There is no denying the current significant health and economic threats to societies all around the world, especially in many less well-resourced nations. In the past, societies and churches have many times suffered catastrophes, through war, famine, natural disasters, plagues, and persecution. The season of Easter, though, is a great time to recall and celebrate Christ’s redeeming death and life-giving resurrection.
These Easter events usefully remind us of a bigger, more enduring picture than COVID-19. That God remains our everlasting Rock. That on the Cross, God in Christ has demonstrated his great love for us, and made possible our salvation. That God has granted his Spirit to all who believe. That God is always watching over us. That one day God will restore his broken creation, and make all things new. May God inspire us afresh as we focus on him, this coming weekend – and beyond.
It has been so very encouraging for the New Zealand Christian Network to be very closely involved in the new Pray As One NZ initiative, which began last Tuesday (1 April) with a 12-hour national on-line day of prayer for New Zealand and a special one-hour national prayer and worship service live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook followed by eight consecutive prayer sessions, from 8.00 to 9.00 pm.
What has been so pleasing is the gathering of hundreds of Christian believers from every corner of New Zealand, and from many different church denominations and flavours, and the thousands of faithful, passionate prayers for Aotearoa New Zealand. On average, there have been 140 people online at any one time. The two overarching themes have been the COVID-19 crisis and the spiritual health and wellbeing of New Zealand.
This series of prayer gatherings end tonight (Thursday 9 April, 8.00 pm). It is not too late to participate. If you would like to join, visit Pray As One NZ for details. Almost certainly, Pray as One prayer gatherings will resume on some basis, sometime after Easter. Watch this space…
Which is the deeper problem: the spiritual blindness and sins of secular New Zealand society as a whole, or the blind spots and spiritual listlessness of the New Zealand church?
I posed this question during devotions in Pray As One NZ earlier this week, before reading that magnificent prayer of repentance, Psalm 51.
These are unprecedented times for Aotearoa, and indeed for the world. More than ever we need Christian believers to unite in prayer!
New Zealand Christian Network is delighted to announce that it has been able to work with a number of groups (NZCN, Move NZ, Rhema Broadcasting, Intercessors for NZ, Missions Interlink, and the World Evangelical Alliance) to pull together Pray As One NZ, a 9-day initiative intended to unite Christians all over NZ in prayer and fasting for our nation. We are inviting leaders from all over NZ to join us in leading this initiative.
This will begin with national day of prayer on Wed. 1 April, with a full day (5:45am – 6pm) Zoom prayer conference, followed by an evening live-streamed prayer and worship service (8-9pm).
Days 2-9 will consist of a nightly 1-hour interactive Zoom prayer conference, from 8-9 pm.
Please go to the Pray As One NZ website and get the word out to your church and other Christian friends by sharing this with others.
Further details about Wednesday and the 8 days following will be uploaded on to the website.
‘Unprecedented’. ‘Social distancing’. ‘Self-isolation’. ‘Community outbreak’. ‘Lockdown.’ These and other words have come to dominate our news feeds and conversations. A few weeks ago, the world was ordinary; now, it is different, unusual, unfamiliar. COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic affecting every aspect of our lives. We have been turned upside down and inside out, and, understandably, are left feeling dazed and confused. People have died, more deaths will follow, travel is drastically restricted, and society is being changed. Life is different.
Typically, at Easter, Christians across the globe gather in churches to worship and celebrate the death of Jesus Christ on Friday and his glorious resurrection on Sunday. Despite the popular image of empty churches and dusty pews, churches in New Zealand are thriving and many have thousands of people turn up each week to worship God. But not this Easter. Not in Aotearoa in 2020. We are in the middle of a lock-down. But, while traditional church services are cancelled, this does not mean Easter is cancelled. Since the pandemic began to take hold, creative and compassionate responses to COVID-19 have come from across all strata of society, not least from church leaders. Easter is being celebrated in family bubbles around dinner tables, and, of course, en masse online. And the message of Easter is being lived out in all walks of life in acts of service, compassion, and care.
What is the meaning of Easter? What are Christians celebrating in the death of Jesus Christ and in his miraculous resurrection? And what does that have to do with COVID-19 and the problems we face in our real lives? Easter is about the ways in which God breaks down every barrier that exists in order to enter into the closest of relationships with us and make it possible for us to find our fulfilment, purpose, peace, and joy in him. In a world of fear and dislocation caused by isolation, sickness, and anxiety, we need to hear the words of joy again, and of peace, and of love. Easter speaks just these words over us.
In the Bible, we are told that Jesus, on several occasions, “tore open” the barriers that separate humanity from God. The language is deliberately active because the action is so forceful. Jesus died on a Roman cross and, as he did, the large curtain that divided the inner rooms of the Jewish temple was torn apart. This curtain was around 15 metres high and 9 metres wide and embroidered to represent the panorama of the heavens. In other words, it symbolised the sky, and the sky was understood by the people of the time as a barrier between this world and God. Jesus died, the curtain was torn apart and God’s presence flooded the earth. Seeing this, the Roman soldier guarding the cross of Jesus declared, “surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Jesus broke down the barriers between humanity and God. This is the Easter message.
