I had what I’d like to think of as a divine mishearing at church the other day. I was sure at first that the person leading the prayers had said ‘Let’s pray about the abode of Christ’. It took me a second or two to realise that what he’d actually said was ‘Let’s pray about the Ebola crisis’.
The odd juxtaposition of sounds and ideas got me thinking. Could the Ebola crisis be the abode of Christ, in some sense?
The Ebola crisis fills most of us with abject dread, bringing out the worst in many of us. Most of us probably want deep down to lock our doors against the victims, shut them out there, somewhere a long way from us. We might look on with a kind of horrified sympathy all the while we’re not under any direct threat ourselves, but as soon as there’s a possible case of Ebola on our own doorstep we react with panic. I’m pretty sure I would, at any rate.
Which is all completely understandable, even to a degree reasonable. Who would want to risk infection from such a terrible disease? Who would want to risk their children being infected? Yet I’m convinced that this isn’t how Christ would react – even if he were at equal risk of infection to the rest of us. I’m fairly certain he’d be there among the sufferers, touching them and treating them as equals, not as mere victims or charity cases.
Where is God?
When we look at cases of terrible suffering and disease like the Ebola crisis, if our thoughts turn to God at all it’s often to blame him, to demand of him how he could let such horror happen. “If you’re God, if you’re all-good and all-loving and all-powerful, what on earth are you up to to allow this? Where are you – what are you doing?”
Again, these questions are understandable, even reasonable. But I think they miss the point. Because maybe, just maybe, the Ebola crisis is the abode of Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God caused the Ebola crisis or that it’s a form of divine retribution – absolutely not. Nor am I saying that he’s sadistically enjoying it – quite the contrary. But I believe he is in it.
Where is God? He is there, among the terrified, sick and dying victims of this terrible disease, in them and with them. And he is in and with the incredibly courageous medical staff and aid workers doing their best to help and heal the afflicted.
For I believe God is always where the need is greatest and where the love is least. God may be everywhere, but he is surely most of all with the outcast and exile, the despised and rejected, the leper and the untouchable, the unwanted and unloved, those who others shun or have given up on. Those who the rest of us see (even if we don’t want to admit it) as the dregs of society, or as lepers and pariahs to be avoided at all costs – these are the ones upon whom God places the highest value and emphasis.
Lord of the disreputable
Shortly after my friend prayed about Ebola, I had to read out the week’s Bible reading, from Luke 18:35–19.10 – the stories of the blind beggar and of Zaccheus. And it struck me that there was a more-than-coincidental link here with the thought about the Ebola crisis being the abode of Christ.
For again, here were two people who their society despised and shunned. The crowd tried to shut the blind beggar up and stop him from bothering Jesus. And when Jesus announced that he must stay at Zaccheus’s house, the good people of Jericho were incensed – “Jesus is going to stay with this terrible sinner?”
But Jesus himself clearly cared nothing for these social norms and niceties. He cared – and cares – for real people with real needs, regardless of how it might affect his reputation.
I’ve said before that Christianity is not primarily for good people, for the beautiful and respectable, those who’ve got it together, the movers and shakers, the great and the good. I’m not saying it’s not for these people – Jesus is for everyone, of course. But I believe that first and foremost Jesus is for losers, and Christianity is for bad people.
For of course Jesus himself came as one who was ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53). He had every right to live in luxury; he could have wielded power and demanded our worship; but instead he lived on charity, made friends with the disreputable and got under the skin of the establishment.
Kingdom of the rejects
For the God we see in Jesus is a God of compassion not condemnation. He cares deeply for real, damaged, flawed, messed-up, hurting people. God’s kingdom is the place where the lonely and isolated and rejected can finally belong, where the broken can finally be healed, where the worst and least can find their place.
And of course the truth is that we’re all losers really, and we’re all bad people. It’s just that some of us are better at hiding it than others. But Jesus wants our whole, real selves, not just the politely polished-up presentable parts.
If we refuse to accept the ones we view as bad or undeserving or embarrassing, untouchable or contaminated, we risk excluding ourselves from the all-inclusive society that Christ is creating, a community in which all can take their place and all be welcomed – if they’re not too proud. It doesn’t pay to be too snobby about who’s included. On God’s guest list there may be prostitutes and pimps, pornographers and paedophiles, drunks and junkies, estate agents and politicians, con artists and second-hand car salesmen, slave traders, racists, bigots, fundamentalists, terrorists… and you, if you still want to be there.
Of course, in the world to come all of these people will be redeemed and renewed, washed clean and made new. They will no longer be what they were, and nor will you or I, thank God. But in the meantime the kingdom-in-bud is quietly filling up with all manner of deeply undesirable sorts, and we’d better get used to it. Following the Spirit where he leads may just bring us into all kinds of places we’d rather avoid, and into contact with all sorts of people we fear, despise, dislike, distrust, or don’t want to be associated with.
So perhaps the Kingdom of God looks more like a rejects pile than a royal palace. And maybe the Ebola crisis is the abode of Christ.
(None of which of course is to say that Ebola sufferers are in any way wicked – just people who most of us desperately want to stay away from.)
And after all that, am I about to leave my comfortable safety and security and head off to help people dying of Ebola? No, I’m not. Which maybe shows what a long way I still have to go in the journey towards being fully Christlike…