John 1:1-24 / Acts 17:16ff
On Thursday a week and a half ago on William Crawley’s lunch time Talk Back show on Radio Ulster, he interviewed a number of the church leaders from some of the bigger denominations in Northern Ireland; Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland the Catholic Church as well as the head of the Ireland Council of Churches. As might have been anticipated, there were a few difficult questions put to them by callers. I don't remember the exact questions but they were along the following lines: “Where is God in this time of coronavirus?” And related to that question, “Is the Coronavirus a judgement from God?”
I don't think any on the panel had quite anticipated or prepared themselves for some of these questions as they found themselves having to think on their feet. I said to Wendy that if I am ever ask to appear on a Radio show at a time of crisis, she should please remind me to prepare myself to answer some difficult questions.
On the question of God’s judgement, one of the participants said that he would not rule out that the coronavirus is a judgement from God but that he said it is too early to decide and would require some kind of confirmation. Most of the other participants distanced themselves from that answer, with some denying completely that it was a judgement from God.
Having had the luxury of a bit of time to consider the question, I share a few thoughts on these two questions in the hope that they might be helpful.
Firstly, in answering the question “Is the Coronavirus a judgement from God?” it needs to be remembered that viruses occur naturally in the world and in fact play a vitally important function in the natural world. I am not a biologist, but reading online it is clear that viruses are probably the most numerous of all biological entities on the planet and occur in every ecosystem there is on earth. In a tablespoon of sea water, one is likely to find thousands of different kinds of viruses.
Scientiests will tell you that from an evolutionary perspective, viruses are an important means of horizontal gene transfer, which increases genetic diversity and thus a vital driver of evolution from the earliest phases to the present. Without viruses we wouldn't live in this amazing, beautiful and diverse world in which we live.
Scientists estimate that out of the roughly 100 million types of viruses that exist in the world, and play a vital role in keeping eco-systems diverse and balanced, only 21 of these viruses are harmful to human beings.
To suggest that the coronavirus is a judgement from God is to suggest that God has deliberately engineered one of these viruses to do great harm upon humanity because of our sinfulness. But surely, if this is one’s conception of God, God could have designed a far more efficient way of judging and removing the bad of this world... because it is clear that good people are also contracting this virus. If it was meant to be a judgement against sinners then it is a very inefficient one, with a lot of collateral damage as people in the military might say.
For me, it is enough to say that viruses are naturally occuring and play a vital role in the biological diversity and harmony of the natural world, and that sometimes, under certain causes and conditions, certain viruses can have a major impact on human life, as they do on all life-forms, animals, reptiles and birds throughout the world, throughout the ages. This is the way that it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the reasons that this virus is affecting the world so badly at the moment is because of the massive levels of globalisation and massive rise in human population. In past centuries and millennia, a virus outbreak would have severely affected a small group of people and not spread further because lines of contact between different groups across the world would have been far more limited.
Is the coronavirus a judgement from God? My answer would be no. It is part of the naturally occurring rhythms of nature. As virus’s have played an important role in the evolution of the world and humanity, perhaps this one in its own way, will change us for the better?
Then secondly, in answering the question: “Where is God in the coronavirus?” a lot depends on what picture or understanding one has of God.
Now for most of Christian and Jewish history, the image that has probably been most influential in shaping our understanding of God is the story of the calling of Isaiah in Isaiah 6:1-8, where Isaiah says that in a kind of a vision or dream, he saw God high an lifted up on a throne and the train of his robe filled the temple. It is from this passage of scripture that most Christian’s around the world have come to conceive of God as an elderly male human being with a long white flowing robe and white hair. Our patriarchal cultural filters have latched onto this image and from it, we have come to imagine God as a supreme, big, powerful male human being projected onto the screen of universe, a little bit like the Wizard of Oz, pulling the levers of creation behind the scenes.
But this is not the only image of God in Scripture.
In what follows, I would like to briefly comment on three alternative images that we find in the Bible, all of them from the New Testament.