Easter is part of a bigger story that began with Christmas. At Christmas, we remember Jesus’ birth, by the blessed virgin Mary. Mary is said to have found favour in God’s sight and was told that she would bear a child, who would be the Son of God. And, as it was in the sky-rending scenes at the cross, the pattern was the same: a physical barrier—in this case, Mary’s human form—was passed through by God, who filled the womb with his love and favour.
A further barrier-breaking is seen in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Here, the barrier is a massive stone that seals his tomb. The kind of tomb in which Jesus was buried was shaped like a house. At the entrance to the ‘house’ was a door—this time, a sealing stone. The difference between the tomb and a house is that a house and its door are designed to open while the sealing stone on the tomb is meant to be permanently closed.
The sealing stone at the tomb was a symbolic barrier between this world and the next. The women who first came to Jesus’ tomb witnessed this barrier removed—the stone had been rolled away—Christ had risen! He had left the tomb, departed from this world and, in doing so, tore the heavens apart and, once more, opened up human access to God.
And, finally, the upper room. We read that, after the resurrection, Jesus’ followers were all together in one room, with the doors locked. This signifies the impenetrability of another barrier. Jesus moved down from his heavenly state; he appeared mysteriously and reassured his terrified audience. In the absence of angels or a Roman centurion, it was the once-doubting disciple Thomas who exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”
Easter Cross photo by Susanna Burton
COVID-19 is the latest in a long list of barriers in life. Fear, loneliness, panic, anxiety, and a host of other emotions lurk close to the surface for many people, and the Easter message is that God is not unaware of how we feel, nor is he passive in the face of such challenges. Christians are those who seek to follow God and to be barrier-breakers as well.
In the early centuries of the Church, Christians stood out amongst their contemporaries for their response to the epidemics that swept through the Roman world. Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Roman Emperor, wrote during the mid-fourth century that “the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.” This social response led to Christians sacrificially serving their neighbours. We have many accounts of Christians entering plague-ridden cities to care for the sick and, in doing so, helping to contain fear and the spread of disease. The response to COVID-19 has been no different as people from all walks of life have stepped in and stepped up to help.
Many are asking the questions: What will life look like after COVID-19 has passed? How will social interactions change? What will the new world look like? Will we simply return to our old ways or will we re-think the ways we live and interact with each other? This Easter, Christians are actively looking for ways to follow God through what, previously, were barriers but are now open doors, to find ways to serve, to love and to care for one another. What God has done for us in Christ, we want to do for others.
In a context of ‘social distancing’, Christians, like others, practise physical distancing while maintaining social proximity via streamed worship services, virtual communion, care packages for those in isolation, online socials for youth and young adults, and numerous zoom calls. A myriad of other examples could be given for ways in which the Easter message is being lived out in a COVID-19 world.
What will the life look like after the pandemic? Crises like COVID-19 tend to shake the assumptions of societies, and it is here where Easter speaks to us, telling us to care for one another, to check in on our neighbours, to call those at risk, and not to let barriers—self-imposed or other—prevent us from living lives of meaning and purpose. Easter tells us that God loves us, cares for us, and will stop at nothing, not even the death of his Son, to break through any barrier that separates us from him. Easter reminds us that, in the future—after the pandemic—love, goodness, peace, and hope will remain.
Covid-19 has put up barriers between us: We are homebound. Most of us can no longer be in our usual work, educational or leisure spaces. Outside of our bubble, we ensure there is at least a 2-metre distance from others. But God has no limits and offers us a new perspective. He can be with each of us exactly where we are, even as we are locked down into the boundaries of our homes and local environments. God can break down barriers and he can be with us both now, wherever we are confined, and into the future, with whatever the future will bring. This is the hope of Easter.
As Auckland Church Leaders, we welcome you to join us this Easter season. We have online services happening all over Auckland.
Paul Allen-Baines Congregational Union of N.Z.
Rev. Ross Bay Anglican Bishop of Auckland
Pastor Tak Bhana Senior Pastor, Church Unlimited
Pastor Paul de Jong Senior Pastor, LIFE
Pastors Jonathan and Robyn Dove Senior Pastors, Greenlane Christian Centre
Most Rev. Patrick Dunn Catholic Bishop of Auckland
Majors Ian & Liz Gainsford Divisional Leaders, The Salvation Army
Jaron Graham on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene
Brett Jones Interim National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church
Pastor Sanjai Kandregula Executive member, Assemblies of God NZ
Pastor Brian Kelly Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel
Pastor Nich Kitchen Mountainside Lutheran Church
Dr Stuart Lange National Director, NZ Christian Network
Kok Soon Lee Auckland Chinese Churches Association
Pastor David MacGregor National Director, Vineyard Churches
Andrew Marshall National Director, Alliance Churches of New Zealand
Very Rev. Anne Mills Dean, Auckland Cathedral of the Holy Trinity
Steve Millward Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church
Pastor Bruce Monk International Overseer for Acts Churches & Equippers
Pastor Sam Monk Senior Pastor, Equippers Church & Acts National Leader
Pastor Peter Mortlock Senior Pastor, City Impact Church
Rev. Te Kitohi Pikaahu Anglican Bishop of Te Tai Tokerau
Pastor Lui Ponifasio on behalf of the Christian Community Churches of N.Z.
