“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” — Hebrews 2:14, 15.
“YOU realise, of course, that God will kill us all in the end” drawled my theology professor in his slow Texan cadence. His words were like a slap in the face. Everything in my mind and spirit protested.
Wait a minute, I thought, my faith in Jesus was supposed to remove the threat of death and to keep me healthy and holy until Christ returned. His words hurt for in them I felt all the promises I had claimed, the prayers I had relied on, the faith in faith to overcome any threat to my health, wealth and happiness were slowly slipping through my fingers. Nonetheless, the more I reflected upon them, the more I realised his words were true.
Christ did not remove death from the world; He simply took away its sting. He didn’t die upon the cross to keep my health and wealth safe from all peril, but to release my soul from the fear of death by the power of His resurrection. The witness of Christ, Paul and the Apostles is not the avoidance of suffering and pain, but of courage and power in the face of death.
This is important, for as Christians in a dark and dying world, our faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus should be the source of hope, joy and salvation. In this regard, I am concerned that some of our responses to SARS appear driven more by fear, panic and folly than by the courage fostered by faith in our risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Certainly, Christians should not be foolhardy and churches have taken steps to protect their members. Nonetheless, the measures we adopt should be based on our trust of one another as well as the courage and joy we know through Jesus Christ. Presenting secular information about how to avoid SARS in our Sunday Schools is certainly helpful, but how much more the spiritual vaccine of the power of the Gospel to address our natural fear and anxiety.
To our shame, I have noted that rumours about SARS are spread as fast by Christians and in our churches as they are in fallen society. Such rumours only aid our dark enemy who is intent on sowing panic and fear that he might enslave.
Christians through the ages have faced far worse crises and responded with pluck, courage and hope. It is time we do the same.
First, as Christians we must be committed to truth and a reasonable trust. Around the world, Singapore’s doctors and Ministry of Health are being commended for their transparency and rigour in addressing SARS. Were those in authority not telling the truth as to the magnitude of the disease, it would be in the New York Times tomorrow. They are telling the truth and as Christians we should be doing the same. When rumours by word of mouth, SMS or email cross our path we should challenge those that spread them to verify their facts; if they cannot, we should admonish them to stop spreading gossip and sowing unreasonable fear.
Secondly, our churches and church services should be models of Christian love, trust, courage and hope. Even as we take wise precautions, we must also seriously weigh the underlying message we send by the actions we take. Certainly, it is right to ask those at risk to stay home but we should remember that the church is not just the haven of the “safe and fever-free”, but of all those who love and worship Jesus Christ.
Finally, we need to preach the power of the resurrection. We need to square our shoulders and stiffen our backbone that we might live in accord with Paul’s noble exhortation that “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. By this we will remind our members and those outside the church that just as much as our brave doctors and nurses represent the medical frontline of this battle, we represent the spiritual battle line, which in my view is far more critical.
Our most important task is not merely to survive, but to honour our Lord Jesus Christ. We do so when we reflect His courage and glory in refusing to be driven by the fear of death but assured in the power of His resurrection. In so doing we will not only stare down SARS but also undo the weapons of ignorance, fear and cowardice that the father of all lies is attempting to sow in our midst. This is not merely a medical battle but spiritual. With that in mind let us enter the fray with tenacity and courage as we solicit the prayer the Apostle Paul requested of the church …
“Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”
The Rev Dr Tom Harvey is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College and works with the Singapore Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).