The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to our identities as Christians. We believe that Christ died for our sins and that he will come again one day. But we live in the times of social distancing, with Easter services that will happen remotely, with Easter hymns sung in our living rooms instead of in chapels. In this special episode, Jim reflects on what the resurrection—along with the suffering and death that precede it—means in this time of uncertainty and fear, in this time of coronavirus.
Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump, and today I’m talking to… myself. That may seem strange for this podcast. This is episode 38, by my count, and all of the previous ones have had guests. But these are strange days.
As we release this episode, we’re coming up on Holy Week. That might be hard to believe, judging from external circumstances. This is supposed to be the pinnacle of the Christian calendar as we prepare to corporately reflect on the passion of Christ: beginning with Palm Sunday, then perhaps a Maundy Thursday foot washing, Good Friday services at noon, and maybe an Easter vigil or sunrise service. I’m not offended if we even throw in an Easter Egg hunt on the church lawn for the kids. Different traditions commemorate the events of that first Easter differently, but there is usually an emphasis on coming together as the body of Christ to celebrate and worship the risen Christ, without which “our preaching is useless and our faith is in vain” according to the apostle Paul.
But instead of that corporate gathering, this year we’re huddled in our own houses, practicing social distancing, trying to do our part to slow the spread of this external threat and flatten the curve of those infected to ease the burden on our overstretched health care system.
If anyone, perchance, has stumbled onto this episode sometime in the future and wonders what I’m referring to… These are the days of coronavirus. The change to our society has been… I’ve struggled for the right adjective here… Massive? Devastating? Unbelievable?
I had started working on this meditation for Easter when the coronavirus was still fairly distant from most of our daily lives. We heard about it on the news and saw its effects in far away lands, but we were plowing ahead with our work and plans as though nothing would really change in our lives. That seems like such a long time ago. The health risk, and the economic effects of the measures we’ve had to take to mitigate that, have radically changed our daily lives to what would have been unimaginable at the beginning of this year.
In more positive consequences, I’ve caught up on the TV shows I wanted to watch. I now have flight credits on three different airlines for cancelled trips. And while I sometimes put on a collared shirt for Zoom meetings that only show your top half, I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t wearing comfy sweatpants or flannel PJs on the bottom half. Sorry, maybe that was too much information.
I joke, but I know this is serious and tragic business. If you or your loved ones have not contracted the virus yet, the chances are pretty good that you will soon. And whether infected or not, all of us have been hit by the economic effects as business shut down—many of them for good, no doubt. There is a major reorganization of society ahead of us. I now can’t imagine we’ll ever be “back to normal.”
BioLogos is still up and running for now, as our work lends itself OK to working from home and distributing resources online. But we’re funded through grants from foundations and personal donations. Those foundations get their money from the stock market, and so they’ve informed their grantees not to expect any more grants for a while. And many individual donors are rightly concerned about their own financial prospects. So our future, too, is uncertain and precarious.
We’re all waiting on those government checks as some kind of panacea. I don’t understand how the government can conjure $2 trillion out of thin air, and I confess it makes me even more nervous for the future fiscal stability of the nation. But I also think such measures were necessary to prevent even worse situations, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
We Christians are in this world and, so, ought to contribute to developing systems and societal structures that are fair and compassionate, recognizing that there is not a level playing field.
But while in this world, we are not of this world, and so our ultimate hope should not come from government policies or stimulus checks. The Kingdom of God is under no threat from the coronavirus or the collapse of the stock market. We are resurrection people. What does that mean exactly for these days?
That brings me to the title I’ve given this meditation: Resurrection in the Time of Coronavirus.
The title is a not-so-subtle allusion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s second-most famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera. I read it many years ago after having read his most famous novel 100 Years of Solitude a couple of times. Come to think of it, that title also seems relevant for our days of social isolation—let’s pray it’s not literally 100 years of solitude!
I picked up Love in the Time Cholera again these last few days, not remembering much about it. Despite its title, cholera doesn’t figure into the story too much. I think it’s mostly using sickness as a metaphor for exploring the sickness of love the characters endure. But one of those characters is a medical doctor; so was his father, who died during the cholera outbreak because he was “more charitable than scientific” and so “fostered the voraciousness of the plague.” I fear we’ve had some of that in our days too. The son was away during this time studying in Paris, and upon his return to the fictional Caribbean city in which the story was set around the turn of the 20th century, he was horrified at the conditions, with open sewers and very little drinkable water. He was heartbroken and despondent upon arrival in his native land, but said to himself, “This was his world, the sad, oppressive world that God had provided for him, and he was responsible to it.” And so he set out to apply his medical knowledge to reforming the city, and everyone benefited from it.
