Love in the time of COVID
A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
[Readings: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21]
“In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your church we desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving, remembering your death, Lord Jesus Christ and proclaiming your resurrection. We await your coming in glory. Amen.”
How are you? Wherever you may be participating in our service this morning, may God’s ever present Holy Spirit be felt by you as we come together scattered across the distance in this act of communion which is a Spiritual Eucharist. This actual Cathedral place is all but empty this morning but in its place is a sacred Cathedral space made up at this moment of all of us who are now joining with one another in worship even though we are scattered. Through our worshipping together we are become a κοινωνια (koinonia), a holy, covenantal fellowship united through Christ.
But, again, I ask: how are you? And how is anyone you might know who lives alone, or who lives in cramped circumstances or faces other difficulties due to the lockdown?
Over the past year and a half we have been through so much – a litany of lockdowns and restrictions interspersed with pauses where we tried to catch our breath awaiting what next we did not know. I think many of us thought the worst was over until this recent lockdown and so we may have felt caught out by the events here this past week, exacerbated as they were by the situation in New South Wales particularly but also Victoria. As a result, there have been increasing reports of stress and personal difficulties; Lifeline has reported a 30% increase in calls to their service and financial support measures have had to be reintroduced by both government and banks. The first lockdown carried with it something of an adventure but now we are tired and feel uncertain about what may be to come – more lockdowns, vaccination issues, new variants, unknown consequences – we are feeling weary.
How may our service of worship not only help us in these difficult times but also help us to help others?
Earlier in our first hymn we read these words:
And so the yearning strong,
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
Those words echoed what we heard in our reading from Ephesians this morning:
(He) who … is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
From both these verses, we have this understanding, on the one hand of a God beyond imagining while, on the other, a God who is close enough that we may call upon Him. We come together in worship to encounter this God who is beyond imagining but to whom, again quoting from Ephesians, we may call in order that:
(we) may have the power to comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
In so doing, tossed around though we might be on the wild seas of fortune, we may hear Jesus say to us as He said to the disciples as they fearfully rode the waves of a stormy sea:
It is I; do not be afraid.
Yet there are times we are afraid – for many of us, this may be one of those times. This past week I received a letter from Kevin Shee, a parishioner of St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong. He had posted it just after Easter and wrote this:
May the Risen Lord give us hope and assurance that, as He has conquered death, that no virus, no evil and no earthly authority will have the last say over our lives!
The main thrust of his correspondence was more about the current political imbroglio in Hong Kong than COVID-19, but he nevertheless added this which aptly applies to both situations:
This Easter, I cannot help but relate myself to the disciples after Good Friday, who were disappointed and had no hope for the Future. Many of us are also at that stage of waiting and cannot know when, or if, Easter will come. May God grant us peace and wisdom during this waiting time. Please pray for us!
It is into this space of anxiety, this metaphorical Saturday of crisis before an Easter Day of deliverance, that worship may speak – for we pray to God and He listens and because of His love, He comforts us through His Holy Spirit. The opening verses of Psalm 91 come to mind:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
As you may recall, later verses in that psalm make frequent reference to pestilence; and while many of those references suggest the faithful will be immune, the message we should draw is not that we can’t succumb, for believers are as vulnerable as anyone to COVID-19; but rather take courage from these words from verses 5-6 to face what comes:
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
The psalmist told us that if we abide in the shadow of the Almighty, dwell in His shelter, then we need not fear ‘the pestilence that stalks in darkness’. Sadly, there are many who have no knowledge of that dwelling place. Our psalm reading this morning reminded us that unbelief is not just a recent phenomenon, listen again to verse 1:
Fools have said in their hearts ‘There is no God’
Nevertheless, it has been in modern times that we have increasingly observed a community retreat from belief. In Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, this retreat was described thus:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
There is an existential sadness to this retreat from faith, for how much comfort that may have come from belief is denied not to unbelievers but by them as they turn away from God’s Paraclete, His Holy Comforter, His Holy Spirit? How much more poignant must this turning away be in times of crisis?
The American Psychological Association, in an article entitled Faith in a time of crisis , sought to understand the role of faith in the resilience of people in crisis; in particular, their study focussed on the COVID-19 pandemic. In a manner evoking Arnold’s words about the ‘long, withdrawing roar’ of faith, one of the researchers, Kenneth Parmagent, noted the growing feeling of past decades that:
Religion was largely looked upon as an immature response to difficult times.
Notwithstanding this perception by a secular world, Parmagent and his fellow researchers concluded from their research that:
People who made more use of positive religious coping methods had better outcomes than those who struggled with God, their faith or other people about sacred matters.
Their research identified three positive factors about faith – that it:
- Encouraged people to reframe events through a hopeful lens;
- Fostered a sense of connectedness; and
- Cultivated connections through rituals.
Are these positive factors which, I hasten to add, their research found not just amongst Christians but also those of other faiths, mere therapeutic devices or do we know of something more profound as an explanation of that hopeful lens, the sense of connectedness and the power of rituals?
Our Gospel reading related one of the two mass-feeding episodes that Jesus miraculously induced.  The limits of worldly wisdom, evinced by the apostles, was unassailable – the feeding could not possibly be done; but those limits were destroyed by the God who is capable of ‘more than we can ask or imagine’, capable of doing the impossible. Recall these words:
Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
On that day, the physical hunger of the crowd was satisfied through a power beyond asking or imagining. This episode of history becomes a metaphor for us today when we replace the bread of appetite with the bread of life in our understanding of Jesus’ offer to us all.
How can we have confidence about God’s intentions for us? Let me read a verse from the preceding chapter in Ephesians; in chapter 2 verse 10 reads:
For we are his workmanship.
The Greek word for ‘workmanship’ is ποίημα [poiema], in other words each of us is a poem of God. Writing on the theme of us being God-written poems, Jon Bloom of the organisation Desiring God has written: 
Your poem contains all the comedic and tragic drama of an existence more real and more meaningful than you have yet to comprehend.
It invites us to see the complexity of life through a divine lens; but it also brings us to another concept. As a poem of God, we are an image of the poet – an imago dei – a concept of divine beauty but also of enormous presumption. The phrase only gains its profound significance if we link it to the two greatest commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. John Dickson in his latest book Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History has written this about imago dei: 
The notion of the ‘image of God’ lies at the heart of the Christian view of human dignity … It means that I am to treat other human beings as having infinite dignity as offspring of the Creator.
Elaborating the point, John Dickson cites 1 John 4:20:
For those who do not love a brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
In these difficult times, how are you? … And how is your neighbour? … Do you know?
 See Matthew 15 and Mark 8 for the other miracle
 In You are God’s Workmanship by Jon Bloom in www.desiringgod.org/articles/you-are-gods-workmanship
 J Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An honest look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, Zondervan Reflective, Michigan, 2021, pp31-2