The first comes from John’s Gospel, in the story of the encounter of Jesus with the Woman at the well. When she begins to ask Jesus where God is supremely located and where God should be worshipped, whether in the Temple in Samaria or the Temple of Jerusalem. But Jesus answers her by giving her a new understanding of God. God is Spirit he says to her, and in future, the true worshippers will worship God in Spirit and in Truth. The word for Spirit is the same as the word for Breathe. And the word that is used for Truth in this passage is a word that means Reality, where all our illusions and mental misconceptions have been wiped away.
From this passage, God is not a great big powerful human being on a throne somewhere else, but rather God is the Breathe of Life that breathes through all of life and all of creation. God is the animating Spirit of Life and the hidden Intelligence behind all of life. To live the spiritual life is to live in harmony with this Great Breathe of Life or the Great Spirit of Life that lives and breathes in and through all things and that Jesus described with the word Abba, the great loving and compassionate source of all things.
The second passage compliments this passage and comes from the book of Acts where the Apostle Paul is speaking in the Aereopagus in Athens, and quoting a Greek philosopher, speaking of God, Paul says: He is not far away, for “In Him we live and move and have our being.” And directly afterwards, quoting from another Greek philosopher, Paul says “We are indeed his offspring.”
He is not far away, for in Him we live and move and have our being, and we are his offspring. Contrary to the image of God seated far away on a throne somewhere else, in this passage God is the Source and the Ground of our being, in Whose Presence we are moving every moment of every day. In a way, it is a passage that suggests that we live inside the womb of God. We are God’s offspring in whom we live, and whose life sustains us and helps us to grow.
And then a third passage that again is complimentary of these two is found in Ephesians 4:6, where the writer, believed by many to have been the apostle Paul describes God as the Father (in other words Abba, the Loving Source who Jesus spoke of) who is Over all, Through all and In all.
God is the Loving Source, whose Life is in all things, whose Life is through all things, and whose Life is over all things. This idea is echoed in the words of that beautiful hymn Immortal Invisible:
“Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise…
...To all life Thou givest
to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all.”
And so getting back to the question we started with in this sermon: “Where is God then in this time of Coronavirus?”
One answer to that question is that God is living God’s Life in and through all of us: God is not far away, for in God we live and move and have our being. God is the Breathe of Life in each life-form in this world. God is in each insect, God is in each animal, God is in each flower, God is in the drops of rain that water the earth, God is in the soil from which we grow our crops. God is in the hands of those who are reaching out to serve, help and heal during this time of coronavirus. God is in those who are protecting us and feeding us. God is also in those who are struggling and suffering due to Covid-19. God is in those who have died from the coronavirus. God is in those who grieve. God is the Mysterious Breathe of Life at work in all, through all and over all.
This is the mystery of the Christian message: that God has chosen to incarnate God-self in and through God’s creation. God is not separate from us, but God is in fact our Real and True Self and that God is thus living and experiencing the fullness of life in and through each of us: The glorious and liberating parts of life, as well as the difficult and painful parts of life. God is not separate from us in all of this. Our pain is God’s pain. Our joy is God’s joy. Our suffering is God’s suffering.
On Good Friday as we remembered the death of Jesus by cruel crucifixion, our Christian tradition invited us to recognise that God does not stand at a distance from this world, but that God is in the midst of it. For those who have eyes to see, God is to be seen in the dying, suffering figure of Christ on the cross.
And yet, God is not just in all and through all, God is also over all. And maybe that is where our hope lies. God is in this world of joy and pain, but God is also the great Mystery that transcends that goes beyond this world of mystery of joy and pain.
And perhaps that connects us with the image of the Resurrected Jesus from last Sunday… In the Risen Christ we see the mystery of God revealed also beyond, transcending this world of of pain and suffering, where every tear is wiped away. The mystery of God, not only in all and through all, but somehow also beyond and over all. Amen.