I’m not sure I can pull out any more relevance from the story for our topic, but the title itself has led me to more fully consider what it means to be resurrection people in our world and time that God has provided for us. It seems sad and oppressive right now; but we are responsible to it. I like that passage in the book of Acts when King David was described as having “served the purpose of God in his own generation.” May that be said of us too.
These last days of Lent in 2020 seem like a good time to think a little more about our responsibility to our time and place and what difference resurrection makes in the time of coronavirus.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition that observed Lent. I had a Catholic friend during elementary school who told me one time he gave up comic books, and I said “why.” He said “for Lent.” And I remember saying “oh” like I knew what that was. I’m not so sure he did either. The churches I went to growing up had an Easter cantata for the choir, and because my dad was the choir director I was aware of there being more choir practices leading up to Easter. But that was the only difference on the church calendar so far as I could tell.
As an adult, I’ve attended churches that paid more attention to this ancient practice, and I’ve often taken the time to deny myself some normal part of life—like ice cream or television—or to add in some extra practice—like memorizing a big chunk of Scripture, or like this year, reading a book. Given that I’m a fairly bookish guy by nature, it might not seem like a legitimate Lenten practice to read another book. Wasn’t I going to do that anyway? Probably. So thankfully I’m not relying on the practice to earn my salvation.
But I pulled a book off the stack back on Ash Wednesday called The Gospel of Mark: A Liturgical Reading, by a Catholic scholar in Minnesota called Charles Bobertz. I probably wouldn’t have gotten to it for a while on its own, and it seemed to be appropriate Lenten material to consider a liturgical reading of a Gospel.
We Protestants have tended to read Scripture fairly flat: here are the words, this is what the words mean. And for the Gospels that means we read them as “Jesus did this, then he did that,” as though they are simply a history of the life and times of Jesus. But even histories have to pick and choose which events to include and which to exclude. And I’ve always been fascinated by which events were included in the Gospels and why. For a while, I was into the Goulder Thesis for the Gospel of Matthew, which is that the whole book is a kind of lectionary for the year with specific readings organized according to the Beatitudes, such that there is a corresponding part of the book for each Beatitude.
Some Protestants are threatened by this kind of reading, thinking that it somehow takes away from the historical reliability and the divine inspiration of Scripture to consider how people might have rearranged the events, or even— God forbid —added some because they had other purposes in mind than a biography. I get that concern, but I’m not so sure it follows.
Think about it like our places of worship, as Bobertz did in the Prologue to the book: we Protestants are perfectly content to convert a storefront or warehouse into a church meeting space. Give us some stackable chairs and a blank wall for projecting worship songs, and we’re good to go. We’re very utilitarian in that respect. Catholic cathedrals, on the other hand, are the result of much more intentional planning. Every nook and cranny is loaded with symbolic significance.
So, too, with the Gospel of Mark. It is not just a utilitarian vehicle for conveying the facts of what happened. Rather, the Gospel was decades in the making and is loaded with symbolic significance in all of its nooks and crannies. That doesn’t mean it can’t accomplish the purpose of conveying historical information; but it is more than that. Just like a cathedral can accomplish the purpose of providing a space to sing some songs and hear a sermon, but it is more than that.
Symbolic readings tend to involve some speculation to be sure, exacerbated by the distance we are in time and culture from the original production of them, and then further by the mode in which copies of the New Testament came down to us: written without punctuation or even word breaks, so they were just a stream of letters in strictly maintained columns. That helps if you’re trying to make sure you haven’t accidentally left out or added any words to the copy you received, but it doesn’t help much for understanding the kind of genre the author may have intended.
So Bobertz admits to some speculation in his reading of Mark, but he puts together a fascinating picture that helps to explain some otherwise curious features of the book. First and foremost, is a consideration of the original audience of the Gospel. Almost certainly it was written in its final form sometime soon after 70 AD when the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Christians were meeting in house churches, and it was a crucial time for this fledgling sect of Jews, as the place of Gentiles and even of women was not completely settled. Bobertz claims that the Gospel of Mark was written to tell the story of Jesus for that generation and show once and for all that Jesus’s mission was nothing less than the full inclusion of these groups, that they might not be relegated to some secondary status, but to share in the one loaf—the body of Christ—that was most fully symbolized in the Eucharist meal.
