As the number of deaths caused by Covid-19 passes 100,000, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written an Epistle to the Nation calling everyone to prayer. And if you don’t pray, you are exhorted to pause and reflect:
It is interesting (sociologically and theologically) that what would in former years have been prominently and urgently titled ‘A Call to Prayer and Repentance’ has become a polite invitation to pause and reflect. The word ‘pray’ doesn’t appear until the seventh paragraph, and ‘repentance’ features nowhere. It is an epistle to the nation of comfort and compassion; of soothing words and healing therapy.
And that is exactly as it should be. This letter is, in fact, a perfectly pitched message to those who are lost and lonely, or bewildered and battered by the burdens of life. And you don’t beat them over the head with talk of sin and repentance, especially when they don’t know what such terms mean. If you think this letter is therapeutic deism, you are missing the missiological method. If you are more concerned to cavil over whether ‘Jesus shares the weight of our sadness’ rather than paying the price of our sin, you are forgetting St Paul’s exhortation to accept and encourage those who are weak in faith (Rom 14:1): ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able‘ (1Cor 3:2).
Those who thrive on red meat might reflect on the impeccable method of this letter, which echoes (consciously or intuitively) the method of mission adopted by Jesus when he meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Witnessing to Jesus is central to discipleship; ‘how’ must be with gentleness and sensitivity; humility and graciousness.
Writing to the nation is like talking to a Samaritan woman: the nation isn’t thirsting for God; she does not ask Jesus about spiritual matters. How could she and why would she if she does not have knowledge of who he is? It is Jesus who initiates the conversation with the mundane: ‘Give me to drink‘ (Jn 4:7), to which she enquires: ‘How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ (v9). Her question is concerned with matters of prejudice, sex and race, which Jesus turns, gently and reverently: ‘If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water‘ (v10). Her question about drinking water is transformed into an opportunity to witness to the life-giving water of eternal salvation. She didn’t ask about faith: she was bound by historic enmity, sex inequality, ceremonial uncleanness and social convention. Jesus didn’t wait for her to ask him about his faith: he spied an opportunity and went for it.
Nicodemus approached Jesus, and the witness was immediate. Jesus approached the Samaritan woman, and his request was for assistance. He didn’t bash her over the head with doctrine or give her a gospel tract about sin and repentance: he asked of her a favour. How many Christians win a soul by first humbly asking for assistance with something? Aren’t social contact and meaningful relationship preferable to the noisy gong and clanging cymbal of public declaration? Is it not better to witness for Christ by a life of humility and holiness rather than words?
But what about the prophetic ministry? Are prophets called to be gentle, respectful and reverent? Should they ‘wait’ to be invited before they speak what God has told them? It is worth observing that Jesus was rather abrupt, if not rude to the Samaritan woman: ‘Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly‘ (v17f). Now this might be a certain cause of offence, now as then, for the conviction of sin is rarely received with gentleness and grace: ‘Who on earth does he think he is, judging my chosen lifestyle and condemning my personal morality?’ We might even call it discrimination, prejudice or ‘hate’. And yet the insensitive challenge illuminates a soul: ‘The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet‘ (v19).
The prophet is called to foretell the will of God and forthtell the word of God. In speaking about the omniscience of the Godhead or matters of truth, justice, morality and authority, the prophet will not wait for secularists, atheists, fascists, Marxists or totalitarian regimes to invite him to speak about his faith: he will proclaim that he saw Satan fall and Christ exalted, and his witness may lead to martyrdom, for holiness with zeal can be a bit prickly, and humanistic utopias aren’t conducive to the myths of eternal salvation.
Not all are called to be prophets, of course. But all saints are called to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks about the reason for the hope that we have. For the pastor and evangelist, it is far better to wait for and listen to others before we expound the primacy of the freedom of the gospel over legalistic justification. For the apostle and prophet, there is no waiting: political corruption, judicial malfeasance, violent and sexually perverted entertainment, widespread criminality… these shadows will be subject to the light of God’s judgment, and the prophetic testimony is urgent: repent of sin and come to Christ by faith for justification by his covenant grace. You just don’t preach it in those terms to the nation during a global pandemic when 100,000 have died and millions are grieving: you just sit in reverent silence, and offer a shoulder, and quietly weep with those who weep.