Rev. Dr. Vinay Samuel ( presentation to India Church leaders April 14, 2020 By Zoom)
Introduction: It is a time of great fear and suffering but one that nature inflict. This is not suffering generated by humans – in war, in massacres, holocausts. It is impersonal and from nature.
Our question is not about why does God allow suffering of this magnitude or any suffering in the world? That is a related question but different. The Bible does deal with that question significantly and throughout. For Paul suffering in natural to Christian life, it is a test in the letter of James and a fiery trial. It is a judgement on human sin and wickedness, it is a part of this present age, it can be a punishment from God, In Hebrews, it is for our education particularly the suffering of the Christian, If can be God’s will and also the work of Satan. With Corinthians Paul deals with it a lot as he helps them to see the meaning and purpose of suffering in Christian life. Jesus refuses to judge about the cause of suffering that is not obviously due to some one’s wrong doing or sin. In John’s Gospel when asked to judge who was the cause of Bartimaeus being born blind ,he, his parents or God Jesus refuses point his finger at anyone. Similarly I Luke’s gospel Jesus is asked about who is to be identified as the cause for tower falling and killing many innocent people. Again Jesus refuses to identify God or the sin of the people as the cause.
Our question is where is God when there is a huge natural calamity like our present pandemic.
We will turn to that question and look at how we as Christians see the pandemic.
- Doctrine of Creation: – I begin with the way the Bible describes God’s relationship to his creation. Creation is from Christ and for Christ. It suggests that inbuilt into this creation that God created as good and humans in his own image is the potential for bringing death and catastrophe to his creation. Jesus is described as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world in the Bible. It suggests that the creator Christ makes provision for such catastrophe in his own creation, even before he brings creation into being and will pay the price with his life to deal with it and restore creation to its original purpose – free from such deviance and death. Paul confirms to us in Roman 8:28-30. That the Creation knows it is afflicted and groans and longs and waits for it to be freed/liberated/redeemed.
Such an understanding of Creation has the following implications for us in the present situation. First, it affirms our Common Humanity. All of us as humans are made in God’s image and are connected integrally with each other bearing that image and share a common humanity. Christian faith has a profound teaching on common humanity that I certainly have found in no other religion. There may be hints and even assumptions and ideas we may use to construct such a view drawing on ideas and texts outside of the Bible but nothing compares to the teaching that the Bible presents. This is something we as Christians can witness to in times like these and share with confidence. Secondly. Christian teaching on creation informs our view of community and communities. Human identities are integrally linked to the communities they belong to. Our human belonging and identity are very community based. But we are also part of the larger human community and national community and called to contribute to the building of human community, national communities and other communities. We cannot see them immediately as enemies, villains and threats. We cannot ignore them as irrelevant . In our country and cultures our communities have rigid and impenetrable boundaries. We belong to them and get our identity from them. It is at times like these we begin to explore a different view of community and Christians must witness to an understanding of community that unites, heals and builds our nation. Thirdly, a biblical view of creation recognises the dark side of creation. Creation has within it viruses that may be benign for thousands of years but can become dangerous and destroying without any obvious cause. Viruses and bacteria have been in nature from the beginning some are beneficial to human and other life , some are benign and some become dangerous. We need a balance to the romantic view of nature and creation that is pushed by secular left environmentalists who rarely acknowledge natures dark side. Christ knows his creation . He made it and provision’s for its dark side . He promises a new Heaven and a new earth without such flaws.
- Doctrine of God. I would like to look at the way God shows himself in the world. Does he reveal himself as sheer power and perfect knowledge? If we stress that essentially God is himself all powerful and all knowing it makes it very difficult to figure out where such a God is at times like these.
Since Christ is the final and full revelations of God to humankind, And it is the Incarnate Christ in whom we see God revealed to us we see a different aspect of who God is.
In Christ God revels himself in Suffering and Triumph in Folly, Foolishness (that is what the world‘s scholars thought of him) and Christ our wisdom. He was humble, humbled, humiliated and glorified. He was Almighty God but also a Crucified God.
Martin Luther highlighted this in his commentaries – He talked about God’s hiddenness, there is God’s hiddenness, God’s silence – Jesus was silent before his accusers – Before Pilate Jesus refused to explain contradictions of how he was King but allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus was God incarnate but his incarnation was not publicly declared. It was hidden.
We must therefore recognise that we cannot fully comprehend the God Jesus reveals. He is knowable but not completely comprehensible. Our understanding is always partial and we must acknowledge that humbly especially at times like this. We cannot speak as if we are privy to God’s inmost purposes and actions.
- Finally we must turn to the Psalms – the wisdom literature and to the Apocalyptic literature of the Bible particularly Revelation to find some answers.
A group of psalms are described as psalms of Lament. These lamentation psalms deal with the situation the psalmist faced as they could not see, hear or reach God when they faced extreme danger.
- Psalm 80, 83 – O God be not silent, be not still 102, 120, 137 – By the rivers of Babylon as where are you, why are you silent, why didn’t we see you.
It is here we turn to Jesus – always with us – his people – people who suffer, serve, where are you Jesus is what we ask. We cry and we seek.
We do not assume, take his presence for granted, we seek his face.
So one part of our response to this situation of such great fear and uncertainty is to turn to God in silence , in cries of lament and sit with people who are in grief and pain and lament with them. In lament we still turn our thoughts and voices to God.
- Revelation 15 & 16 – The Church was facing a much persecution. It was a cataclysmic situation for the whole people of God. John is given visions of the Future to enable to church to deal with that situation of terror. For us also we need to recover the vison of the Future god gave to the Church in Revelation. The plagues are released – The temple in heaven is revealed. As the plagues past out – people who do not know him, who have rejected him – curse him 16:2. The earlier chapters of Revelation show the horrors that will be unleashed . It is in Chapter 15 the Temple in Heaven is revealed for the first time.
Jesus is still the lamb – slain and slaughtered lamb, but enthroned and glorified – and we are invited to worship him – we fall down – that is the vision John sees and gives to the people of God facing a cataclysm. The slaughtered Lamb upon throne.
So in worship we find him. We are called to seek his face in worship at times like these in a way unlike ever before. We are called to be with those who hunger and thirst for his presence, and those who are fearful about not hearing his voice feeling his presence He is our incarnate and crucified God. He is with us and we encounter him in worship and he assures us that the future is in his hands and we are safe in him.
Conclusion: Paul continually reminded Christians of his time that they lived in the present age with its uncertainties and temporalities. It is the age of suffering, of cataclysms and death. But the Christian not only looks forward to the Coming Age with eternity at its centre and all its assurances and permanence the Christian also experiences in the present age something of the life of the coming age. He has eternal life now.
It shows that the achievements and assets that are a part of this age along with the suffering and shame we endure are not our real story. Mighty nations are humbled by a tiny virus, we can stop breathing suddenly. What will last is that which is part of the coming age in our lives now. The current situation resets our values and our mission.
Rev Dr. Vinay Samuel is a Pastor and founder and past Director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and The founder of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life both based in Oxford UK. He lives and ministers in Bangalore, India and Oxford, UK.