This is without a doubt the most unique Holy Week that each of us have experienced. Personally, I haven’t dealt with much fear and anxiety over the global pandemic up to this point. What I am beginning to experience, however, is grief. I grieve over those whose health is affected by the virus; I grieve the burden that many local business owner are experiencing and the concerns they have for providing for their families in the months to come; I grieve not seeing my family and friends. Not to mention the fact that this Easter, The Well planned to celebrate our first baptisms (this one really hits home right now).
Though I certainly wish the circumstances were different, grief is actually an appropriate emotion to feel as we reflect on Holy Week.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, people gathered in great anticipation and excitement of his arrival. It was long expected that God would send them a king—a king whose rule would overthrow Rome and make the world right again. But their king did not come with his large cavalry. He did not come in a militant fashion at all. Instead, he enters the city riding on a donkey, rather an animal of war. What the crowd witnessed was the arrival of peace; they in fact witnessed the Prince of Peace that would heal a broken and desperate world.
Good Friday can be a mixed bag of emotions for the church today. Being on this side of the resurrection, we know that Sunday reminds us of that great hope that God isn’t done fulfilling his promises. But for a moment, I would like us to pause and place ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples that watched him suffer such a gruesome death. Everything they believed about him was brought into question. What kind of messiah comes to suffer and die?
The Mission of the Church
The mission of Jesus was clear from the beginning. In his first recorded sermon in the synagogue, Jesus read to the people from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Instead of ruling over others, Jesus chose to serve. When he could have called people of great talent and influence to surround him, he associated with the lowly. On this Good Friday, we are reminded not only of the compromise in our physical health, but also in our spiritual health. This grief that we experience makes us more aware of the grief and despair that Jesus carried on our behalf. Today should be a reminder of the mission of the church and our role in God’s work to reconcile all things to himself. We should actively bring good news to the poor and providing for their needs; we should minister to the prisoner, praying not only for their redemption in our world but also that they would be set free from their bondage of sin; we should pray for the physical healing of the blind and pray for those who are spiritually blind that they might see the truth of the gospel; we should actively seek to show the Lord’s favor by defending those who are oppressed.
We absolutely look towards the reality of the resurrection, but let us not forget to reflect our own grief that Jesus bore on the cross and the brokenness of a world that waits for its full restoration.
Despite all the chaos, fear and confusion of these past several weeks, it’s incredible to me the absolute inundation of stories about everyday people who are stepping up, going out of their way, and caring for those around them in truly remarkable ways. This, I think, is the silver lining in this current crisis. I’m sure you each have a handful of stories you have witnessed, contributed to, and benefitted from personally. What strikes me now is this amazing opportunity we have to not only be the hands and feet, the body of Christ; but to encourage the ones who are putting the image of God on display… and don’t even realize that’s why they’re loving and serving people the way that they are.
A popular video was being shared last week—John Lennon’s famous ballad “Imagine”, sung by a number of celebrities. The video (and the song itself) has been ridiculed and renounced for many reasons. Particularly relevant for believers in Jesus are the lines calling for us to “imagine there’s no heaven… no hell… no religion, too.” Regardless of the execution of the video, the way it was sung, the privilege of those singing, I’d like to highlight the intent of the video. The sentiment is a good one. And theologically, not that far off. Bear with me. I don’t expect John Lennon, or Gal Gadot for that matter, to accurately articulate everything I believe. But when I hear this song, I think of the kingdom of God. The way things ought to be. The way things will be when God makes all things new.
Especially in times of crisis, we see a yearning for the way things ought to be. We see people stepping up to meet needs in ways we may have been overlooking before. We see it in the way neighbors are caring for each other. People are donating time and money to various organizations who are making sure no one goes without. On Facebook, I can hardly scroll through my timeline without seeing a friend call out the hoarding and stockpiling of groceries and medical supplies. It’s become common to recognize the hard work and courage of those on the front lines of this crisis, who are daily in harm’s way. Restaurants are preparing free meals for families with children.
There’s an ache for the time when this will all be behind us and life can finally get back to normal. And yet, if life actually “got back to normal”, I fear we would be wasting opportunities. If any of these current activities and perspectives were to stop once coronavirus had run its course, we would be denying ourselves a beautiful glimpse into what the kingdom of God looks like. Yes, what we’re seeing and doing right now—serving and loving others in the most practical of ways—is what we are called to do as good humans. Good neighbors. We should be doing these things as good citizens… let alone as citizens of the kingdom. But it is the additional understanding of why we do this as followers of Jesus that points us to the good news. We do this—all of us—because we are made in God’s image. We are all made to reflect his goodness, love, mercy, and desire to help those in need. We are all made to help bring about his plan to restore the world to himself. One day, there will be no need for greed or hunger. Nothing to kill or die for. Heaven comes to earth, death will be destroyed, and even religion will lose its meaning as we know it. The endgame of the church is not universal religion: it’s the forever, creation-wide reality of renewal and reunion with God. That’s the kingdom, the new earth as described in the book of Revelation.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” I think what we’re seeing right now from people who do not claim to follow Jesus, who genuinely want to love their neighbors or are crying out in fear and anxiety of the unknown, is a demonstration of that ache for eternity. One philosopher wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only… by God himself.”
What are the ways those around you are seeking to fill that ache of eternity? That hole only God can fill? Some are taking John Lennon’s lead in an attempt to rally others to this beautifully imagined world. Some are dulling the ache with food or drink or exercise or sleep or overworking or binge watching tv. Some are asking questions about that eternity. How will you contextualize the good news that Jesus offers into these situations? How will you translate the hope that you have to those who fear, grieve, panic as if they have no hope? How will you encourage those who are stepping up and loving those around them—perhaps like Paul giving context to the worship of the Athenians in Acts 17 (look it up!)—to speak into the reason they do the good things they do, because they are made in God’s image.
On a personal note, I identify with those who are struggling to adapt. I am right there with those who sometimes (often) fear, and grieve, and panic, as if I have no hope. I need this message as much as the rest of the world does. In this strange time of social distancing, isolation can really just be a euphemism for loneliness. I know many of you are affected by illness, loss of income, depression, anxiety, and may be feeling trapped in your situation. This truth is for you, too: there is hope. Jesus is King, and invites us to participate in bringing about his kingdom. Imagine.
“In the midst of isolation… we experience the loss of so many things. Let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side.”
—Pope Frances, in a message regarding COVID-19