by Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot
As churches continue to navigate the disruptions caused by COVID-19, it’s important to pause from time to time and remember our forebears in the faith. Our faith is comprised of many generations who endured much hardship. Their faith and mettle was tested frequently by the tumult of war, famine, national and international conflict, and honestly, no little measure of factions and feuds within the Church itself.
One church I served had a long-serving pastorate stretching between 1918 and 1948. Thirty years is a long season, yet when you count the number of disruptions that congregation would have experienced during those specific years locally, nationally and globally, it adds up: the end of one world war, the Spanish flu, a major 1927 flood that impacted Vermont rather severely, the Great Depression, and another world war, not to mention smaller tragedies along the way. And the list indeed goes on. Resilience and despair likely battled for which one would prevail as the predominant mood and mindset.
Yet they gathered week after week, year after year, generation after generation.
In tough times, it is helpful to remember the origins of our biblical witness. Some scholars point to the formation of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures as a project arising out of the Exilic period, when the people in Babylonian captivity (and thereafter, back among the ruins of Jerusalem) shared the stories of origins (Genesis) and an earlier time of great hardship (Exodus) in order to retain identity and strengthen the resolve of the people for the long haul. Ergo, when in doubt, Israel is to remember the One whose very breath gives life and through Moses gave likewise oppressed forebears the courage to rise up and head for the Promised Land.
Likewise, the New Testament arises alongside the early Church as it lives under the shadow of the Roman Empire. Christianity was an often persecuted, barely tolerated movement, only enjoying widespread acceptance when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the early fourth century. (A caveat mindful of Baptist principles: Constantine’s effort is a mixed bag for persons concerned about church/state entanglement.)
In the years of Paul’s ministry (approximately the 40-60s of the first century), Christianity endured great persecution and hardship. Paul himself is thought to have died at the hands of Romans in the early 60s. Despite the difficulty and adversity, the early Christians did not give up on the here and now. They were an expectant people, but they waited with remarkable faith, not just for Christ to return in judgment and glory. They also kept living out their lives, shaped by the gospel’s call to tend one another and “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
It is that radical witness of the early Church, that ability to stick to it, even when one’s hope for Christ’s return wears thin, even when the pressures of living out the contrary witness of the gospel seemed too much, it is this radical witness to Jesus that resounds in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul gives thanks for the dedicated faithfulness of the congregation, celebrating the goodness of what they do together for the sake of the gospel. Imagine these words as ones of encouragement to a little gathering of believers:
“God put this power to work in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Ephesians 1:20-21)
To the New Testament, this is the way the world should be perceived, not as a place where sin, brokenness, and death have the final word. Keep your head out of the clouds and the wonderings of “when.” Live as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ provide you the pattern for how you live your life. Let this story of the Ascension be the prologue to a life lived in faith.
In the midst of Paul’s thanksgiving for the distant Ephesian congregation, Paul also imparts a blessing. In Paul’s typical fashion, the blessing comes in one long strand of pearly wisdom. Admittedly, it feels like one of the “run-on sentences” you used to get your knuckles rapped for writing in middle school grammar. Paul offers:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1:17-19)
Vermont writer Frederick Buechner references Ephesians 1:18 in the title of his memoir The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999). In this book, Buechner writes of imaginary conversations he has with his departed relatives and friends. Buechner’s life has known its share of sadness and loss, yet through his faith, especially in his writing of novels and essays, Buechner has found the gospel there in the midst of his life.
Buechner does not profess to have explored the greater depths of the faith (I argue this point with him, for he writes with such candor and perception). Nonetheless, in his life pondering God in the midst of things, Buechner has glimpsed enough of that rich and abundant hope Paul speaks of that he is satisfied that the gospel is indeed wonderfully true. In the midst of the hurts, fears, loss, and sorrow of life, Buechner claims there is a deeper wisdom and joy to be found if we only but seek it. Out beyond the sum of our fears and loss, our inadequacies and anxieties, there exists a wonderful, abundant, and life-giving way.
We live in a world often prone to feeling its broken-down nature, yet Christians are given this vocabulary full of contrary words to live by. Words like peace, joy, love, and hope stand out and ask us to define them, not with wishy-washy triteness, but rather through the concrete experience of letting our eyes be open to the world, yet seeing what really matters through our hearts shaped by the great hope we find in Christ Jesus.
Through belief in Christ, the one who was born and lived among the marginalized, whose death was at the hands of the “powers that be” of this world, and whose resurrection, ascension, and promised return we take hope in, we learn to tell, and live out, a different story. The response of the faithful is not to turn a blind eye toward the sufferings of the world, nor to be willing or silently complicit partners to these sufferings taking root in political, economic, or social policies.
Think of our present-day COVID-19 experiences as part of that larger story of Jesus and those who follow his Way. We await his return with anticipation, yet we live in the meantime with hearts enlightened and emboldened to speak and live truthfully to the gospel and its mandates.
Like the early Christians, we catch ourselves sometimes pondering (and even sometimes longingly so) questions of “when?” Like the early Christians, Paul blesses us to see with the eyes of the heart, and live in the “here and now” as well.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot serves as the Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash