Come back, Neighbour: A Methodist reflects on 135 years of God’s faithfulness
Emilyn Tan // February 17, 2020, 7:39 pm
Churches nationwide have seen a 30% drop in attendance in this COVID-19 season. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
The Rev Dr Chong Chin Chung, Bishop of the Methodist Church of Singapore (MCS), yesterday (February 16) gave a clear and succinct exhortation on the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37) in his sermon to launch the MCS’ 135th anniversary celebrations.
While it is always compelling to be reminded of the commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27), the teaching wasn’t new.
The “neighbour” issue, however, made its way into and stayed on my mind long after the morning was over.
Was it because we were marking more than a century’s worth of history and I felt a sense of trust that the MCS was, indeed, still loving her neighbour in the 2020 context?
What if there were no neighbours to serve with?
Or was it the observation that COVID-19 fears had a way, it seemed, of committing the sacrilegious and scattering faith with the winds? The neighbouring seat in my pew was empty, and the one in front of me too, in spite of the recent Ministry Of Health (MOH) go-ahead on church services.
Both were unifying factors.
All our 46 churches heard the same pre-recorded message by the Bishop and, in so doing, were proud together – I hope.
All our churches saw the same pall over our numbers: Across the board, our congregations were at least 30% diminished due to COVID-19 jitters. That’s way above the national count by percentage of hospitalised cases plus persons served with quarantine or Leave of Absence orders vs total population.
The sight was a sombre one. So was the underlying message behind the sermon.
Bishop’s play on words around the question, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29), to arrive at the next question, “Whose neighbour am I?”, left me wondering about the latter half of the “Loving God, Serving Together” anniversary theme.
What if there were no neighbours to serve together with?
I am as human as my absent pew partner and equally apt to let the church fall prey to the robber called COVID-19.
My question seemed to turn on its head the way Jesus reverted the lawyer’s first question back to him. “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26)
Are you a neighbour?
Yes, I am. I am first a neighbour. By that token, I am, by nature, as human as my absent pew partner and equally apt to let the church be stripped and beaten and left half-dead by the robber called COVID-19.
I might then, like the Levite, pass by on the other side too.
Neither is in keeping with the stalwart Methodist that John Wesley had in mind.
Methodism then and now
Though not one of us can call ourselves a Wesley of the 1700s, we can still, by grace, follow the eight-point description he set forth in his tract, “The Character of a Methodist”:
- Always joyful
- Gives thanks in all circumstances
- Prays unceasingly
- Loves God and loves his neighbour
- Is pure in heart
- Does the will of God
- Does no evil, by word or action
- Does good to all men, including neighbours, strangers, friends and enemies.
Even today, the reading of the tract offers a breath of life no excuse can stifle.
“To pursue inner holiness and outer holiness – that is the mark of all Methodists,” Bishop Chong said. “The question is, how are we able to live such a life? How can we sustain such a lifestyle?
“Wesley acknowledged that this is a discipline requiring others to provide mutual support and to watch over us.”
Aside from living in, and drawing from, the all-sufficient grace of God through such means as Bible study, prayer and fasting, the breaking of bread, private and corporate worship and other expressions of fellowship, “believers must have others journeying with them in holy living”, Bishop Chong continued.
Even in our day, God is doing amazing things through our distress.
“Wesley believed that those who try to live a holy life by themselves will find that it is quite impossible unless there are Christians close to us to give encouragement and support.
“Wesley stressed that Christians must be in connection with one another. Such connection helps Methodist Christians to live healthy spiritual lives and grow.
“And the church will be even more fruitful in her mission.”
That’s an everlasting hope to strive toward. Through the ages, the Church has weathered storms more turbulent than this one, only to emerge with testimonies of God’s unrivalled supremacy.
So, come back, Neighbour. God loves you with all His heart and all His soul and all His mind and all His strength (John 3:16).
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
Temperature screening and contact tracing may do little to alleviate your fear of suffering and mine; it’s a human thing we prefer not to see much of or say anything about.
But let’s take God’s Word for it: This uncomfortable place of not knowing is a spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3).
It is a place God has long been preparing us for, and is now entrusting us with.
I’ll stand with you to look beyond the today (February 17) of two new cases bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 77. There is coming a tomorrow when eventually we will see a new normal settling in.
Whether it is zero infections or not is not the point. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
Let’s just be here together in faith as God continues to build His one church.
“When Methodists are connected, many things that individuals or small groups are unable to accomplish become possible and can be well-accomplished,” Bishop Chong said. “Christians cannot isolate themselves but must be in mutual connection. Only then can we demonstrate a more fruitful and abundant body of Christ.”