Coronavirus Updates

COVID-19 and the threshing floor: The Church in a moment of reckoning

by Edric Sng // February 29, 2020, 2:15 am

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash.com.

Photo: Josh Applegate, Unsplash.com.

“Do you see all these things?” he asked.

A line that could describe any of us reacting to the events of the past few weeks. Just over a month ago, the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in Singapore – innocent times when we didn’t even have a name for the virus – and since then, life here and beyond has been turned on its head.

Back then, Corona was a beer, not a virus. Toilet paper was not yet a precious commodity. When you sneezed in public, no one gave you the evil eye and avoided you like a leper.

I wasn’t in Church during SARS, but those who were tell me that it was bad, but it wasn’t this bad.

And now: People board the train in what look like homemade hazmat suits. We’re experts on the finer points of how different brands of thermometers work. Sanitiser is the new holy water.

The World Health Organization has just upgraded its global risk assessment of COVID-19 to the highest possible level, after the virus spread to every continent bar Antarctica.

Do you see all these things?

I wasn’t in Church during SARS, but those who were tell me that it was bad, but it wasn’t this bad.

No one remembers shutting down services wholesale, pre-emptively. And certainly not a whole denomination doing so at once, indefinitely.

Now we talk about livestreaming more than we do streams of living water. We understand the concept of sanitisation more than we do sanctification. Like Pilate, we wash our hands after we talk to Jesus. The veil is torn, but we’ve still got masks on.

What should we make of livestreamed church services?

Do you see all these things?

That verse is Jesus speaking, in Matthew 24:2. Context: This was the Lord of the Church, walking away as he sharply chastised the Church of the day.

Seven woes he spelt out in Matthew 23, condemning the priests of the day – Hypocrites! Blind guides! Whitewashed tombs! Snakes! Brood of vipers! – before asking his disciples to take a look at the buildings there, presumably religious sites.

“I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2b)

To state this clearly upfront: This is not a condemnation of Church leadership. If you’ve been following us, you’ll know we have the utmost honour and sympathy for leaders called to make unfathomably tough decisions in atypical times.

This is a call to examination of the priests. Jesus castigated the professional priests in His day, but now we are all priests (1 Peter 2:9).

The seven woes – those are not ours to deflect and inflict onto our Senior Pastors, Elders, Deacons. They are not the Church. We are the Church. You are the Church.

So consider how we as the Church are responding to this extraordinary COVID-19 season. Consider the emotions that bubble over as we talk about China. Consider the comments by Christians on the churches with Coronavirus clusters. Consider the love that we show, or fail to show, to those affected by the situation.

Now imagine Jesus, walking away, pointing out the behaviour of His priests to those still listening to Him.

Look at these buildings; look at what they call my Church. Do you see all these things I’m seeing about them?

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Then Jesus went – surely not by coincidence – into a prophetic description of the end of days.

Wars, rumours of wars. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. Famines, earthquakes. Birth pains – birthing a new Earth to replace this wretched one we live in.

But uglier than this imploding planet will be the people on it in those days. In these days.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time, many will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:9-13)

Jesus is speaking to us. But he talks about two groups of people. Which are we?

There are those whose love has grown cold. This tells us there was love, there was fire, there were many. But in the reckoning, in the shaking, they fall away.

Then there are those who stand firm, and they will stay so to the end. We want to be among this number when the saints go marching in.

How do we tell which category we, the Church, fall in? How will you know where you stand?

Listening to Jesus speak about the end-times in Matthew 24 and 25, I believe the Church will be confronted with three tests that will reveal the true state of our faith.

TEST OF FAITH #1: OUR LOVE FOR GOD

“You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”

Times of tribulation are times of testing. Our faith is put to the test; do we go the way of the world or the way of the Word?

How much do we fear persecution and suffering for Christ’s sake? Are we willing to be hated – are we willing to face death for our beliefs? Think of Peter. For fear of persecution for his association with Jesus, he denied that he knew Christ three times the night before the crucifixion.

What does faith look like in a time of COVID-19? It is so difficult for Christians to discern and navigate the fine line between faith and wisdom. Both can be made to sound justifiable, even in spiritual terms.

