With the COVID-19 outbreak, attending Sunday services is now problematic for some Christians. Since services are essentially made up of congregations of people in confined air-conditioned spaces, they are potential avenues for the contagion to spread. Two local churches have already been identified as outbreak clusters, and it is no wonder there are Christians unwilling to attend services for now. Despite MOH’s assurance that church services may continue with precautionary measures, there would be those who remain unassured. On the other hand, there are Christians who resolutely continue with “business as usual” because they believe God will protect them from the outbreak. Already one local pastor has declared to his church that “No virus can come near you.” These responses to the outbreak prompt the question: Is it a lack of faith when one stays away from service to avoid the contagion?
It has not been uncommon to hear Christians encouraging one another to “have faith” during this ongoing outbreak. However, when uttered too often as a spiritual panacea to any kind of crisis, the phrase soon degenerates into an empty platitude. What does it really mean to “have faith” in the face of COVID-19? Faith is a concrete response to the gospel, and it has three components: knowledge, assent, and trust. Here, Abraham is instructive for us. He became aware of God and his promises through God’s own revelation (knowledge). After considering those promises and the One who made them, he acknowledged them to be true (assent). This was developed into trust when he uprooted his family from their homeland to sojourn in Canaan. For Christians on this side of the cross, having faith means knowing the person of Christ and his good news to us (as mediated by Scripture), assenting to who Christ is and the veracity of his message, and thereby entrusting ourselves to him. It is not something which remains in the realm of abstraction but is concretely expressed in our lives. How then should this faith in Christ be expressed in this outbreak?
We may be thankful for guidance from church history, for this is not the first time that Christians have to reflect on the problem of infectious diseases. In the 3rd century, a mysterious and deadly contagion hit Roman North Africa such that in the city of Alexandria “there are lamentations everywhere, and all are mourning … by reason of the number of the dead and the dying day by day.” Yet Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, had this to say about his flock:
At all events most of the brethren through their love and brotherly affection for us spared not themselves nor abandoned one another, but without regard to their own peril visited those who fell sick, diligently looking after and ministering to them and cheerfully shared their fate with them, being infected with the disease from them and willingly involving themselves in their troubles. Not a few also, after nursing others back to recovery, died themselves …
This he compared to those who were not Christians:
But the Gentiles behaved quite differently: those who were beginning to fall sick they thrust away, and their dearest they fled from, or cast them half dead into the roads: unburied bodies they treated as vile refuse; for they tried to avoid the spreading and communication of the fatal disease, difficult as it was to escape for all their scheming.
Much about faith may be gleaned from Dionysius’ words, but one thing is painfully obvious: Faithful Christians do die from contagion. None can accuse the Alexandrian Christians of being unfaithful, yet it was precisely their faithfulness that killed them. It is irresponsible and nonsensical to claim immunity from any contagion on the basis of faith, and the millions of Christians who would later die in the 6th century Plague of Justinian and in the 14th century Black Death testify to such vanity. However, faith does embolden Christians to be fearless before disease and death. It was not as if the Alexandrian Christians were unaware of the contagion’s virulence, yet they demonstrated their faith through sacrificial charity after the manner of their Lord, trusting that their lives were truly hid with him on high.
Carthage was another North African city similarly affected by the contagion. Cyprian, who was its bishop, gave a sermon encouraging his flock to face it without fear:
… what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one … Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.
Cyprian minces no words when it comes to how the faithful should respond to the contagion. While the outbreak may be judgment for the impious, it is “departure to salvation to God’s servants.” Therefore, disease and death are but a test of a Christian’s faith, that he may be fearless before it so as to obtain eternal glory. It is incongruous to him for Christians to believe in a glorious afterlife with their Lord yet be so fearful and anxious of falling ill and dying.
That Cyprian delivered this sermon amid a deadly contagion implies Christians were still gathering for services. This comes as no surprise, for Sundays were hallowed for the corporate communion celebration. From the reign of Nero to Constantine (64-312 AD), widespread Christian persecution was sporadic, but it remained a capital crime for anyone to take part in communion services (this was how the Romans knew one was a Christian). Despite that, Christians risked their lives to participate in them week after week for two hundred and fifty years.
