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How does the Church Respond to a Plague? We say No to Fear and Yes to Enjoying Heaven Now

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Part 1

“Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows” –Cyprian of Carthage AD 252

Far too many people view Christ as nothing more than a get-out-of-hell-free card. He’s only a thing you use at the end of your life but has little or no bearing on your present life. Jesus might pop up in conversation on Sundays, but otherwise, he is inconsequential for thinking and living. Is this all the Christian life is about? Did the Triune God send the Son to become incarnate and die on the cross for no other advantage? It begs the veracity of Christ saying, ‘Behold, the Kingdom is near’ if there is no enjoying of heaven now.

In the following series, we will explore one of the more difficult topics to discuss, our own mortality. We will approach it through the now pressing, and polarizing matter of the fear, anxiety, depression, and death our culture is experiencing on account of Covid. I do not intend to address matters of politics, vaccines, or masks but on the weightier matter of Christian hope and confidence. Specifically, I want to wrestle with and answer the important question, ‘Where is my hope and confidence?’ I hope we arrive at a place that is not a petri dish or test tube, but the real-world experience of singing from our hearts, ‘my hope is in Christ and nothing else.’

The struggle with suffering and afflictions is not new for humans. Surely the last breathes of Abel were marked by the emotional turmoil that was heaped on his physical pain. Jesus told his disciples they would be afflicted like him (John 15:21), and the author to the Hebrews is a cheerleader encouraging endurance (Heb 10–12; 1 Peter 2:19). Paul also impressed the reality upon the Romans too. In Rom 5:3-5, Paul proclaims that we rejoice in sufferings knowing that God is making us powerful people through such trials. The reason we can endure and even rejoice in times of suffering is because the love of God is poured into our hearts. Of course, this message of hope, power, and love is contrary to the world’s message of fear.

To guide us through the topic of Christian hope amid mortality and plague, we will explore an ancient tract that John Calvin called the definitive writing on a Christian response to death. In AD 252, Cyprian of Carthage circulated his powerful sermon ‘On Mortality.’ Delivered during a world-changing pandemic, Cyprian offers penetrating clarity on some key Christian questions, most notably, “God promises to you, on your departure from this world, immortality and eternity; and do you doubt?”[1] The answer to this question has consequences for how we think and live during good and bad times.

In the following series, we will look at the voices of Christians that have endured tough times before us and have now entered eternal rest. We will wrestle with rich biblical insights that are borne of the trials of death and suffering and point us to apprehend what is most significant in this life and the next. And most importantly, we will be confronted with Christ offering joy and hope that supersedes the momentary fears of this world.

Christian Resources: A Christian is never alone

Before turning to the seemingly uncomfortable topics of mortality and plagues, we need to drive out a lie all too easy to adopt during difficult times. A Christian responding to difficult seasons, events, or issues always has many resources to draw upon; a Christian is never alone. As the Preacher taught, there is really nothing new under the sun (Qoh 1:9). Therefore, one who buries a child, receives a negative medical report, suffers persecution, or is exploited by the ravages of the world is not alone in these atrocities. The suffering Christian does not weep alone. The blood and tears of Christ bond the covenant community of Christ.

Our benefits are not only emotional camaraderie. They are also tangible resources for the realities of life. Those in Christ have the present active gifts of scripture, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), church history, the cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1), and the present community of faith. In the present resurgence of a plague of fear, sickness, and anxiety stemming from Covid, I want to turn us to church history.

The Church has been around long enough to weather more than one storm. Despite a constant onslaught of challenges from within and without since the Garden, sin and death have not overtaken the Church. Consequently, church history is replete with examples of how previous brothers and sisters have responded to the suffering from death by plague. Our forebears, brothers, and sisters in the faith are certainly not infallible, but as followers of the same Lord, their experiences make it pragmatically advantageous and wise to glean from them. We also do well to scrutinize their weaknesses, recover their wisdom, and adopt their fearless resolve.[2]

[1] Cyprian of Carthage, “On the Mortality,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 470. [2] While I believe Cyprian’s sermon is one of the greatest of all time, one will note some places that can stand to be altered. To keep us free from heroism, I will draw attention to places deserving improvement.

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