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So, for example, some will say that their Christian faith compels them to continue holding weekend worship services; others will say, with equal conviction, that divine wisdom compels them to suspend services. Some might say that, by faith, their overseas mission trip should go on as planned; yet another would insist that it is clear Godly wisdom to suspend such activities out of compassion – why put those overseas at risk of virus exposure?

Who’s to say who’s right? Not you, not I. But God sees all, hears all, knows all, even our innermost secrets: The Lord knows the thoughts of man (Psalm 94:11).

He alone will discern which decisions are faith decisions, which ones are carnal; He alone will know what we are doing because of our love for Him. And this alone – knowing that He knows – should be enough to make us tread with sombreness.

Do we truly believe that He alone is the one who sustains us, or is our faith placed wholly in masks, sanitisers and church business continuity plans?

TEST OF FAITH #2: OUR LOVE FOR THE CHURCH

At that time, many will betray and hate each other.”

Have you spoken to anyone from any of the churches where COVID-19 clusters have emerged? Go ahead, ask them: How have you been treated by Christians since word got out? With brotherly sympathy, compassion, offers of help? 

Unfortunately, anecdotally, it seems that they are more likely to be treated with fear and anger.

The fear sounds like this: Who was Case Number XY? Was it that Pastor? (Interpretation: Just tell us who we need to avoid.)

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The anger goes like this: Why were you being socially irresponsible by continuing to meet? Why were your precautionary protocols so poor?

No doubt there are many lessons to be learnt in hindsight, and processes must be improved. But that’s one part of the equation. It doesn’t negate Jesus’ commandment to love one another (John 13:34-35).

I have worked in the online space for many years and know well how ugly things can get – provocation, name calling, mob rule. But nothing is sadder than to see Christian slamming Christian, knives always out, wielding swords that don’t feel of the Spirit.

What did Jesus say about the end of days, when so-called believers will betray and hate each other? Will we pass the test of loving the Church and all within it?

TEST OF FAITH #3: OUR LOVE FOR THOSE IN NEED

In the same extended passage on judgment at the end-times, stretching into Matthew 25, Jesus tells His disciples three parables: The parable of the 10 virgins (who will be ready when He comes again?), the parable of the talents (who will be found a good and faithful steward?) and the parable of the sheep and goats.

From that last parable:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

So many people are suffering now, from those who have been hit by the virus, to their families, to those affected by quarantines due to suspected exposure.

Then there’s those on the frontlines – healthcare workers, immigration officers, airline crew and many others. Indirectly, an economy grinding to a standstill has seen everyone from F&B workers to taxi drivers worried about their livelihoods.

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The good news is that so many Christians are doing whatever they can to help those in need. Even one afflicted COVID-19 paused in his distress to offer love and encouragement to fellow coronavirus sufferers.

The sad news is that… so many Christians aren’t.

This article is titled COVID-19 and the threshing floor, but I haven’t actually talked about a threshing floor yet. In short, the threshing floor in Scripture symbolises a place of judgment where the wheat is separated from the worthless chaff.

Even before he baptised Jesus, John the Baptist spoke prophetically of the threshing floor, again to the priests of the day.

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…

‘…The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘.…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12)

The Church is at a moment of reckoning. We are being watched to see if we produce good fruit in keeping with repentance.

The world is watching us. Our witness now is amplified, due to the sensitivity of the moment, and also the overwhelming infodemic on social media. Will we appear to the world blameless and pure, children of God without fault, shining like stars in the sky as we hold firmly to the word of life? (Philippians 2:15-16)

Shine – and we win the chance to share with the world the hope we profess.

Fall short – and why would anyone want to meet the Christ who breeds such Christians?

Most importantly, God is watching us. Do you see all these things?

The winnowing fork is poised. We are wheat, or we are chaff. The Church is at a moment of reckoning. We must not fail the test.

THINK + TALK

  1. Which of these 3 tests are you currently finding the most challenging? Why?
  2. If Christ were to return today, what will He say about you and your faith?
  3. What can you do today to love those who may be fearful or having a hard time because of COVID-19? 
About the author

Edric Sng

Edric has spent a lifetime in mainstream and digital newsrooms, and has the waistline to prove it. He is a lapsed divemaster, a father to four and husband to one. Could use more sleep.