By Aiah Foday-Khabenje, General Secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa
The prevailing Coronavirus, COVID 19 strand, crisis unfolds the fragility and fallibility of the human race, notwithstanding the tendency for humans to live as if they care less about who created the world. Panic and anxiety continue to mount as the way of living has been disrupted dramatically, in a very short timeframe, for everyone. The COVID 19 pandemic seems to have a kind of leveling effect; great countries or countries that have at times been classified as not so great are all panicky and subdued. In fact, the greater the country, the more panicky.
The Creoles of Sierra Leone say: “Rain nor de fall-don na one man dow mot” (It does not rain only for a single household). The Corona virus has busted the comfort and fortress of state mansions, starting with the world’s leading economy and other powerful nations of the world. The slum dwellers await their fate in fear and trepidation, wondering when the virus comes, knocking on their fragile doors. (How I pray that God will let this pass over them).
The Corona pandemic has caused immense human suffering and continues to do so. The subject of suffering is an emotive topic and raises all kinds of questions; causing other forms of suffering like crisis in faith, fear and despair. People will be slow to admit the socialization of our actions, for good or evil, and the far-reaching impact. With the inclinations of human heart, perhaps more evil is propagated than good. Thus, suffering may often, be driven by actions of others or self-inflicted than we would like to admit. Cause and effect do have the mystical and spiritual side to it as well. Some have attributed the crisis as punishment for their sins or sins of others, from God or spirits/lesser gods. Others think only science or some Gnosticism or mysticism has all the answers to human suffering.
Lest we forget, we are in the time of the year, the Christian Liturgical Calendar calls Lent. Lent culminates in the ‘Passion’ of Christ. The Passion of Christ focuses on a single week, the last week of his earthly life, which we call ‘Passion week’—his arrest, torture and death on the cross. Passion here is not about his deeds but what he suffered; the Latin interpretation of the word. The Christian Church reflects on the tumultuous events of that final week (Luke 24:17-24). Events that firmly established and clarified the identity of the Messiah and his saving work. The broader sense of the term encompasses the whole incarnate life of Jesus, what is called the tumbling down effect. His humility in condescending to take on human nature, from his lofty and exalted position in the Godhead in heaven (Heb 2:9; Mark 8:31).
In particular, the Passion of Christ is marked by his birth, even in an inn, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger; the travail and vicissitudes of his earthly life, tempted, thirsted and hungered, dispersed and forsaken, abused and betrayed; his death and burial on a wooden cross and borrowed tomb; and finally, his descension to the dead. Talk about dilemma and paradox; indeed, it is an enigma that the Messiah comes to suffer and die (John 12:27; Phil. 2:8). Oh yes, the sufferer was God-incarnate!
The Great news is that the grave could not hold Jesus Christ captive; he resurrected, ascended into heaven, taking into the heart of the Trinity the resurrected body of humanity. The Bible says, he sits there as our brother and advocate with full resumption of his Divine authority, glory and majesty and in anticipation of welcoming us where he is (1 Peter 3: 18-22). The best human intelligence, ingenuity or reasoning could never have predicated this reversal. No wonder, many continue to view the Christ events as absurd and foolishness. Nevertheless, this is the bedrock of the Christian faith and understood with impeccable evidence—the empty tomb to show and transformative encounters with our living God.
Christ’s Passion (suffering) embraces the full range of human agonies. Thomas Oden said: “To preach is to announce the Cross. To worship is to come to the Cross. To believe is to trust in the One crucified”. The Cross, on which Christ died, is not ‘far away’ from the Christian life; we are daily invited to pick up the cross and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24-26); enter into ‘the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, become like him in his death and to attain resurrection from death (Phil. 3:10-11). No Cross, no Christianity. It is at the feet of the Cross that we bring and lay down all our diseases, all our wounds for healing.
In his dying for us, death has died. This is how we can say: death cannot separate us from the love of God; this the reason that we can ridicule death: where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting (1 Cor. 15:55). Our Saviour’s death for us is not without consequences or imperatives. He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Cor. 5:15). He who is light of the world looks to his followers on earth, to reflect his glow and shine. Thus, he said, you are the salt and light of the world (Matt. 5:13-14). Christ’s passion and victory over death must inform the Church and response to human tragedy and inspire hope and cast out fear; with this confidence we can arise and make a response, even in the face of the Corona pandemic. The reason for establishment of Church and the pronouncement to be the salt and light of the world, makes it an imperative to do just that.
How we go about the mission of the Church has always caused division in the Church. As a representative platform, we take this opportunity to reach out to you, our constituents, with some perspectives in the cacophony of voices. We have listened and observed and sense the need to issue this missive, in the hope that it will be helpful to our alliance leaders and pastors in stepping up and making necessary and God honouring responses and care for members of our congregations, communities and collectively, the nation as a whole. We have also interacted with brethren in various countries and wish to glean from their wisdom in giving for guidance for the decisions and actions we take:
Certainly, this does not stop our worship of God and does not mean a sign of unbelief or worldly compromise, nor is this done lightly by our leaders or out of fear. This action may in fact, enhance worship of our God. Simply put, the Christian worship is not and cannot be limited to congregational worship only and in the four walls of a building. The Christian God is not stuck in the Church building, where we go to meet him on Sunday, like the dead gods of the shrines. I am not trying to dismiss the importance of that sacred space of our gathering, but pushing for an understanding of true worship; whether this is in the sanctuary/temple or church building or outside of it. It is insightful to note that much of the New Testament Scripture was written by Saint Paul while locked up in jail.This an opportunity for pastors to continue to teach through worship and help their members understand the nature of true worship in and out of the congregation. Many are also exploring the use of technology to do church. However, the vast majority in Africa may not be able to congregate in virtual space, but even these can explore worship of God, beyond the obvious congregational services in the church building. Like dealing with the treatment of the virus, we can learn from the burgeoning Chinese church, without Church buildings as well.
May the Lord continue to watch over us while we are separated physically, one from another, as members of the same congregation. Trusting in our Lord and Saviour who has bore all our pains and griefs, that we may have life and have it in abundance. Praise the Lord.