“The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
In the Christian calendar, we are now in Ordinary Time, the season between Pentecost and Advent. During this season we reflect on Christian discipleship, and the life and witness of the church in the world. But this is no ordinary time. The global Covid-19 pandemic, and global protest against racism. make it extraordinary. So just as we must think about life in the post Covin-19 “new normal”, we must also consider what Christian discipleship and witness means in this “new ordinary time.”
From early times, Christians learnt that the Second Coming of Christ and the arrival of God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, were delayed. Jesus said it would be so. “The end is not yet,” he told his disciples even if current events suggest it must be imminent. When it happens, everyone will be taken by surprise. Nevertheless, despite delays, there are always signs of the coming kingdom that keep hope alive, just as there are advances in finding a cure for Covid-19 and victories in the struggle against racism. But the struggle against both pandemics, as President Ramaphosa (including gender-based violence in the equation) reminded us last night on TV, is a marathon not a sprint. So, the struggle for justice, and peace, continue. But how can we be saved from fatalism, despair, and resignation when the end is not in sight? How do we continue to believe, hope, struggle for justice, witness to the love of God, in such an extraordinary time?
Normally when people hear the words “being saved”, they assume they refer to individual salvation after death. But Jesus’ words, “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” are not about that, for salvation in that sense is not dependent on our endurance. His words are about witnessing to the gospel in times of persecution when such witnessing is costly. Eugene Petersen’s translation of Matthew 10:22 captures the gist of what Jesus said:
“There is great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all worth it in the end … Before you have run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.”
The words echo the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “save us from the trial and deliver us from evil” as we proclaim God’s love for a suffering world in which falsehood, injustice, greed, and hatred are rampant.
Even in the best of times witnessing to the gospel of God’s love for the world in Christ is difficult and sometimes dangerous. But in extraordinary times, when it is so easy to be overwhelmed by circumstance, fear, and acts of violence, it is understandable why some people cave in, lose hope for the future, and quit the struggle for a more equitable and just world in times such as this. It may be relatively easy for those of us who have the material resources to endure, but what about those who have nothing to fall back on when the going gets tough? What about those bearing the full brunt of the pandemic as they fulfil essential services? What about teachers who are fearful of the consequences of re-opening the classrooms? What about the victims of police and gender-based violence? When will all this end? How can we be saved from despair, from quitting the struggle, from caving in and giving up? How can we witness to the love of God in such times?
Sometimes we unthinkingly respond to such questions with “pious platitudes” — trust in God, pray more, go to church, and read the Bible! Such advice too often lacks substance and many people have long given up on taking them seriously. But such counsel need not be either pious or platitudinal. So, what do they mean? For starters, read Lamentations, Job, the Psalms, or the story of Jesus being forsaken on the Cross. If ever there were experiences of hell – the absence of God – they are to be found right there, at the centre of the biblical narrative. The Bible does not sugar-coat the bitter pill of human despair in God, or even anger directed at God for being absent when needed most. When we are most likely to quit the struggle.
So, what does it mean to trust in God? It means to live out of the conviction that, “in the end”, God’s love is more powerful than hatred, that hope in God’s purposes can help us overcome despair, and that God’s justice is more powerful than oppression. Such convictions cannot be proved or falsified, they are faith-based. But if we start living in this way – which, to repeat, is what faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is about – we discover that prayer becomes a conversation with God in which we can express our hopes and longings, as well as our complaints, anger, fears, and failures. And, in doing so, we are often surprised to discover that there is an eternal empathy and love that sustains us, empowers us to love others, and enables us to do what is right and just in the world. So we endure, hopefully to the end, not by gritting our teeth but by the grace that saves us.
But further, in such a time as this “new ordinary time”, when church doors in many places are still closed for fear of the virus, paradoxically many people are discovering what the church truly is outside the walls. The true church of Christ is a community in whose life we can participate even in lockdown. It is a community of compassionate people who serve others; a community of people committed to the struggle for justice and peace that is even found protesting injustice on the streets; a “communion of saints” whose prayers uphold us when we are tempted to despair and give up; a community in which “when one suffers all suffer, and when one rejoices all rejoice”; a community in which the words of the gospel come alive and speak to us in fresh and relevant ways, in which the Eucharist becomes a means of grace for endurance in love, in which we share the peace of Christ with “the other”, and are empowered by the Spirit to serve the world. In this way our weak trust in God and our inadequate prayers are sustained by countless others whose cumulative faith is stronger than our own and whose prayers are more constant. That is why we can by grace endure to the end, even though “knocked to the ground by suffering or grief” — as Isobel expressed in her poem based on Julian of Norwich’s Revelations written shortly after the death of our son Steve.
When we are knocked to the ground by suffering or grief,
left gasping and numb,
feeling we cannot go on,
Christ comes to us in the demeanour of his Passion,
showing us his face of suffering.
In our sorrow we see he has been there too:
in our pain we see his pain
knowing he can carry ours.
When we are under attack by forces outside ourselves,
Intentional or random,
Punch-drunk with violence, tragedy, evil,
Christ is there already in the demeanour of his Passion,
But now as victor over evil,
Fielding the assault, bearing the pain.
When we are brought low by our own sin,
left feeling wretched and worthless,
Christ comes to us in his demeanour of compassion,
showing us his face of sympathy and understanding.
He can protect us from ourselves
and set us on our way again.
And then there is the third demeanour,
that of his radiant face of glory,
given to us in brief moments by the Spirit,
to inspire and enlighten us:
caught as a vision of what awaits us,
For now we only see, as it were,
a poor reflection in a mirror,
but then we will see face to face –
Our Risen Lord.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 19 June 2010