Pastor Boyd Ratnaraja National Leader, Elim Churches
Pastors Dean Rush Senior Leaders, C3 Church Auckland
Pastor Jim Shaw New Life Churches Executive team
Bishop Brian Tamaki Senior Minister of Destiny Churches International
Pastor Allan Taylor Northern Baptist Association
Pastor Ben Timothy President, North New Zealand Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church
Rev. Graeme R. White Auckland Synod Superintendent, Methodist Church of N.Z.
This week two very significant things have happened in New Zealand…
Covid 19 precautionary measures are tightened up
The Covid 19 threat, which is causing so much chaos and alarm around the globe, has led the Government in the last few days to take the wise step of banning inside meetings of over 100 people. It is also strongly advising “social distancing” to be practised at all times, even in small groups, as a means of impeding community transmission of the virus.
All this has huge implications for churches. Many churches are urgently cancelling worship services, arranging live streams, establishing more house groups, reviewing the safety of all their activities, and working out how they can best serve those people who are self-isolating, locked down, sick, or fearful and downcast.
Will this crisis and the sudden changes it has brought discourage and scatter the people of God, and weaken churches? Will it be hard to gather people back together, when the pandemic is over? Will some drift away? Or will these circumstances shake up the churches so that they become more faith-filled, more active, more prayerful, more compassionate, more engaged with others, more Christlike?
The New Zealand Christian Network urges churches to be both scrupulous and caring in the way they respond to the threat of this virus, and for the sake of our people and the wider society to observe the very best practices of protecting our people.
At the same time, we should be covering our nation in prayer, and asking the Lord to comfort and uplift the anxious, and to turn many people in our society from self-possession to humility and faith before the living God, who is alone our eternal hope.
See links below for many helpful resources on how churches may respond well to the challenges of COVID-19.
The Abortion Law Reform Bill was passed.
We regret the passing of this very unbalanced bill, which unjustly erased the human rights of unwanted unborn, and has removed all protection for them. The Abortion Law Reform Bill “decriminalised” abortion, but we believe it is tantamount to crime against nature, humanity, and God. We applaud all those who made a stand. We urge prayer for this nation, and for the underlying moral and spiritual myopia of which this is but another symptom.
The next week or so is a very critical time for our nation, with major life and death implications for generations to come. The New Zealand Parliament is in the final stages of voting on the Abortion Law Reform Bill, a bill which further liberalises New Zealand’s laws on abortion. The aim of the Bill is to make abortion simply a medical procedure for the mother.
The Bill gives no consideration at all to valuing the life of unborn babies, or to protecting them. The protections in the current legislation (which have proved weak) are swept away. The Bill assumes that unborn babies have no inherent human worth, and no human rights. The Bill would establish abortion on demand up to 20 weeks gestation. From 21 weeks through to birth, all that is required is the agreement of the medical practitioner (the one about to conduct an abortion) that an abortion is “reasonable” with regards to the health of the mother – but with no regard to the life of the baby. Presumably “health” will include her emotional wellbeing. Will this apply to cases of Downs Syndrome, or the wrong sex? Even a baby born alive after a failed abortion will not be safe: MPs have voted down an amendment that would have required the baby to be given medical care, rather than left to die.
Most Christian people do not oppose abortion under all circumstances, and feel compassion towards those women who have been in a very difficult situation and have agonisingly decided to have their baby aborted.
The New Zealand public needs to understand, however, that this Bill is very unbalanced: it entirely takes the side of the pro-abortion lobby, and completely disregards the intrinsic value of unborn human life. Regardless of whether or not unborn human babies are currently recognised in our society’s laws as fully-fledged “human beings”, they are still unquestionably human babies. Respect for the value of all human life is a basic building block of a safe society. Justice and compassion call out for the protection of the powerless and the voiceless. Christians – and many others – see every human life as a sacred gift of God, and the destruction of innocent lives as a terrible stain upon our nation.
We strongly encourage all Christian people to shake off apathy, to be constant in prayer, and to urgently contact members of Parliament and make known their deep concerns (be courteous, clear, well-informed, and brief).
Our nation recalls with sadness the appalling 2019 terrorist attacks on Muslim people gathered to worship. Christians continue to extend their love and sympathy, and utterly reject all hatred, racism, and violence. We believe that all faith communities should be able to gather freely, and without fear. We thank God that these horrible events generally helped strengthen our society’s commitment to living in peace.