According to Anglican liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix, they took this risk because they believed it was only by participating in the corporate act of the communion service that each Christian fulfilled his personal duty, and so expressed the essence of the church before God as the Body of Christ. Furthermore, Dix observed it
was the conviction that there rested on each of the redeemed an absolute necessity so to take his own part in the self-offering of Christ, a necessity more binding even than the instinct of self-preservation. Simply as members of Christ’s Body, the church, all Christians must do this, and they can do it in no other way than that which was the last command of Jesus to His own.[i]
To assemble on pain of death is to have faith, because it is obedience to Christ’s instruction to remember him (in the communion; 1 Cor. 11.24b), and an offering of oneself to God after the sacrificial manner of Christ. It is poignant Cyprian insinuates elsewhere in his sermon that if Christians are fearful of contagion, then they would scarcely face martyrdom for Christ.
From this brief historical survey of how the ancient Christians responded to contagion, we may conclude that part of what it means to “have faith” in the face of COVID-19 is not to be overcome by fear of catching the virus, but having courage to assemble with other Christians on the Lord’s Day. This is even more so when the state has given the green light for services to continue with the appropriate precautionary measures (even if that were not so and services have to be suspended, it would still be appropriate for Christians to meet in small groups for worship). There are certainly factors which legitimately prevent Christians from assembling: when we are unwell and need rest to recuperate; when duties of our vocations forbid (e.g., healthcare professionals on shift work); and when charity to others forbid (e.g., tending to dependents). The last factor is also why someone with the flu should refrain from attending service – it is charitable not to infect others with it! Yet, fear is not one of these factors. If we should need more encouragement in this, then let us remember our Lord on the way to the cross. Although he faced deep feelings of dread prior, he was determined to obey the Father and so purchased salvation for us through a most torturous death. May the Spirit continue to increase our faith and imbue us with our Lord’s fortitude in such times of testing.
[i] Dix regards Jesus’ command at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me” as his last command. Note that for the greater part of the church’s history, what is now regarded as the Great Commission (Matt. 28.19-20) was never interpreted as a command to the church but only to the Apostles. Dix probably stands in this interpretive tradition.
As we study the book of Esther, we note that it is an important book for the Jews. The events that took place are deemed so important for them that a festival was put in place to observe and bring to mind the celebration of deliverance from the evil one (Esther 9: 20-32). The festival is called Purim and celebrated annually. Every generation, family, province and city is reminded to observe the festival. A website for tourists in Israel writes “Purim is the festival that celebrates the Jewish people in the Persian Empire’s survival in the face of destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman” (https://www.touristisrael.com/purim-in-israel/4965/).
Ever since the destruction of the Jewish life in Judea by the Romans, the Jews have known life only in exile until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. They are a people who have known and experienced the propensity for evil resident in their exilic world, through persecution of various kinds resulting in the loss of life, property and even the entire community. From the time of Esther, they have experienced the horrors of Haman’s evil plan on many occasions. One can only recount what Hitler did in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. He succeeded in the Holocaust to annihilate 6 million Jews out of the 7 million Jews that lived in Europe then. Sadly, there were no Mordecais or Esthers to save them from Hitler. In other words, there was no deliverance for the 6 million Jews. All they had was faith in the providence (of God), as recorded in Esther 4:14 that “relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews”. Relief and deliverance did come although many perished. As one writer puts it, “Purim celebrates the fact that the Holocaust, for all its tragedy and horror, has meant neither the end of Judaism nor the end of the Jews!”
Each Purim requires the retelling of the story, the story of their ancestors’ experience so that in hearing the story of crisis and deliverance, they may recapture the joy that the festival celebrates and remembers.
A blessing that is recited before the reading of the Scroll of Esther in the Purim service reads:
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has hallowed us with his laws and commanded us to read the Scroll (scroll of Esther)
Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old at this season.
Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us and brought us to this sacred season.
Today we are threatened and shaken out of our comfort zones by the Corona Virus situation. In the news or in real life, we have read and seen how many people reacted when the DORSCON level was raised to orange. Out of fear, some people started buying many essential things, more than what was required. It is an irony that when the advisory was given to avoid crowds, people would crowd to supermarkets to buy things in bulk so that they can avoid crowds in future. This is what fear does. Fear makes people think for themselves and in their own abilities. Fear does not care if our neighbours are in need of toilet papers, rice or noodles.
Deep down, every one of us wants to live and preserve this life. Rightly so because as responsible people, we do what we can so that we can protect ourselves from catching the virus and spreading it further. But it does not mean we are immortal. We will all eventually die. But we have been saved from the ‘wages of sin’ through Christ. We have been promised eternal life in Christ Jesus so that we can exercise faith no matter what happens to this mortal life. Meanwhile, just like the Jews we are called to celebrate and remember our ultimate deliverance from sin.