And, secondarily, for that audience, and the aspect that might resonate more to our time of coronavirus, was that the church was facing difficult times. Many of them would be martyred. And the point throughout the Gospel was that the resurrection life which Jesus demonstrated throughout could only come through suffering and death. And we are all “on the way,” a phrase used repeatedly throughout the Gospel, on the way which points to the cross.
So, the main point I’m making here, is that we ought to have a different perspective on a pandemic like the coronavirus because we are Christians. I don’t mean the kind of perspective you hear from some religious leaders who claim it is a judgment God intentionally sent on some specific group. And I don’t mean that we have some explanation for this particular instance of suffering, other than “that’s the way the world works right now.”
What I mean is that, as people of the resurrection, we ought not be surprised by the reality of suffering and even death in this order of things. Several times throughout the Gospel, Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that he was going to suffer and die. I think the most dramatic of these is right after Peter confesses him as the Christ, in response to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Good answer, Peter, but he didn’t seem to understand what that means because Jesus immediately tells them he must suffer, die, and then resurrect after three days. The text says, “He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” But then Jesus says back to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Ouch! That seems a little rough, Jesus. But the point is that Peter thought the way for their righteous cause to prevail could not possibly involve suffering and death; that’s a very human way of looking at things. The reality is that the world God made is what some theologians have called “cruciform,” that is to say “cross-shaped”. And in that kind of universe you don’t win by mastering others, you serve them. James and John wanted seats at the left and right hand of Christ in his glory. Jesus said, “You don’t know what you’re asking; can you drink the cup I’m about to drink? Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.”
The way to victory in a cruciform universe must go through suffering and death. Because victory is not simply avoiding death; that would just give us more and more of this order of things. Rather, victory is resurrection to a new order of things. And there is no resurrection without death.
To his first audience Mark tells the story of Jesus in such a way to show that they are now the body of Christ, and that any suffering they are experiencing should be identified not only with the suffering and death of Christ’s physical body, but also looking forward to the resurrection that comes from that suffering and death.
I want to tackle the question of why God would create a cross-shaped universe to begin with, but first I need a little sidebar here to address the question of whether identifying with Christ means we should actually seek out suffering and death? Or even let others suffer and die because that makes them more like Jesus? There have been movements and individuals across Christian history that have adopted that attitude and the mortification of the flesh. And Lent itself seems to point toward willing sacrifice as a way of remembering that the way of Christ involves denial to self and taking up our cross.
But when that kind of discipline spills over into a devaluation of life itself, we have radically misunderstood what Christ has called us to. There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that can properly be interpreted to mean this life doesn’t matter because we have a home in Heaven. And I can’t imagine Jesus ever saying, let the old people die so you can maintain your way of life and standard of living.
Remember Jesus, when he read from the scroll of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth? He said the prophecies were fulfilled in his coming, and those prophecies sounded very this-worldly: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. As followers of Christ—as the body of Christ—we are called to maintain and even further this mission.
And every time we work to alleviate the suffering of the poor, to bring justice to the oppressed, and to bring about physical healing—every time we do these things, we are enacting the Kingdom of God. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for the possibility that we will bring about heaven on Earth by flattening the curve and producing more ventilators. We cannot bring about the fullness of the Kingdom without God; but also it seems God has decided he will not do that without us.
That brings us back to the question of why God would set things up this way? Especially in the time of coronavirus, it’s perfectly legitimate for us to ask such things.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post for the BioLogos blog called “Coronavirus and the Problem of Evil.” I tried to explain the place that viruses play in this good world by keeping the bacteria in check. But, obviously, that doesn’t solve the problem of evil, for can’t we then ask why didn’t God just make bacteria so they wouldn’t take over if left unchecked by viruses? And we might as well ask why wouldn’t God make the weather we need without the possibility of hurricanes and tornadoes?
No, I’m afraid I can’t solve the problem of evil, but I do think it’s important to try to point in the direction of some answers that might help. I think the directions to look in trying to understand our present circumstances are both to the past and to the future.
