Are you going to fear and blame, or are you going to love and practice missionary medicine?
+Scripture Reading: Jas. 5:13-16
Is any one of you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick. The Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail.
I want to speak today about “Missionary Medicine.” Missionary medicine is usually the work of a medical missionary – a Christian missionary who goes about practicing medicine in areas of need. But missionary medicine isn’t just about medical missionaries – it’s about the “medicine” of missionary activity. Don’t we say in the Native American tradition that one’s spiritual power is his “medicine”? The Wampanoag word for it might be “manit”. In West African lingo, we call that juju.
Well, the medicine, the manit, the juju at the heart of missionary activity is the ruach ha kodesh, the Holy Spirit, of God. And it’s by the Spirit of God that Christians have been ministering to the sick for centuries – the sick in body, sick in mind, the sin-sick in soul.
Missionary Medicine matters to us very much today. We are a year into this Covid pandemic. They say here on the Island, we’re in a big case spike. People are afraid. Now someone confided in me recently that their case of Covid brought them to the E.R., and they had a nasty cough for two days — but antibiotics took care of it and that was that. This person tells me that the doctors at the hospital said that this is one of the worst cases they’ve seen on the Island all year. A two-day cough.
I could try to comfort people with that anecdote, but what good is hearsay and a rumor? Fear isn’t outside you – it’s inside you. If you’re afraid, you’re afraid. But being brave isn’t “not being afraid”. If you’re not afraid – you’re stupid! When you’re behind the wheel of a car, don’t be stupid! — you should have a healthy fear that comes from the awareness of the power you’re wielding and the danger you’re putting everyone else in, and vice versa. You could slam into someone head on, or someone could slam head on into you, which happened not too long ago on our Island.
To be brave is to confront fear head-on. It’s to be aware of the fearful thing that causes you to respond with the feeling of fear. This is what we talked about last week, “fearless witness”. To be fearless is to be brave; it’s to embrace fear and process it; to understand and confront it; to dialogue with it and say, “Ok, fear, I get it – this challenge is a fearful thing. But I won’t become a fearful person myself. I take this challenge on willingly, I understand it in full, and I’ll take that risk to the best of my ability.”
And so it is with this pandemic. Someone told me that the first time they went to the grocery store during the lockdown, they felt they were entering into a warzone. We knew so little about the Sars-Coronavirus-2 pathogen and how it spread and whether we could get it just by shopping for milk and mangoes. You might get it from ‘surface spread’! Remember that? That first grocery store visit was terrifying for this individual. It was for many of us.
Well, Christians, this pandemic isn’t our first rodeo. Let me tell you about our first Rodeo. It’s known as the Plague of Cyprian, and it was a thirteen year ordeal, from AD 249-262.
The story about Missionary Medicine starts with a dude named Denis.
Now I couldn’t help but relate to the story of St. Denis, or Dionysius of Alexandria. Just as this pandemic, this Cyprian plague, was ramping up, Denis found himself elected bishop over the diocese of Alexandria. Great timing, right? Just like me, he is a man — a novice pastor — who found himself installed into the pulpit at a sudden crucible moment for the church, right smack dab in the middle of a pandemic!
The plague that ravaged that 3rd century Roman empire was equally mysterious to them as Covid has been for us. They didn’t know what it was – maybe a flu, maybe a hemorrhagic fever. Historians estimate that it rapidly decimated a third of the population of the entire Empire – just like that. It didn’t take long. By comparison, today’s pandemic has claimed just over 3 million lives in a year and a half. The Cypian plague claimed 2.5 billion lives in the same space of time – that’s over 833 times as many deaths.
The Roman government’s response was similar to ours. Citizens were required to isolate themselves. Sick individuals were quarantined. At worst, they were abandoned or even forced out of society. Families torn apart. But unlike us, they couldn’t “slow the spread”.
As the death toll ramped up, people became less and less civilized. Those who were impoverished and going hungry from the collapse of commerce began to riot, burning and looting – sound familiar? Tribal differences became inflamed as groups became jealous and vindictive toward one another’s perceived advantages in this state of crisis. People began pointing fingers.
Eventually, so did the Emperor. He pointed it at the Christians.
The Christians, you see, they did a few things “wrong”. They had a rule to gather every Sunday, if not more. The new “lockdown rules” of the pandemic didn’t stop them — Rome didn’t overrule the Body of Christ. They served a risen savior and the God of the Resurrection – they didn’t fear death for themselves. They were happy to risk death for the rule of their faith. Not just death by disease, but death by persecution, as we’ll see in a moment.