As believers, every Sunday as we come together to worship, we retell the story of what God has done for us. We hear God’s word being read and preached to us. We sing of God’s goodness, faithfulness and what He has done for us through Christ on the cross. We recapture the joy of Jesus being raised to life, ultimately defeating sin on the cross. We pray as a community that “relief and deliverance” would come for the believers and even extend to non-believers so that they might be saved from their sins too! And we go forth in faith to do what has been entrusted to us through His word.
Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Apparently, some Jewish prisoners while in captivity were able to reproduce the whole book of Esther from memory because they have been listening and hearing it during their annual Purim festivals. And it helped them cope in whatever situation they were in. Today, we also hear of Chinese believers being able to recite many portions of the Bible from memory even as they go through persecution.
What have we heard about God? If the situation changes for worse and we are unable to gather for worship, what can we remember about our great God? Will we still have faith? Will we be able to testify of God’s faithfulness saying, “Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us and brought us to this sacred season”?
Believers need not fear because we have faith in a God who is real and has kept His promises not only to the Jews but for all who believe in His name. Faith, unlike fear, is knowing that God is real and that we can trust in His promises. When I told my son that God does not change and will keep His promises, he exclaimed, “Thank God that daddy is not God because he cannot remember his promise to let me play on the computer!” Indeed! Thank God that none of us is God! Michael Ramsdem succinctly puts it “Our faith does not make God real. Faith is a response to a real God who has made Himself known.”
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” May we display faith for such a time as this.
The World Health Organization declared on Jan 30, 2020 a global emergency in the wake of the Novel Coronavirus outbreak. The epi-center for the disease is the Chinese city of Wuhan. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “This is the time for solidarity, not stigma” in combating the disease. “The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation,” He further added “We are all in this together and we can only stop it together.”
The clock is ticking. Here’s how quickly the disease leaped from a localized animal virus to a worldwide concern:
Dec. 12 — First case of mystery virus identified in Wuhan, but Chinese authorities keep silent.
Dec. 31 — Unknown virus credited with causing 27 cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause.” Chinese health authorities finally make this public.
Jan. 1 — A seafood market in Wuhan is investigated as the possible origin of the outbreak.
Jan. 9 — First death in Wuhan attributed to 2019-nCoV.
Jan. 13 — Virus spreads outside China for first time.
Jan. 27 — Global stocks tumble on fears of the spread of the virus and China suspends trading in Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges. U.S. arranges to evacuate embassy personnel and other citizens from Wuhan. U.S. officials urge travellers to avoid all non-essential travel to China.
Jan. 29 – It has killed 132 people in China and sickened more than 6,100 worldwide, the great majority of those in China. (source: thealabamabaptist.org)
According to WHO, as of 6 Feb the figure stands at 491 deaths and 24554 confirmed cases.
Amidst the uncertainty, there are many anti-Chinese sentiments. Even amongst those in the faith, one called the Corona Virus the “Death Angel”. He even described China as having a “godless communist government,” and claimed that “plagues are one of the last steps of judgment.” He attributed it to the spiritual rebellion that is in this country, the hatred of God, the hatred of the Bible, the hatred of righteousness.
Incidentally, in the Chinese Zodiac system, 2020 is the Year of the Rat—the animal that spread pestilence-carrying fleas across Europe in the 14th century. Almost 500 years ago, the Black Death killed about half the population of Europe, the plague re-emerged in Luther’s own town of Wittenberg and neighbouring cities.
German Christians in Wittenberg – facing the re-emergence of black plague in 1527 – called on Protestant reformist Martin Luther for guidance. The question is
Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, Luther declared those in ministry, “must remain steadfast before the peril of death.” The sick and dying need a good shepherd who will strengthen and comfort them and administer the sacraments—lest they be denied the Eucharist before their passing. This included service providers and health care professionals, as well as ministers and pastors, and also elected leaders, law enforcement and security personnel.
Luther even calls on civilian “Christians to seek opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46). Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for neighbour,” When deciding whether to leave or stay, Luther trusted that Christians “will arrive at a faithful decision through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. “When did we see you sick?” ask the righteous in the parable of the sheep and the goats, to which Jesus responds, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:39–40). If and when the coronavirus encroaches upon our communities, how will we faithfully respond?
“Participation in aiding the sick arises out of grace, not obligation.” Concerned Christians can pray specifically about the coronavirus crisis. The potential for panic is real. But rather than stirring up fear and paranoia, the buzz about the 2019-nCoV is giving Christians an opportunity to rise up in faith and fervent prayer. The Church in China has issued a call for collective intercession.
“The biggest problem is that health care workers, who are taking care of sick patients, don’t have enough protective gear, and this puts them at greater risk of catching the virus while they’re taking care of patients.”
