Thursday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name’” (Acts 15:14).

“Pandemic” means world-wide, or at least widespread. This is one of the defining characteristics of the time of the Coronavirus, its sheer extent. A friend of mind told me this week that I should look on the bright side: at least the virus wasn’t a cosmic phenomenon. My response was that was probably true; there’s probably no Coronavirus on the moons of Jupiter, at least as far as we know! The point is, if you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, your choices seem to be limited to Antarctica or New Zealand, and the folks there are not too excited about you coming for a visit.

There is a theological basis for a global malady like this, however, and a Scriptural warrant: what St. Paul calls “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 6:14). This law has dominion over the human race, from the time of the sin of Adam and Eve and onward. Sin and death constitute a vast empire, an extensive realm with global reach, making its way into every nook and cranny of human life.

Not only in human life, but into every crack and crevice of creation itself. St. Paul writes, again in the Letter to the Romans, that creation “was subjected to futility” and placed in “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:20-21). It groans, as Paul says, “with eager longing” (Rom. 8:19) for its deliverance. The virus, as an element of creation, is not out to get us, of course, but we may see it as evidence of the creation’s subjection to futility, to the dominion of sin and death, in the virus’s consequences for us.

This global or world-wide character of sin and death, exemplified in the Coronavirus, provides the backdrop for St. Peter’s speech at the Council of Jerusalem. The issue before the leaders of the church, St. Paul and St. Barnabas, St. Peter and St. James, the brother of the Lord, the apostles and elders and the whole assembly gathered there, was the character of the Christian movement. Was it to be defined strictly by the Jewish law, a matter of this particular people and this particular place; or would it be a global phenomenon, addressed more widely to all the nations, all the peoples of the earth?

St. Luke’s particular insight, in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles that provides its sequel, is that the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations is a part of the Scriptural promise (Lk. 24:44-48). In other words, Moses and the prophets not only foretold that the messiah was to die and rise again, but that the church that arose from this central salvific act would have a world-wide mission, to all nations and peoples.

This conviction informs St. Luke’s conception of what Christianity is: that the Gospel mission begins at Jerusalem, goes out to Judea and Samaria, and then goes beyond to the four corners of the earth (Acts 1:8). It colors the story he tells about Pentecost, where folk from all over the world, speaking different languages, receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). For St. Luke, the world-wide mission of the church is part of the gospel, not something added on, but built into the law and prophets themselves.

James sums up St. Peter’s account, as we’ve heard: “Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name’” (Acts 15:14). James then draws widely on the prophets, in an extensive quotation that weaves together a number of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. All go to show that the Scriptures agree with God’s inclusion of the gentiles, and the world-wide scope of the church’s work.

A global phenomenon like sin and death requires a global response. The good news of Jesus Christ, of his death and resurrection, is the antidote for the world wide contagion of decay and futility; it’s the universal remedy for what ails us. Ignatius of Antioch called the eucharist “the medicine of immorality,” the sacramental instantiation of the hope of Christians for a remedy. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins are available; baptism and the sacrament of the altar are available.

As St. Paul wrote, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). A global malady calls for a global response. God’s act in raising Jesus Christ from the dead, and the global mission that flows from it, are the answer.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee