This is a particularly strange Easter. We are unable to gather together physically: and there is much fear in our community of contagion. People live under the shadow of COVID-19. Our observation of Lent has been heightened. In Lent we reflect on those evils which break our relationships with God or with others: Coronavirus has given us a very real understanding of the costs involved when relationships are disrupted due to forces we cannot really control. Like all contagions, it gives us a sense of darkness.
When I was a young man in the mid-1980s there was another contagion stoking fear – the Human Immuno-Virus, also known as HIV. It was first known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. It originated in Africa and there was spread mainly by heterosexual intercourse, but in the West was first associated mainly with gay men and intravenous drug users. Those of us who lived in those times remember that many people declared that it was God’s punishment on gay men.
At the time I was a parishioner at the Church of St John the Evangelist in the Sydney suburb of Gordon. Fr Bill Weston was the Parish Priest – a conservative man whose style was quiet and self-effacing. But one particular Sunday in 1984 he was on fire with the Spirit. In his sermon he declaimed – quite rightly – against those who taught that AIDS was God’s judgement on gay people. Rather it was God’s judgement on us: for we would be judged on our compassion and care for those who suffered.
Today you also hear on the margins preachers who see Coronavirus as God’s judgement, and they follow a long history of preachers who have seen various plagues as judgement or as preparatory for the last days. But this is quite theologically unsound. Jesus himself makes clear that bad things happen but they are not to be seen as being a particular judgement on those who suffer (Luke 13.1-6) – rather it is part of the general suffering of humanity. Our response therefore to such suffering is not to condemn the victims, but it is to respond to their suffering in love and with love.
In the Gospel according to John the themes of love and light are intertwined, like strands on a length of string. This Easter I think of John’s great prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In Holy Week we reflect on the darkness: the sin and the fear that we can see in our world, especially in times of contagion. On Good Friday we see the death of our Lord, and we tremble: for he has taken upon himself all our suffering – and all our sin. We look at our own sin, our own failures and brokenness, and rightly seek his forgiveness knowing that there is nothing we can do to make it all right again.
Then on Easter Sunday as the sun breaks over the tomb, there is light: the light which overcomes the darkness. At this time of contagion we are perhaps in a prolonged season of Lent: our Easter celebrations this year will not seem quite real. But when we meet together again and see each other face-to-face then we can indeed celebrate and join in the great Festival of Easter. Then we share in the light. Until then, we keep in the light by sharing in God’s love and sharing that love with each other and all our neighbours. We do not give in to despair but, reassured by the victory of Christ, look forward with faith and hope. This Easter as we are physically separated, we are nevertheless bound together by the unseen chain of God’s love. May we live as people of hope, for whom the light will always shine. Amen.
The Right Reverend Dr Keith Joseph
Bishop of North Queensland
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