On top of this pesky habit of gathering, they also had a rule to visit and tend to the sick. Whereas even the closest of pagan families cut themselves off from one another, Christians would seek out sick strangers. These Christians – they were walking super-spreaders! They quickly became pariahs, treated like lepers – suspected of carrying disease with them everywhere they went. They were even denied the relief offered by the government, all the while as they offered out of their own homes and pockets what relief they could to the sick and the dying.
They didn’t just do this for other Christians in their “pod” – but to pagans as well. To anybody who needed it.
Now, the Cyprian plague didn’t play favorites. These Christians ministered at high risk to themselves, and many died. That did not stop them.
This was Missionary Medicine at work. This was the spiritual “medicine”, manit, juju, of the missionary — Holy Spirit-inspired work.
And it was this Holy Spirit, and His temple the Church, and its living stones the Christians, whom Emperor Decius singled out as the cause of the plague.
Decius was an old-school Roman. When he first came to power, he offered sacrifices to Jupiter and all the old gods. He thought that the gods of Rome were punishing the nation — remember that for later — on account of the Christians apostatizing from Roman, pagan, “old time religion”.
So he decided to put an end to the pandemic by putting an end to Christian worship, and decreed that all citizens of the Empire would be required to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. (Isn’t it also ironic that Decius singled out Christian gatherings as dangerous “superspreaders”, and yet gathering to worship the Roman gods was fine?)
So what do you think: did Christians stop gathering to worship God in Christ on Sunday? Did they worship Jupiter instead? No way!
Our friend St. Denis said that the persecution of Christians was immediate and all-encompassing – and bloody. He said that among those martyred were “both men and women, both young men and old, both maidens and aged matrons, both soldiers and private citizens — every class and every age.”
These martyrs weren’t all Christians who ministered to the sick, either. Not all of them practiced that missionary medicine. But they were willing to die just for the right to assemble, on Sunday morning according to their tradition, to worship and “with an uncovered face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18) — together, not apart, but together, in spirit and truth.
On the other hand, St. Denis tells us that there were also Christians who said, “to heck with church!” and they ran “eagerly towards the [Roman] altars, affirming by their forwardness that they had [never] been Christians.” They locked themselves in their homes, they stopped going to church. They stopped seeing their families. They played their part.
And you know what happened? The plague still didn’t go away. It raged on for thirteen years, and so did this persecution. All that sacrifice and pain for nothing.
Does this resonate with you? Does it resonate with the church in today’s pandemic? Does any of this make us feel anything? Does it prick our conscience? Do we feel at all convicted, hearing this story where we stand today? How “healthy” is our church compared to the 3rd century church in the time of the plague of Cyprian?
Before we return our considerations to our day, I want us to make a historical pitstop. When you go to a doctor’s complaining of some unwanted symptoms, they usually ask for a recent health history. Have you noticed these symptoms before? What has your diet been like? Etc.
What is the church’s recent health history, when it comes to pandemics? Let’s think back to the epidemic that plagued the world in the 1980’s. Anybody remember? AIDS.
Does anybody remember what AIDS used to be called? Before it was AIDS – acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – it was GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. That’s what it was called in the first half of 1982, then the CDC rebranded it to AIDS. Kind of like how it took a little while to rebrand “the coronavirus” to COVID. Same CDC, same folks, our good friend Fauci, etc.
But even after CDC gave it a new name, newspapers still called it “the gay plague”, the “gay bug”. Well, why call it that? According to journalist Colin Clew, it’s because sex sells. Connecting AIDS to sex helped sell papers and make money. He said, “AIDS sells more newspapers than bingo.”
That’s not too different from our times. Sex sells even more nowadays, right? And so does fear. CNN technical director Charlie Chester recently said, “COVID? Gangbusters with ratings, which is why we constantly have the death toll [ticker] on the side [of the screen]…It would make our point better if [the COVID death toll] was higher…Fear is the thing that really keeps you tuned in….[it’s] the most enticing thing that we have.”
“Fear is the thing that really keeps you tuned in.” Isn’t that interesting? What does the Bible tell us about fear? “Fear pertains to punishment.” (1 Jn. 4:18). Surely, the church wouldn’t take sides with fear and punishment?
Back in the 80’s, Rev. Jerry Falwell, a minister of the Christian church, said the following AIDS: “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals… AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
Fear and punishment hand in hand. Not just in the CDC, not just in the press, but also in the church. Falwell wasn’t the only one who spread talk about fear and punishment in the church. This is our “recent health history”.
I’m not saying it’s the whole picture, but – sometimes, when you’re sitting on the doctor’s table in your gown feeling sick as a dog, trying to figure out why, trying to remember your “recent health history,” you find yourself telling your doctor, “Come to think of it – maybe I haven’t been taking the best care of my body.”
What about the Body of Christ, the temple of God’s spirit? Have we been filling this Temple with fear and punishment – is that the Spirit of God?
