The 4th Sunday after Pentecost

My COVID-19 test came back negative. The NHS sent me both a text and an email to give me the news so I wouldn’t miss it. I wasn’t ill or worried as such because I took the test on the basis of an email rather than a high temperature or new continuous cough. I have been part of the COVID Symptom Study from King’s College London and log in each day and answer the questions. It only takes less than a minute. The email I received said that as part of the ongoing testing of the algorithm people were being asked to have a test. So I ordered a kit, read the instructions, did the test, and the courier came a few hours later to collect and job done.

Of course by the time you’re reading this / hearing this I may not be negative at all. I might be infected now. The test told me about me on a specific day. If you had asked me on that day whether I had the virus, I would have said ‘no’ and the test later confirmed it.

But let’s suppose for a moment that in the days prior to the test, I did have a high temperature, a new continuous cough, and had lost my sense of taste and smell. How would I then respond to the negative test result? Would I rely on it and go about my day as a healthy person? Or would I reject the negative test result and say that the symptoms ‘speak louder’? We know tests can have false negatives and false positives and there is an adage that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck it is probably … a duck – and so I might very well not believe the test result and behave as a person with the virus. You might applaud me or think me foolish.

Part of your response will be whether we agree on which has the greater authority here – my symptoms or the test results? My experience or an objective analysis of a specimen? We know that people go to the doctors all the time with symptoms thinking one thing but are diagnosed often with something far less drastic. Nevertheless there are still times when, sadly, the diagnosis is more serious. We know that no tests are 100% accurate. So we weigh up the evidence and the balance of probabilities and our experience and then respond.

Am I a Christian because I say ‘I am a child of God’ or because God says that I am his child? We would like both to be said. But the sequence is not unimportant and neither is the issue of the greater authority. I can say I’m a disciple of Jesus and you – or those near me – can point out where I sin, when I fall short, when I don’t do right. I might say that I’m weak and struggling with faith or sin, that my spiritual experience is wretched, and you – or those near me – can point out where God has spoken clearly to me in my Baptism. How I respond each day will depend on where the greater authority lies.

The disagreement within Christian denominations over Baptism – particularly the age of the person at Baptism and the nature and purpose of Baptism – is a good example of the wrestle over where to ground our daily behaviour – in our faith or in God’s Word – in my experience or in words spoken to me? We would like both to be said but the sequence is not unimportant.

If I have the ‘sin virus’ then I need a good diagnosis and, of course, a cure. Whatever my experiences, God’s Word, as it confronts me with Law and Gospel, reveals my sin and God’s grace and the focus is not me in the mirror but looking and listening to Jesus. He is the greater authority. He speaks when I cannot and he gives what he asks for – forgiveness, new life, faith – and we respond. Our response is never perfect but it is God declaring us his children personally in Baptism that is the truth, the foundation, from which each day is lived. We might experience each day as taking hold of Jesus and following him and wanting to be obedient and having our struggles and repenting and rejoicing but the underlying truth is that Jesus is holding onto us. That faithful commitment from God in Christ shapes our lives above every other diagnosis, judgement, test result, or verdict we ever face. GS