Does being a Christian make a difference? That is a headline to an article in the last edition of Triple Helix, the journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship.
The article is by Dr Vinod Shah; so it immediately caught my eye. For Vinod Shah is the Chief Executive of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA) – the global group of Christian Medical Fellowships. It is based in Vellore, India and with it Anglican International Development (AID), which I chair, is helping to establish an Institute of Health Sciences for training South Sudanese Clinical Officers. But because of the security situation in the South Sudan, the Institute is having to start in Mengo Hospital in Uganda.
However, Vinod Shah's question in this utilitarian age is important. So I want us to think about it this morning.
And my first heading is DOES BEING A CHRISTIAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE? and my second, is WHAT DOES 2 PETER 1.3-7 SAY?
So, first, the general question, DOES BEING A CHRISTIAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE if you are a doctor, or nurse, or in a caring profession?
Let me give you five answers from history.
First, is Dr Shah's answer from the 21st century. His article based on a longer lecture has as the first of a number of differences, the fundamental difference between Christian and secular worldviews; and he says:
"the most important difference is that the Christian vision is about following a person and not an ideology. Truth is a person because Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life."
Secondly, and from early church history when, with regard to health and healing, the first Christians were building on the best of the Greek Hippocratic tradition. However, the coming of Christ brought a radical change and difference in respect of caring for the sick and the poor.
One interesting piece of evidence is the 4th century Roman Emperor Julian. He was a persecutor of Christians and wanting to lead the Empire back to paganism. But you find him envious of (and angry at) the Christians for this very thing – the difference between them and the pagans over caring for the needy. In one of his letters he writes:
"the impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours… It is shameful that ours should be so destitute of our assistance."
That was the 4th century.
Moving on, thirdly, to the 6th century, you then have the start of Benedictine monasteries with hospitals attached and the difference they made. Their rule included this:
"Care for the sick stands before and over all. Accordingly one must help them as would Christ, whom one really helps in helping them."
And moving on, fourthly, to the amazing difference and change that came with the mostly Christian-inspired scientific revolution that followed the 16th century Reformation. This meant great medical advances together with a clarification of the caring ethic. Typical was Thomas Sydenham in the 17th century, the so-called English Hippocrates. He reminded those who took up medicine (I quote):
"that such skill and science as, by the blessing of Almighty God, he has allowed, are to be specially directed towards the good of his fellow-creatures; since it is a base thing for the great gifts of heaven to become the servants of avarice and ambition … He [or she] must remember that it is no mean or ignoble animal that he deals with … since for its sake God's only begotten Son became man, and thereby ennobled the nature he took upon Him."
Then, fifthly, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was the huge difference the Christian missionary movement made through establishing mission hospitals. Take just the two I have already mentioned - Mengo Hospital in Uganda which was the very first hospital ever in Uganda; and the Vellore Christian Medical College and Hospital, founded in 1900, which today regularly comes right at the top of all hospital rankings in India.
So - a look back over history is a reminder that the Christian faith has made a great difference to human health and well-being. But that implies a warning. It surfaced some time ago in an article in the British Medical Journal of Feb 1981 that said this:
"As the influence of the Church declines until its effect is negligible … a general lowering of standards seems inevitable."
And that is one reason we must consider our second question WHAT DOES 2 PETER SAY?
So first look at verses 3 and 4:
"His [that is, 'Jesus our Lord's'] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire."
These verses get to the heart of the difference being a Christian makes not only in medicine but in any area of life. We are talking in this whole passage about ethics and virtues - about living well and doing right and so the truly "good life" that gives you real human flourishing.
But those good things are consequences of something else. They are secondary, not primary. That is why you must notice here the fundamental connection between the first words of verse 3, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness" and verses 5-7, that begin, "For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue" and so on, as we will consider later.
You see, the Christian message is not first a call to being a nicer person or being less slack at your work. It is not first the call to cultivating all the virtues and characteristics that we will be looking at, vital though they are. Rather it is first a message about what God has done for you in and through Jesus Christ. So these Christian believers are told:
"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness."
God, through Christ, has done something. And this, we are told in the second part of verse 3, comes about through our knowing Jesus Christ – "through the knowledge of him [who died and rose again and] who called us to his own glory and excellence." And that knowledge, we are told in the first part of verse 4, leads to trusting "precious and very great promises" – namely the hope of a glorious future – ultimately the hope of heaven. And that confidence, under that "divine power granted to us", we are told in the second part of verse 4, means a start to more Godly living - becoming "partakers of the divine nature" and a turning away from "the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire."
Yes, there is a mystery to the human heart and human psychology. So "all [these] things that pertain to life and godliness" somehow merge together. But the gist is clear.
