First Responder = First Repenter
by Lee Coleman
Luke 12:54-56 “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”
The term existed before the events of September 11, 2001, but certainly the words, “first responder,” came to be used and understood in a much more universal manner during those terrible days. In each disastrous event since then, from hurricanes to earthquakes, school shootings to pandemics, we hear about the first responders, those people who are required by their vocation to be the initial ones at the scene of calamity, offering protection, guidance, and emergency services to those in need. Their roles vary widely, with some first responders wielding firearms and others fire hoses. Paramedics rush in to find the injured; ambulance drivers race them away. Some are steely-eyed, while others weep lines of tears down soot-covered faces. The pictures of these men and women are often the most indelible images of these events.
Although few of us will actually take the literal first responder role in our nation’s disasters, as Christians, all of us will be called upon to wade into the smoke and confusion of calamity during times of uncertainty such as we are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us will have already been asked to give some manner of response to the worldwide suffering we see on the news broadcasts. Maybe we’ve posted or reacted to something online or replied to a message or email regarding the disease or the associated events. Surely, we’ve had conversations about the effects of the pandemic. A friend or relative may have asked us for counsel. Or perhaps we’re struggling for our own answers as we lay down at night. What does all of this mean? Why did God allow this latest disaster? Did God cause it? What’s going to happen? How am I supposed to react?
2 Corinthians 5:20 “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthian church, we are Christ’s first responders. As his ambassadors, we must be prepared to provide a wise spiritual response when disaster strikes and the world is reeling. Natural disasters, as well as those instigated by man, present particularly difficult questions to humanity. So, it should come as no surprise that during his time of ministry, Jesus was asked about the issue of disaster.
Luke 13:1-5 “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”
Jesus was asked about a single disastrous event, but in true Jesus fashion, he gave the audience a little something extra, and addressed an additional episode for them to consider. The first was essentially a terrorist attack. Pilate, the Roman governor over the area, ordered the massacre of some unsuspecting people from Galilee as they were worshipping God, mixing their blood “with their sacrifices.” The second was essentially a “natural” disaster: a tower collapsed in Jerusalem, killing eighteen people. Other than this brief mention in Luke, we know nothing further about the tower or why it collapsed. The addition of this event allows us to expand Jesus’ response to include not only evil and sinful events devised by mankind, but also seemingly random, purposeless disasters that take life and destroy property and economy.
Since Jesus knew the heart and mind of the listeners, he went straight to their primary question, the same question that we all have in times of disaster: “Why?” It’s a timeless question. Why do bad things happen? But we also see that there was an additional qualifier, an extra phrase that must be added to the question when someone dies from attack, tower collapse, or coronavirus. Unless we ourselves have died from the event (in which case we wouldn’t be around to be asking any questions at all), the question is essentially, “Why did it happen to them?” “Jesus, why did they die?” was the unspoken question that we can determine was on their minds when we read Jesus’ response. His response has four parts.
First, Jesus makes it clear that these worshippers did not die because they were somehow more evil or “worse sinners” than all the other people in Galilee. Likewise, the people that were crushed by the collapsing tower were not “more guilty” than any of the other citizens of Jerusalem. Although there are instances in the Bible where God specifically deals with sin in a direct and deadly manner, and there are certainly sins that lead to deadly outcomes, Jesus says we should be cautious not to explain away a bad event happening to someone because they are more sinful than another.
Second, Jesus leaves us to chew on the direct implication of his first point. If the ones who suffered didn’t do so because they were more guilty, then neither did you avoid calamity because you are less sinful or less guilty than they were. In the midst of disaster, while we are wondering why it happened to them, we will eventually arrive at the closely related question: why didn’t it happen to me? To put it bluntly: according to Jesus, it’s not because you’re any better than them.
Third, Jesus reveals the real reason why death and disasters happen. Every deadly hurricane, mass shooting, flood, and coronavirus pandemic come from one cause, and it’s not the Wuhan meat market in China. That cause is sin.
Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”
When Jesus states, “you too will all perish,” he is taking his listeners out of their safe area beyond the yellow “do not cross” ribbon and placing them and us in the same category as those murdered by Pilate or killed by the falling tower: the disaster victims. Romans 5:12 teaches us two fundamental truths about our world: all have sinned; death has spread to all because of sin. We are all tragic disaster victims because of our sin. In COVID-19 terms, the number of infected displayed on the Johns Hopkins website would simply read: the entire population of Earth. And there is no flattening the curve.
Fourth, we can arrive at the main point of Jesus’ response, and he states it twice just in case anyone missed it: repentance. Identifying repentance, an activity that has personal and “spiritual” implications, as the way to avoid physical death by disaster may seem odd. But the fullness of Jesus’ teachings communicate repeatedly that he is less concerned that our physical bodies perish by disaster and more concerned with the perishing that comes by condemnation before God.
John 3:16-18 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
As we read Jesus’ words about himself in this familiar passage, the message becomes beautiful and unmistakable. Disasters and death will happen. They happen because of sin, and since we have all sinned, we are all under the threat of death by wars, famine, hurricanes, and pandemics. But these events don’t have to be the final word. God’s design is not to condemn the world through death but to save us from our sin to eternal life through belief in Jesus. And this belief manifests itself through repentance.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is not a punishment or judgement on certain people. Nor is it a chance for us to feel superior or more “blessed” than others if we are affected to a lesser degree than some. It is a gravely serious call to repentance, but one with patience and kindness. It is a call with an astonishing promise for eternal deliverance from pandemics. As we attempt to make sense of the pandemic or to cope with the conditions we are facing in light of it, may we act as God’s first responders by becoming followers that understand our Father’s message amidst the chaos, and become his first repenters.