17 September 2020
Healing the World: Bible Studies for the Pandemic Era
By Rev. Dr David Marshall
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.—Genesis 12:1-4a, NRSV
We are in unfamiliar territory. Even just in terms of church, each Sunday in this pandemic has brought very new experiences. Signs at the church door saying certain people cannot enter. Discouragement of shaking hands at the peace (which I confess I earlier ignored in one or two cases, and I now know I really should not do that…). And for the first time in my life, Communion services at which we do not receive wine.
When I look at a group photograph, I always want first to see how I look in it. Do I look ok? Fine, then, that’s the main question. It’s the same with this virus. How does it look for me? OK, I’ll probably get it, along with more than half the world, but hopefully it shouldn’t be too bad for me, or my wife, or our healthy sons.… Gradually I may start to look at the bigger picture. What about my mother, in her 80s, and other elderly or sick relatives, friends, members of this community? And, with working remotely and then only intermittently returning to my worksite, the pattern of my familiar reality has changed rapidly. So my self-focused attention starts to be challenged and I begin, I hope, to see the bigger picture. I begin to understand that the healthcare system will soon be overloaded, businesses are going bust, and so on. This isn’t just about me.
What is true of me as a self-focused individual is also true of us as nations. An American epidemiologist commented in a prescient interview, “We Americans are often accustomed to having terrible things happen elsewhere in the world.” We may have laughed or sneered at Donald Trump’s America First mantra, but in our hearts we all say “Me first, my people first.” Yes, there is violence in this world, and plague, and other terrible things – O God, have mercy on all those poor people – but, O God, keep it at a safe distance from me and my people.
In a lecture at the University of Ghana in February 2020, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the coronavirus crisis. Linking it with the continuing environmental crisis, he observed that the virus does not read maps. Nor does the changing climate, nor the havoc it brings to millions of lives. They pay no attention to political boundaries. They treat the human race on equal terms. These crises remind us that we are an interconnected reality. In a most unwelcome way, the physical world is teaching us some theological truths, truths about God, and about ourselves. Can we listen?
The Text in Its Context
In this context, the biblical account of the call of Abraham speaks an important word to us today, a word about blessing. God says to Abraham: “Go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God blesses Abraham and makes him a blessing to the world.
This is God’s response to the sin, violence, and division spreading through the good creation. In the earlier chapters of Genesis, we read of the rebellious disobedience of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, such human wickedness in the time of Noah that God was sorry for making humans at all, and then the overreaching pride of the Tower of Babel and the chaos that follows.
God creates a beautiful, abundant world and places us at the heart of it, made in God’s image to be wise stewards of creation. But we ignore God and God’s ways, and things fall apart. God made us to live together in the enjoyment of God’s blessing and in the totally connected blessing of loving inter-dependence with each other. But we, disastrously, choose not inter-dependence but independence from God and from each other. And we lose the blessing.
God loves what God has made. God’s will is to restore the lost blessing and the inter-dependence which is an essential part of it. And God starts this restoration project by calling one man, Abraham. God blesses Abraham and promises to hold him and his people in his love and faithfulness forever. But from the start God tells him: “Abraham, this isn’t just about you and your people. I am blessing you, to make you a blessing to others. I am giving to you, so that you can give. I set my light upon you, to make you and your people a light to the world.” God’s blessing has this outward-moving dynamic; it pushes us toward that blessed state of inter-dependence that is at the heart of God’s good purposes for the whole of creation.
The Text in Our Context
That is why this story of God blessing Abraham and making him a blessing to the world speaks to us today, at a time when, as human beings, we often reject the inter-dependence that God wills for us and take refuge in fortresses of our selfish human devising. But our fortresses do not keep out viruses or the rising temperatures and water levels of climate change. So we have to learn again, in hard ways, if necessary, the inter-dependence that God wills for the human family.
God’s promise of blessing upon Abraham and through him is opened up more widely, to all people, in Jesus Christ. Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord and Saviour, is the focus of God’s project of restoration, restoring us to knowledge of God’s love and of loving inter-dependence with each other and with all people throughout God’s creation.