In God’s very good creation, we humans were especially singled out for an original purpose and an ultimate destiny: From the first book of the Bible we learn that we were created to be God’s image bearers on Earth, and from the last book of the Bible we see that all along we have been being prepared to be the Bride of Christ, to reign and rule with him forever and ever. And my claim is that for us to succeed in both of these roles, we needed some training, some preparation.
There are theological debates about just what it means to be God’s image bearers. I’m not a fan of positions that reduce it simply to some set of capacities we have like reason, or emotion, or morality. But we did have to have those capacities in order to be image bearers. So where did they come from? If we’re to believe the scientists, there is a natural history that can be told about the development of them. We see hints and precursors of reason, emotion, and morality and all of our other capabilities in other species today. And we’re able to piece together something of the past by which they developed in our ancestors over millions of years.
Too often the story of evolution is told as a history of pointless suffering and death. And there has been plenty of suffering and death, to be sure, but that’s not the whole story. Our species’ history is also one of cooperation. From a purely naturalistic perspective—which, also, is not the whole story—our species has overcome tremendous odds and faced numerous challenges along the way by developing the capacity to cooperate and empathize to a degree that is not remotely seen in any other species. That doesn’t develop without those organisms having to respond to challenging circumstances and choosing not to be selfish.
There’s a line about how evolution works from Holmes Rolston saying, “The cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa.” That is to say, there are evolutionary pressures that are painful but bring about something better and even beautiful from that suffering. We might also say that times of adversity urged the ancestors of Homo sapiens to evolve into cooperative beings, to recognize that some among the community need to be cared for and not simply dominated. That is a costly strategy for the survival of individuals, but it is the kind of capacity that allowed us to become the kind of people who could bear God’s image to this world.
And what about our role as the Bride of Christ? What kinds of capacities do we need to do that well? I’d suggest the Sermon on the Mount is a good place to start, where Jesus takes the received wisdom and adds to it for his mission: “You’ve heard that it was said, “do not murder” but I say don’t even be angry. You’ve heard that it was said ‘don’t commit adultery’ but I say, don’t even lust. You’ve heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye’ but I say turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that it was said ‘love your neighbor’ but I say love your enemies too.”
Or look to the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians: the spotless Bride of Christ will be full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So why didn’t God just snap his fingers and make us that way from the start? I don’t know. That’s the million dollar question. I guess I’ll just say it doesn’t seem to be God’s style. Why not just snap his fingers and take the Israelites out of Egypt and put them directly into the Promised Land? Why only give them enough manna for today and make them gather it again tomorrow? Why wait so long before sending Christ the first time? Why are we still waiting for Christ’s return? Why not just create us all in a final perfect heaven to begin with?
I don’t know. Here’s that cruciform nature of reality again. There seems to be a purpose to the long stretches of time, even to the suffering and death in this order of things. It’s like a training ground for us to become what we’ve been called to be. I wouldn’t say that God intentionally sends plagues or pandemics like the coronavirus to test us. But we might see that God would create a world where there are pandemics and that these can be used to further God’s purposes for us, that God can work all things together for good.
James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Times of adversity can lead to us becoming mature and complete. It seems that it is this life with its trials, and suffering, and death—along with God’s grace, Christ’s redemption, and the power of the Holy Spirit—that can prepare us to be the Bride of Christ in eternity.
We wind down this year’s very strange season of Lent not seeking out suffering and death, but realizing that is the way of Christ and the shape of this cruciform world. I’m afraid our suffering from coronavirus is not going to end on resurrection Sunday this Easter. We have more challenging days ahead. Perhaps not unlike the Christians in the first century.
In his book, Bobertz said those first Christians Mark was writing to—people ritually joined to the Body of Christ through baptism and communion—could understand the suffering and even death of their own days as part of the Jesus story.
Can we identify with the Jesus story in the days we find ourselves in—the time of coronavirus? Will we let these days bring out the best in us as we love our neighbors and even our enemies? Can we persevere in these trials, considering them to be pure joy—which, admittedly, is not the same as fun?
May we serve the purpose of God in our generation, boldly enacting the kingdom wherever we find ourselves.
May God preserve us as we continue on the way, identifying with Christ in our suffering.
And may we become mature and complete, not lacking anything as we prepare for our bridegroom on the other side of suffering and death, in the resurrection to eternal life.
Thanks for listening.
Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote work spaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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