourself at risk in our current situation. One major way of caring for others is to practice safe guidelines so as not to spread the virus and infect especially those most vulnerable to complications. But these Christians were responding to need and most of all because they were imitating their saviour who laid down His life for them while they were still enemies. They were so grounded in the reality of a world ruled by a God who sacrifices himself in love for the sake of his people that these Christians put themselves at risk and to lay down their lives for the sake of their neighbours.They had learned what real love looked like from Jesus.
They were likely smart and responsible. Likely, they did what they knew to do not to spread the sickness to others. But they chose not to protect themselves at all costs, even at a cost to their neighbours. They didn’t stockpile for themselves and leave their neighbours with nothing. They entered into the need of others at cost to themselves. As a result, Christianity spread far faster than the pandemic that was raving the people. Through the pandemic, people witnessed what God’s love looked like through his followers who would lay down their lives for the sake of the other freely and in joy—more than just because they were looking for any way to find comfort. The Christians living in this time and caring for the sick around them didn’t put themselves at risk because those who were sick around them were such good people, though many of them were probably very good people. They did it because they were following the example of Jesus. They were living rooted in this reality: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. Might there be a way that you could follow this legacy in the days and weeks ahead? Perhaps by giving a phone call to your neighbours who may be isolated in this time, to check in and see whether they need anything? Perhaps by being on the lookout for those impacted financially or socially by restrictions? If you are one of those who have stockpiled cases and cases of toilet paper, perhaps you can share a few rolls with those without.
One writer says the believers chose to greet the epidemic as schooling, though most around them responded in fear. Here’s where I’d like to touch on the passage that we explored a bit earlier with Betty. I’m thinking about verse 3-5 “Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Note how in this list, suffering leads to hope. Not to fear, not to panic. There’s no inner logic in this. What I mean to say is that suffering does not necessarily lead to hope. There is nothing special inside suffering that always leads to hope. I’ve seen people encounter suffering and it doesn’t lead to hope, it leads to despair and it leads to fear. I’ve also seen people go through suffering and somehow they are radiant with hope and trust and strength. It’s the work of the Spirit that does the work of transforming suffering into perseverance, character, and then hope. It doesn’t just happen.
These early Christians embraced the virus as schooling. A school to learn what real love looks like. An opportunity to lay down their lives for others, just like Jesus did. And the impact was enormous. If we long for hope, we too need to embrace the suffering that comes our way as a school. A school that through the power and work of the Spirit will grow in us the ability to wait in trust, and to hope in what we can’t see, trusting that it won’t disappoint.
Can you face what is ahead of you—uncertainty, suffering—trusting that the fruit of it in you and in others will be hope? Trusting that God will take the raw stuff of whatever you are experiencing and facing and mould, shape, transform and renew it so that by it he grows hope in you? And not an empty hope. Not a foolish hope. Not a naive hope. But a hope that doesn’t disappoint. A hope that won’t come up empty. Because God’s love itself has been given to us. And the Holy Spirit lives in you. And he who began a good work in you, who gave himself up for you didn’t do all that for nothing. He’ll see that work to completion. Amen.