“See, I am coming soon…I am the Alpha and the Omega…the beginning and the end.”
“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…may they be one that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Living through this pandemic is like walking on a tight-rope. Having left the security of what was “normal” we traverse a dangerously narrow path towards an uncertain future. At any time, we could lose our balance between saving lives and saving the economy, and so fall into the abyss. We are only part of the way, but some are already starting to run in the hope of reaching the other side more quickly, while others take more care, trying to keep balance and not fall. But we all act in the hope that we will survive and arrive safely in the end.
But is it not true that we always live between past certainties and future uncertainties? When we are born, we leave the security of the womb, pass through a narrow gate into life, and begin a journey into the unknown. Along the way we also experience death – the death of grandparents, parents, family, and friends, and become aware that we also and always live under its shadow. We try not to be morbid and even joke about death, but we cannot escape its reality. Death stares us in the face even when we turn our faces away. That is part of being human, and even if in Christ we have “eternal life,” life in its fullness.
In the ninth century the Emperor Charlemagne divided history into two parts: BC (“before Christ) and AD (anno Domini, the “year of the Lord,” that is, the birth of Christ). As Western Christendom expanded across the globe, BC and AD became universal even if countries, like China, still observe their own calendar. For that reason, some scholars today speak of BCE (before the Christian era). Now some people are even saying that in future BC will stand for “before Covid-19” and, I guess, AP will mean after the pandemic. Certainly, living in lockdown has not only felt like walking on a tightrope from certainty to uncertainty, but living “between the times”; between the start of the pandemic and its anticipated end.
The first Christians also believed they were living “between the times,” but for them it was between the time of Christ’s resurrection, and his promised return which, as the book of Revelation (written during a time of great persecution) indicates, they believed would be soon. But whether soon or not, as it transpired, the question for them was not only about when the end would occur, but how they were to live in the mean-time in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. That is, living in the hope that God’s justice and peace would “cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Living and acting in such hope became, in fact, the motivation for Christian witness. As Christians broke bread in anticipation of Christ’s coming again, so they went into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s redemptive love for the world. The time “between the times” became the time of mission (“missio” Latin for “being sent.). And that remains true for us during this time of the Corona pandemic.
During this week between the Ascensions and Pentecost, the gospel readings from John 17 recount the “high priestly prayer” Jesus prayed before his death. His prayer was that his followers would remain one as “he and the Father were one”, and he declared that just as he had been sent into the world to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, so he was sending his followers to do the same. This is the significance of Pentecost – the beginning of the church as a community of people from every nation united in witness to the good news of God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ. This is how Christians are meant to live “between the times” – embodying reconciliation and so witnessing in the power of the Spirit to the good news of God’s coming justice and peace. That is how we Christians are meant to live “between the times”, whether during these times of the pandemic or once it is over.
The book of Revelation not only concludes by telling the first Christians, faced with severe persecution, that “Jesus will come soon,” but also that he is the “Alpha and Omega…the beginning and the end.” In other words, whether the end comes tomorrow or much later, the revelation of God’s love for the world in Christ remains constant because it is the creative origin of life as well as the redemptive goal of life. From beginning to end, then, the Christian life of faith is lived “between the times” – remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, and witnessing to the love of God for the world in anticipation of the coming of God’s justice and peace. That was never needed more than during this time of pandemic.
Thee pandemic has undoubtedly had serious consequences on the life of the church. Not only has it affected church finances and prevented people from coming together in fellowship, but it has also brought many church programmes of education and service to a halt even though much has still been achieved. But hopefully the pandemic is reminding us about what the church really is, and how it is called to live and witness “between the times.” The fact that most Christians throughout the world have been prevented from going to church buildings has not meant that the church has stopped being the church. The first Christians did not have church buildings; they gathered in homes for prayer and fellowship, and they did so in order to go into the world to proclaim the good news about Jesus. That is why at the end of the Eucharist we are sent into the world to love and serve. It is misleading, then, to say that once the pandemic is over, we can go back to church when we never stopped being the church.
In fact, being the church may not be about rushing to go back to those buildings we love in order to worship with others, as much as that may be what we desire, but it certainly is about acting responsibly at this time when the pandemic is far from over. For by acting responsibly we express our love for God, for each other, and for our neighbour. And that, after all, is what Christian witness is all about, an answer to Jesus’ prayer: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 28 May 2020