As Christians, we can pray for the crisis:
- For the government pray that they make well-informed, evidence-based decisions for their people. In their heart of hearts, they’re trying to prevent the spread of this virus, but the methods used may not necessarily the best. Pray that they continue to be or are transparent with people and respond appropriately.
- For the health-care workers pray really hard for protection. There is a lack of resources in some countries.
- For those infected, pray for healing and recovery. The mortality rate is climbing, which is not good and the speed at which people are getting sick is unsettling.
Observe Singapore’s “seven habits” for good hygiene:
- Avoid contact with live animals and consumption of raw or undercooked meat;
- Avoid crowded places and close contact with people who are unwell;
- Wash hands with soap frequently;
- Wear a mask if you have respiratory symptoms such as a cough or runny nose;
- Cover your mouth with tissue when coughing or sneezing and dispose of the tissue immediately afterwards;
- Seek medical attention promptly if you are feeling unwell;
- Observe good personal hygiene.
As a wrap-up to the sermon series that kick-started this year’s pulpit ministry – a Worshipping Community, a Caring Community and an Evangelising Community – I have crafted a prayer that we can all use to pray for our church as we journey through 2020. It is a prayer that is informed by the Word of God, and if we pray according to His Word, we will be praying according to His will. If we pray according to His will, we can be confident that God will hear us and answer our prayers (1 John 5:14-15). You may want to pray this prayer in sections (if you find it too long) or you may want to pray the whole prayer at one go. When we make a commitment to follow Christ, we have also made a commitment to be part of his body. One way to show our commitment is to pray for the body. Therefore, it is my prayer that you will pray regularly for our church and for ourselves. So here it goes…
“Our great God, our great King above all gods, we come before you with adoration and thanksgiving because you are our Creator. You spoke the whole of creation into existence. In your hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to you. The sea is yours, for you made it and your hands formed the dry land. We worship you. You have made us in your image, the apex of your creation, and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are the people of your pasture, the flock under your care. We praise you for your wisdom and power and love.
We come before you with adoration and thanksgiving because you are our Saviour. We are grateful that Christ died for us. In your mercy, you made Christ who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. In your power you raised him from the dead three days after he was crucified and in so doing, showed that you had accepted his payment for the penalty of our sins. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection for without his rising, we will still be dead in our sins. It is such a marvel that because he is perfect, we can transfer our sins to him and in exchange, he has transferred his righteousness to us. We rejoice in the salvation that we have in Christ. We are glad that we are no longer your enemies but we have been reconciled with you.
We come before you with adoration and thanksgiving because you are our Sustainer. Your Holy Spirit is our Counsellor, Helper and Advocate. You guide us in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. We acknowledge that you are the provider for all our daily needs and you are there to protect us from all forms of harm, sometimes even without us realising it. Most of all, we thank you for sustaining our faith. We pray that your Spirit will transform us by the renewal of our mind. Just as we are crucified with Christ, we pray that we will rise with him and walk in the newness of life. Indeed we are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. By your power, enable us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ who died for us and was raised again. Enable us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus daily. Whenever we fall into sin, may your Holy Spirit and your Holy Word speak truths into our lives and whenever we hear your voice, we will not harden our hearts, we will not give all sorts of excuses for our sins. Instead, help us in humility seek your forgiveness and we know that if we confess our sins, you are faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all our unrighteousness. Bend our will in obedience to your will so that we can be sanctified; we can be transformed; we can grow in our faith.
Lord, we pray for the church and we pray for ourselves who make up the church. We pray that we will understand and recognise that every one of us plays an important part in this body. In your sovereignty, you have arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as you wanted them to be. We thank you that by your grace you have given us spiritual gifts which can be used to build up the body of Christ. We pray against lethargy and indifference. Instead, instil in us the joy and passion to serve you and your people, knowing full well that we serve because Christ first served us by giving his life as a ransom for us. We also know that when we serve, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Servant King.
We also pray that as a church we will fiercely guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We pray that there will be no division in the body but that its parts should have equal care and concern for each other. We pray for sensitive and compassionate hearts to empathise with others. We pray that we will love those who are different from us. We pray for humility to look to the interests of others. We pray that we will not be overly sensitive and become upset with each other over trivial matters. Help us always to give to the other the benefit of doubt. We pray that we will have the patience to bear with, accept and forgive one another. May Christ be the one who is binding us together. We recognise that we are all sinners saved by him. We pray that it is Christ’s love for us that will compel us to love one another.