That is what it has always meant to be part of the church, and that is what it means today in the midst of this crisis: To be blessed by God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to be a blessing to the world. That will mean modelling in the world the ways of loving inter-dependence, mutual respect, and service that God wills for us, and that, on a macro level, should also shape relationships between the nations of the world.
As Christians, we can be confident in this identity and calling given to us through Christ; at the same time, this very confidence enables us to reach out beyond our own communities in a spirit of respectful cooperation with others for the sake of God’s world. For Jews, God’s call and the blessing of Abraham remain fundamental, and their faith generates a powerful imperative to work for the healing of the world, with which we should seek to cooperate wherever we can. Abraham is also of great importance for Muslims, and with them, too, Christians can find common cause in struggling together for the common good. Indeed, as the World Council of Churches has affirmed with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in a recently published joint document, Christians should seek opportunities for working together in solidarity with all other communities for the healing of our wounded world, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.
A Season of Testing
What, then, does it look like for a church community to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to others through this challenging season that is upon us?
We have to recognize the dilemmas and disruption involved in the suspension of some of the normal aspects of life in the church. There is a painful irony in the fact that for the good of the wider community we in the church must embrace the policies of social distancing that are medically necessary. The epidemiologist I quoted earlier, Dr. Lisa Gilbert, affirms strongly that it is foolish and selfish not to observe these policies carefully. But she also recognizes the loss involved.
The Christian faith is a sacramental, physical business. It diminishes us that we cannot share the cup of salvation, that we cannot shake hands or share the kiss of peace. Gilbert says: “”We can recognize that [such practices] are very, very good, but at the same time, they’re not God himself. We will continue to worship through this season, but maybe in different ways than we have before. And hopefully it’s only temporary. It’s not like this is going to become the [permanent] state of the church — as if we are always going to be distant from each other . . . We’re still going to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. And then later, we will resume those ways of worship that are good for our souls and bodies.”
Through this testing season we must be ready, more than usually, to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. Within this community let us be attentive to each other’s needs – practical and medical needs, emotional and spiritual needs. But, like Abraham, we are also to be a blessing to the wider world. A member of our congregation told me of an episode that she had never previously experienced in all her life in Switzerland, when an elderly, distressed, sick person she did not know asked to hold her hand on a train. It may just have been coincidental that this happened recently, yet it seems symbolic of the needs growing around us and the calls there will be upon our compassion. In coming days and weeks I guess we can all expect more of the same. Drawing peace and strength from the blessing that is upon us, and looking for opportunities to cooperate widely, let us pray that we will bring God’s blessing to others.
- Count your blessings: in what ways have you and your community been blessed by God—in your traditions and heritage, gifts and resources, ministry and community spirit?
- How has your church life changed during the pandemic? What are the blessings and testings in those changes?
- As churches, what blessings—religious or theological, social, cultural—might we share? How do we connect our blessings to others’ needs, and what other communities—churches, synagogues or mosques, agencies and organizations—might we partner with in that work?
- World Council of Churches and Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity: A Christian Call to Reflection and Action during COVID-19.
- R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
- Michael Wyschogrod, ed. and intro. by R. Kendall Soulen, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004).
- Psalm 91: Hear a psalm of thanksgiving for blessings, from the Abbey of Keur Moussa, Senegal
God of all the world, you made your covenant with Abraham, blessing him and making him a blessing. Through Jesus, crucified and risen, you have opened that covenant to all nations, and have sent us on a journey of discovery, eager to find you in each new venue and circumstance. Entune us to the blessings with which you shower us, and strengthen our hearts, minds and bodies so that we, your church, may bring blessings to all the families of the earth. Amen.
Rev. Dr David Marshall has served as programme executive in interreligious dialogue and co-operation at the World Council of Churches since August 2018, with particular responsibility for Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim relations. Prior to coming to the WCC, he served in a variety of contexts, including as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2000 to 2005. He has taught at St Paul's University (Limuru, Kenya), Edinburgh University, Duke Divinity School, and Georgetown University.