Dr Ali Gray

This sermon was given by Dr Ali Gray on 1st March. You can listen to the sermon by going to the website of the Church of the Ascension, Munich.


I want to address the elephant in the room, not the big grey wrinkled thing, but the small spiky highly infectious thing called the coronavirus. 

Here is where it gets difficult for me, I can easily speak as a doctor and explain that although this virus is more infectious it is not much worse in its effects than ordinary flu, so there is nothing to worry about, and I could then go on to tell you how to avoid the infection, but that’s in the bulletin (as well as all over the press).

Instead I want to focus on the theology, with the help of a bit of history and loads of science.

Viruses are part of God’s creation

Why would God create something, or allow something to evolve, which causes such distress and suffering? Because viruses have a positive role in nature, and their ability to harm humans is a side effect of this role.

Viruses are non-living entities which depend on their ability to hijack other cells to replicate. On their own they can’t do the things that living beings do- grow, change, reproduce.

There are billions of types of virus out there, most of them are bacteriophages which infect bacteria. So why did God make viruses?

Bacteria and viruses are essential for life on earth, there are billions of types of bacteria, many of which can take inorganic compounds and turn them into a form which living things can use. But the compounds are trapped inside the bacterial cell. The bacteriophage viruses attack the bacteria, splitting them open and releasing these nutrients.

Bacteriophage viruses are also important in controlling the bacteria population, bacteria divide into two every 20 minutes, unchecked the earth would just be filled with bacteria, so the ‘phages are part of God’s balanced ecosystem.

Now we can look at DNA in detail, we can see that many types of plant and animal have viruses in them. Often the viruses are not just not causing illness, but are actually helping the plant or animal, for example viral infected mice are more resistant to some bacteria. All people have viruses living in us, along with many types of bacteria.

Many of the viruses which cause human disease originated in another species and crossed the species barrier, HIV seems to have come from a Simian (monkey) virus, SARS from bats. 

Some viruses which cause illness in humans were probably in a balanced symbiotic relationship with their intended host. 

Viruses can be used by scientists in a redemptive way. Our understanding of genetics, of how cells work, and how we can alter DNA and cells machinery are only possible because of viruses.

Viruses are a natural part of God’s good creation, important in cycles of death and decay, a tiny percentage of which can cause human disease.

So how should we respond to the coronavirus epidemic?

Looking back in history we can see there are 5 types of response to any epidemic

Panic and flee

Pretend it’s not happening

Party

Penitence

Participate- Help others

Panic has taken hold in some places, a doctor friend in Prague tells me that there is a black market charging ridiculous amounts for face masks (which don’t help) and alcohol-based cleaning products (which do).

Those who pretend it’s not happening, simply carry on as normal, don’t change their behaviour one little bit, apart from avoiding anyone who is visibly ill. 

Another group simply go wild, and Party. The feeling here is that if we are all going to die soon anyway, we may as well enjoy our last few days, so “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. 

Others turn to God in penitence and cry out for forgiveness; During the Black Death in Germany in 1348 groups marched around barefoot singing hymns whilst whipping and beating themselves to try to appease God.

There is nothing wrong with penitence at all, it is good that we have a time to examine ourselves and our behaviour and turn back to God. The problem comes when the focus is on what we can achieve through our penitence and spiritual purity. Don’t think we can twist God’s arm and ensure our own and our loved one’s safety through the intensity of our spiritual disciplines; you will probably be sadly let down. God doesn’t promise to take away the difficult things in life, but to be right by our side as we go through tough times.

We repent and turn back to God because it is the right thing to do, not because of any benefit and blessings which may then come. Otherwise we slide into a teaching that with enough faith, enough repentance, enough self-denial any prayer will be answered as we wish, and with that teaching comes blame for all those who are still struggling, all those with chronic illness,

And then there are those who participate, who look around and see the need and help others. 

The early church grew very rapidly, and historians suggest that one reason for this is that the Christians cared for the sick during the regular epidemics which swept the Roman world, and those who recovered naturally joined the church.

In the early 360’s the Emperor of Rome was Julian, he was a former Christian who had returned to pagan ways and tried to reinvigorate paganism over and against Christianity.

This man, who has no reason at all to be nice to Christians wrote:

“when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.” 

“[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” 

Julian, Fragment of a Letter to a Priest, 337, in The Works of the Emperor Julian, II, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1913).

Jesus Christ, our role model showed compassion, healing societies outcasts, touching lepers, not fearing contamination.

Ultimately Christians don’t need to fear death We know that our lives are in God’s hands, and we trust God’s plan.

This work continues to this day, much of the work with those suffering from the Ebola virus currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo is undertaken by medical missionaries who daily put their lives in God’s hands. Ebola virus is very different to Coronavirus. It is highly infectious and kills half of those who contract it, so to choose to work in that field requires moral courage, trust in God’s call and God’s care.

………….

Here’s a report from Leonardo Blair at The Christian post January 31st.

“Medical missionary Dr. Rick Sacra was honored with the Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson L’Chaim (“To Life”) Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Mission Service along with a half-million dollar grant.

When Sacra got sick he had only been back in Monrovia for about four weeks after stepping in to volunteer shortly after… (others) became ill.

And he remembers it well.

“It was a Friday night when I developed the fever. ... I didn’t know of an exposure, but we had had several patients who died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. At that time we didn’t have good access to testing,” he explained. “But for some reason, I really felt from the moment I had the fever, I just thought, this is it. And I don’t know why but I just felt that this is Ebola.”

For a time, Sacra remained calm and connected with his wife and employer, SIM.

“That weekend, I was in my little apartment; I didn’t go anywhere. I talked with my wife on the phone. I talked with my medical director, my boss Dr. Brown. We decided we’d wait until Monday and do my test on Monday if I still had the fever. The fever didn’t break the whole weekend,” he said.

Even though he was sure he was doing what God wanted him to do, Sacra was tortured over what his possible death could mean for his family and the ELWA hospital.

He cried as he trusted God to keep him.

“I did cry about it. I was upset about it, mainly for the sake of my wife and my kids. And even for the hospital. What would this do to the hospital to have another one of our health care providers come down with Ebola? That was pretty difficult to think about,” he said. “But you know, I have to say that for myself, I just had a real sense of peace that God was saying, ‘I’m here.’ I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.I said to God, ‘God, but what about my family and what about the hospital?' 

And God kinda said, ‘Rick, I got it. I can handle that.’”

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

We can be like Rick Sacra, like thousands of doctors and nurses today, like the early Christians, and care for those around us, friends and strangers, by giving practical help, in prayer, and by following hygiene guidelines.

We don’t need to fear the coronavirus - which is, I repeat, many, many times less serious than Ebola.

We need to take sensible precautions and put ourselves into God’s hands.

Listen to Gods guidance, trust in God and God’s plan for our lives.

Psalm 31: 14-16

But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

 

https://www.christianpost.com/news/medical-missionary-who-fought-ebola-and-won-in-test-onf-faith-gets-500k-prize.html

https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/black-death2.htm

https://www.wm.edu/offices/auxiliary/osher/course-info/classnotes/delosreviewbeneficialviruses.pdf

 


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