In 1993, Billy Graham asked one of his crowds, “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not say for sure, but I think so.” Now, two weeks later, he retracted the statement. He repented of it. He said, “I don’t believe that and I don’t know why I said it…I do believe God stands in judgment of all sins … but AIDS is a disease that affects people and is not part of that judgment” — in other words, it’s indiscriminate — “To say God has judged people with AIDS would be very wrong and very cruel. I would like to say that I am very sorry for what I said.”
Billy Graham repented of his fear and judgment. What about Emperor Decius blaming the plague on Christians – remember him? He said the gods of Rome were judging them for their sins. Wouldn’t it have been nice if Emperor Decius had done the same as Billy Graham, choosing to repent rather than persecute?
Friends and fellow disciples and lovers of Christ – this is what our friend St. Denis has to say about those in the church who practiced missionary medicine during the Cyprian plague:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
This isn’t abnormal Christian behavior. In fact, it’s the norm — established by Jesus Christ himself. He commanded his church to lay hands on the sick and minister healing, just as he did. This is part of our Great Commision. It’s recorded in Mk. 16:18, Mt. 10:8, and Jas. 5:14f: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
Somone once pointed out, Jesus never told us to pray for the sick. He told us to heal the sick! You might say, “Ah but I caught you there, Sean – James says go and pray over them!”
James doesn’t just say, pray over the sick – he says, pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer will make the sick person well. It’s like making bread. You got your oven and your dough. Prayer is like the oven. You pray in the Spirit, the spirit is like fire — you don’t touch the fire. Prayer isn’t something you touch.
Well, you got your fire in the oven but you can’t make bread with just fire. You have to make dough – you gotta knead that lump of dough, that’s all about touching. That’s laying your hands on the sick, anointing with oil. When you put that dough of touch and unction into the oven of prayer in the spirit – then you get your bread, and it rises, just like James says – “the Lord will raise them up”.
That is our calling to Missionary Medicine. And it’s not just for those in our “pod”. St. Cyprian of Carthage looked back on the 3rd century plague and tells us how the Christians practiced missionary medicine on anybody and everybody who was in need. He commented, “There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect, he who should do something more than heathen men or publicans; overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, he should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.”
Now what can we call our neighbors but enemies, when we look at them with fear and suspicion that they might hurt us or our loved ones? It’s a sad fact. But we cannot say we love our neighbors if we fear them. St. John the Apostle said, “Perfect love casts out all fear…he that fears has not been made perfect in love.”
So this is the challenge that God has laid before us at this time. We need to deeply consider our calling here, and not just ask God in prayer what He would have us do, but come to terms with what His Son has commanded us in scripture. We are called to missionary medicine — to heal the sick in body, mind, and soul.
He asks much of you. There is no question about it. But great is your reward in heaven.
This is one of our church’s hours of trial, and you are called to witness. Are you going to fear and blame, or are you going to love and practice missionary medicine? You are called to rise to this occasion and be transformed into the image of Christ. “We with uncovered face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor. 3:18)
St. Cyprian can encourage us, the whole church. When he talks about the pandemic of his day, he says that “By the terrors of mortality and of the times, lukewarm men are heartened, the listless nerved, the sluggish awakened; deserters are compelled to return; heathens brought to believe; the congregation of established believers is called to rest; fresh and numerous champions are banded in heartier strength for the conflict, and having come into warfare in the season of death, will fight without fear of death, when the battle comes.”
This pandemic can be a crucible that will forge stronger faith in you, if you answer God’s call to missionary medicine. Great is your reward!
It is not just a reward in heaven which awaits us in the afterlife, but a reward in the heavenly city of the church, the New Jerusalem, where we are even now seated with Christ, communing with him – that is the heavenly reality we called into this chapel amongst ourselves when we invoked Him to be with us this morning. All things move and have their being in him, things earthly and heavenly – he has promised to be with us wherever we gather together in His name, and so we can truly say, our reward which is in heaven is here amongst us, since he is all of heaven personified, dwelling in our midst.
The reward is God’s love, transforming us, working through us and bringing our community together, stronger than it ever was before.
Our friend St. Denis spoke of this reward. Just like us, he lived through a pandemic, and more, horrible persecution. But he weathered that storm and saw the miracles that God worked through that time of trial. Denis tells us, “Know now, my brethren, that all the churches throughout the East and beyond, which formerly were divided, have become united. And all the bishops everywhere are of one mind, and rejoice greatly in the peace which has come beyond expectation.”
Not division, but unity. Rejoicing in one mind. Peace beyond expectation. This is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, this is perfect love that casts out all fear, this is peace that surpasses all understanding.
As it was for the 3rd century church, may it also be with us here in the 21st century church, as we forge on ahead through this time of trial — together. Amen.