And it has to be the same love of Christ that compels us to share your amazing love with others, to be engaged in the ministry of reconciliation since we ourselves have first been reconciled with you. We pray that the first thing on our mind when it comes to evangelism and missions is neither ‘this is not my business’ nor ‘this is not my cup of tea’. We pray that we will be overwhelmed by Christ’s love over and over again so that it becomes a strong motivating force for us to be his ambassadors, making the appeal on your behalf for others to be reconciled with you. To this end, let us be faithful in sowing Gospel seeds, knowing that salvation belongs to you; only your Spirit can convict people of their sins and of their need for Jesus.
As we journey through 2020, we pray that we will grow in our biblical convictions and we will do things according to what your Word says instead of according to our comfort level. We pray that we will grow in our character after our Lord Jesus Christ, that we will develop in all the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit and just as we have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ, we will also grow into his righteousness. We pray that you will fill us with your Spirit and equip us with competencies and skills necessary for kingdom’s work. In all that we do, may you increase and we decrease. Gracious heavenly Father, we know that you are able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, accordingly to the power at work within us. To you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen!”
When you are in a certain need, you will naturally resort to your own means to meet that need. Perhaps, you may tell your close friend about it. You may not necessarily inform your closed ones about it but it depends really on your level of relationship with them and your trust in them. If you are comfortable with your closed ones, you will surely not hide from them your very need at hand. For those who are in a Discipleship Group (DG), if your relationship with your DG leader is good, you may even pour out your concern with him or her. If your relationship with your DG members are good, you would be free to share with them your need too. Sometimes, you may not even want to share with anyone. You just want to be alone handling the problem by yourself, provided you are able to manage it. If you cannot manage it, then who else will you turn to when you are in a certain need?
If you are a child of God, what does the Bible, the Word of God, teach you? Still, it all depends on your relationship with God! As a child of God, besides sharing with the trusted brothers and sisters in Christ in church, who should we turn to in the very first place? This Bible verse, Matthew 6:33, teaches us that we should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. When you seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, what are you assured of or promised of by the Word of God? You are promised that “all these things will be added to you.” All these things refer to all those needs of yours. Our daily necessities are provided for by God when we put first thing first! We are dependent on God for all our daily needs. I am referring to daily needs but not daily wants! What we want may not be what we need.
As God’s beloved children, let us put God as the first priority in our life this year 2020, living a life of godliness and holiness to the glory, honour and praise of God’s holy and powerful Name. Amen. To put God first is to place God at the centre of our life. If Christ is the Lord of your life, then He should occupy the first place in your life. To think of God first in all our pursuits in life, not running ahead of God but resorting to God and His Word as the best counsel of our life in Christ. To tell God your concerns and cares before telling others is a demonstration of your dependent on Him alone and not on yourself or on others. Being conscious of God in whatever things you do is reflective of your accountability to Him alone.
How do you show others that you are depending on God? To depend on God, you actually give heed to the Word of God by reading and meditating upon it and by applying its principles into your very life and ministry. Beside this, you know that God wants you to be open to the counsels of godly people: godly men and women. “Depend on God” encompasses your dependent on God’s provisions which include God’s beloved people in the Community of Faith, the Community of Believers in Christ. In addition to this, you are willing to turn to God in worship and prayer. This also reflects that you are dependent on God. Furthermore, by relying on God and trusting Him with all your heart, you are firm in your faith in Christ, not shaken by the demands of life itself. This is what I have learnt in Proverbs 3:5-6 which says that “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Sometimes, our own understanding of the situation may not be reliable or sufficient. We really cannot depend on what we do not fully comprehend. In the first place, we need to yield to God that certain need or situation at hand, recognising that God sees beyond what we see. The best thing to do is still to acknowledge Him in all our ways. When we yield or surrender to God the matter at hand, He can make a way for us. He can smoothen the path before us and for us. Amazing thing happens under the mighty hand of God!
Let us not be wise in our own eyes but always be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit of God in our daily lives. When we practise the presence of God with us throughout the day and week, we are conscious of the things of God so much so that in all that we think, in all that we do and we say, we will ensure that we please God and bring praises to Him. All these become a reality when we make a deliberate effort to regularly spend time with God whom we love and obey with all our hearts and lives. In essence, this is all about seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. I have learnt all these in Proverbs 3:7-8 which says that “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” Fearing God is that reverence trust in the great and almighty God who knows what He is doing and who knows what is best for His beloved children.
“Depend on God” is about living the life in the Spirit rather than in the flesh, submitting and subjecting to the Lordship of Christ in our journey of faith in Christ. To God be the glory, honour and praise! Amen.