In the fast-changing and bewildering context of a Coronavirus, how can our response be shaped by the example of Jesus? There are four features of his ministry that seem particularly relevant at this moment.
Firstly, Jesus recognises that some of the most important ministry happens in the moments that seem like interruptions. We see this most strikingly in the attention Jesus pays to the woman with the haemorrhage on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8.40-56). But it is also a central message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: the religious leaders whose sole focus is on ritual purity for worship fail to be a good neighbour to the man who lies in need. Far from being an interruption, whose impact simply needs to be minimised and mitigated, Coronavirus is now a central feature of the context of our ministry.
Secondly, from his birth to his death Jesus places the poorest and most vulnerable at the heart of his Church. The Church is not to be an “us” who ministers to those in need: the “us” must include those in greatest need. Some of those who are preventatively self-isolating turn out to be the people proposing or even instigating “telephone trees” of care, and the wider Church must amplify their voices. She must also stand in solidarity with those, within and outside her, who are made vulnerable by social injustice: for example, those in low-paid and precarious employment, and those who are homeless.
Thirdly, Jesus bears witness to a new order of life and love, without denying the reality of the old order of sin and death. Jesus’ miracles do not herald an end to all illness, and the two men he raises from the dead will die again (Luke 7.11-17, John 11.1-45). They are signs of a new creation – for we glimpse in the “now” something that will only be completed in the life to come.
Christian social action is not therefore based on a “progressive” understanding of human history, in which things are getting better and better. In this period of history, between the resurrection of the Lord and the age to come, the “wheat” and the “tares” – the Kingdom of God and the old order and sin and death – exist side by side (Matthew 13.24–30).
This brings me to the final, and most fundamental, aspect of Jesus’ ministry: it only makes sense in the context of resurrection hope. At this time, more than ever, it is crucial to get our theology the right way round. “Resurrection life” is not an edifying spiritual metaphor for the way Christians should live in “here and now.” Christian life in the “here and now” is a Spirit-filled anticipation of a Kingdom yet to come.
The footage of self-isolating Italians singing from their balconies says something about the resilience of the human spirit, and of human community, in the face of a deathly virus. Christians believe that this resilience is a sign of something more – a sign that we were made for community, for worship, and for eternity.
Like the exiles in Babylon, we are called to sing the Lord’s song “in an alien land” (Psalm 137.4). The #hymnflashmob being organised by Tom Daggett is a wonderful case in point. The choice of “Will your anchor hold?” is, quite literally, inspired.
Ken Leech’s words about the song of the pilgrim Church have a particular resonance in this new context. The Church, he writes, must not be “cocksure” but will often be walking “in half-light, in uncertainty and bewilderment” unsure as to what the next step should be. But in the night and sorrow, it nonetheless has “an inner assurance, a confidence and trust in the power of the risen Christ.”
A pilgrim Church must be a joyful confident Church, which sings the songs of freedom in the midst of its bondage. “Sing Alleluia and keep on walking,” says St. Augustine in one of his most memorable sermons. As we move into the heart of the storm we will sing but we will keep on walking.