St Philip and St James’s church, Grafton Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2DD

Life in all its fullness – in the face of a pandemic

The other sermon

The sermon that I wanted to preach this morning was about the Samaritan woman at the well.

I wanted to talk to you about unlooked for conversations about fullness of life. I wanted to talk about the way in which Jesus invites us on the perilous journey into fullness of life and how our forthcoming confirmation course is an opportunity to take another step on that journey.

But given the events of this week, that now seems a bit irrelevant. So, what have we learnt this week? We have watched this virus come closer to us. We’ve watched cases in the UK increase and in the last 24 hours.  We have seen the death rate double. We have learnt about flattening the curve of an epidemic.  We have begun to learn about herd immunity and have explored the benefits or otherwise of face-masks.

As we have gathered to be here this morning, I imagine that you may have had conversations before you left home either with yourself or others about the wisdom of coming to church. As we sit here this morning, we may well be wondering about the wisdom of our proximity to our neighbours and we may well be worrying about that cough we can hear in the background.

It seems as if we can’t quite find an equilibrium between our British desire for business as usual and an appropriate response to something which this week has become a global pandemic. In this unfolding situation we all need to listen to the health professionals and to follow their guidance. And I would like to assure you this morning that I and the churchwardens are doing just that, insofar as this affects our life as a church community, in the midst of a wider community. We are meeting together each week, we are reviewing the advice and attempting to make the best decisions that we can.

There are, however, some other things which we ought to reflect upon about the situation.  Things which might help us to understand what is happening- in the light of the God who offers us fullness of life.

 Our Fallen world

 Firstly, we believe that we live in a fallen world. The story of that fall unfolds in the opening chapters of Genesis. It is a story of God’s original blessing, a story of the rebellion of humanity and of the effects of that rebellion upon our world.

We often focus on the fallen nature of humanity, made in the image of God.  Yet the Bible also speaks about a fallen creation; a place of fracture, pain, disease, toil and death.  And this pandemic is one example of that fallen creation. It is a symptom of the world which is both blessed yet broken.

But the story only begins there. For the Bible also speaks of the arc of God’s saving purposes and of the redemption of the whole of creation. So that in the closing chapters of our Bible, we read of a new heaven and a new earth, of God coming to live with his people and wiping away the tears from our eyes.

And even today scientists, doctors, nurses, statisticians and policymakers- made an image of God, using their God-given skills and talents are all involved in that sweep of salvation in which creation is being redeemed.

 Our fallen humanity

 If we believe that our creation is fallen, we also know that our human nature is fallen as well. And we have also seen examples of that this week.

I can understand people panic buying antibacterial wash but I find it more difficult to understand the panic buying of pasta, let alone toilet roll!  I fear we are seeing humanity act in its worst self-interest. What we have seen here is not herd immunity, where the exposure of the many who are fit has the potential to protect the few who are  frail but rather herd instinct.  Indeed in Italy, it seems, that when the quarantine was announced in the north thousands of people got on trains to the south- taking their germs with them.

The Bible speaks of God offering us life and death and inviting us to choose life. It’s a choice which brave people have made in difficult circumstances before.

In 1665 the bubonic plague arrived in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. Cloth had arrived from London and with it the plague bacterium. The community turned to those with education and in leadership positions. They included the vicar, Reverend Richard Mompesson, and the local Puritan minister, who had been ejected from the Church of England in one of our less generous moments.

They concluded that the community ought to bury their own dead. They also moved worship outdoors meeting in a natural amphitheatre. As I read of the story, my mind wondered whether we ought to be gathering in Montpellier Gardens?

They also, importantly, agreed to quarantine themselves. When the plague arrived there were 350 people living in the village. By the end of the outbreak only 83 survived, including Mompesson and, interestingly, the gravedigger. Importantly, the plague did not spread.

The choice to put others before ourselves, the choice to be guided by love is ever before us. And choices less costly than those I’ve just outlined but just as important are before us again. And how we respond is also part of our salvation.

Our God reigns, still…

 Fallen, as we are, we still believe that our God reigns. That ours is a God who is our beginning and our end and that, despite everything, still holds us in the palm of his hand. And that despite the all-encompassing media narrative, there are truths longer and deeper than the latest headlines.

Over 70 years ago CS Lewis reflected in a typically English, robust, faithful way on another threat – that of the atomic bomb.  He wrote these words:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—aesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Fullness of life

So maybe I should finish by talking fullness of life after all?  Because time and again, in the Gospel from which we read earlier, this is what Jesus offers us and that is what he offered to that Samaritan woman at the well. She thinks that she is being offered something cheap and useful – running water. The antibacterial spray of it’s day. But what is actually being offered her something more precious and eternal.

In a recent book entitled “Alive to God“ a previous leader of the Dominican order in this country, Timothy Radcliffe, wrote of this offer which Jesus makes to fullness of life. In it he reminds us of the words of Irenaeus who said that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. He speaks of Jesus summoning people on the perilous adventure into being fully alive.

This is what Jesus offers us each and every day, in good times and in bad and even now in the midst of this crisis. We have, once again, the opportunity through our choices and actions, through acts of care, concern and generosity not only to discover that life for ourselves but also to offer it to others.

So without panic and fear but in love and hope, I invite you this day to take another step on the perilous adventure of living life in all its fullness.


Date Posted Title Listen Download
Mar 15, 2020 Life in all its fullness – in the face of a pandemic Listen Download