And that is, that the Christian message is the need for men and women to come to Christ and trust in him first of all. But it is not because he is the greatest ethical teacher ever. It is because he is God the Son, the second person of the divine Trinity, who came into the world to die to save men and women "from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire" and to rise again and is now reigning and by his Holy Spirit empowering them "to become partakers of the divine nature." So that message is the good news about what God has done, and which we take personally on board as we trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
But – and this is the big "but" - a difference in our lives (and so in the wider society) only comes when the believer in Christ starts to act. And that is the challenge of verses 5-7 of 2 Peter 1. They are a challenge to all Christians including, of course, doctors, nurses and others in the caring professions.
But before we consider these verses, can I just say this.
Perhaps there are some here this morning who have never yet, taken on board all that Christ has done for them and offers to them. So you have never yet come to know Jesus Christ personally and practically as your Saviour and Lord. If so, can I urge you to rethink (that is what repentance literally means) and trust him and get baptized and become like those early Christians who were the first to read this letter.
I say all that because we must now secondly look at verses 5-7 which all presuppose that you have received, through Christ's divine power, what verse 3 calls, "all things that pertain to life and godliness". True, you will not be perfect until those "precious and very great promises" are finally fulfilled in heaven.
But it means that when you hear Peter say, verse 5, "make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue," you may not say, "I can't". For, if you trust Christ, in the strength of his Holy Spirit, you can. So with that caveat, look at verses 5-7:
"For this very reason [that you do have "all things that pertain to life and godliness" at least in embryo … for this very reason] make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love."
Now I don't believe we have a hierarchy of virtues here with "virtue" itself at the top and "love" at the bottom. No! It is similar to the way the phrases in the previous verses all go together.
Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones, in early life a medical doctor and then a great mid 20th century preacher, said these verses should be likened to a bottle of medicine. For that is a mixture in which each component is distinct. But it combines with every other part to produce the one medicine. So it is with a Christ-like character that makes a difference and the moral qualities that go to make it up. They all can be distinguished as they are here, but they all need to go together. So with that also in mind, let's look at these seven characteristics or virtues or moral qualities – however you like to call them.
First, there is virtue.
Originally the word meant "excellence" but it also comes to mean "moral courage". So you need to make every effort to supplement your faith [faith in the sense of your simple trust in Christ] with virtue (including excellence and moral courage).
Therefore, make every effort (verse 3 second half), in the strength the Holy Spirit gives, to be good and thorough and careful and accurate at your medical work. Be as excellent as you can be.
But also make an effort to have the moral courage to be in a minority, even of one, when there is a moral issue that you must take a stand on. That is never easy - I have known that personally over the years. So has my wife who was the first paediatrician publicly to object to a lesbian adoption, when medical adviser on the Newcastle Adoption Panel. In that disgraceful Newcastle case, the court later reversed the panel's decision, endorsing her judgment.
So first virtue - then secondly, knowledge.
To be able to take a moral stand, you have to be convinced that something is wrong. And that requires knowledge and knowing your subject and the issues involved and the wisdom from Christian history. So use resources to help you.
Join the CMF if you are not already a member and read the Triple Helix. Use websites like the Christian Institute's website (christian.org.uk) where there is material on a number of medical ethical issues. And look at our own JPC website (church.org.uk) and the Coloured Supplements. And know the law.
Non medical people may be interested to know that the law in certain areas respects the conscience of Christian medics. It allows medical staff conscientiously to object to involvement in abortion; in participation in work involving the treatment and development of human embryos; and not to advise on, or provide, contraceptive services, subject to referring to others who will.
Above all know your bible and know basic Christian theology. The current CMF news has as the first words on the first page:
"Better biblical literacy is one of the great challenges for Christians – not least Christian doctors – living in these challenging times."
And that is a concern we have at JPC and, indeed, are working on.
We must move on, thirdly, to self-control.
This so obviously is needed in today's sexual culture where many hold that sexual urges have to be acted on and deferred gratification is felt to be pathological.
But self-control is not just to do with sexual urges. For some it is a matter of temper; for others it is a matter of the tongue; and for yet others it is a matter of time – the control and management of one's own time.
Next and fourth comes steadfastness.
In the original, literally this word means standing firm when under pressure. Doctors and nurses certainly know all about that from so many different situations. Such steadfastness often requires self-control, knowledge and that virtuous moral courage at the same time.
And such steadfastness is certainly required now at the Mengo Hospital in Uganda. I learnt a few weeks ago from its Medical Director, Dr Rose Mutumba, a great Christian woman (when she was visiting us in Jesmond) that she recently had to lay off 30 of her 60 staff from the key HIV clinic at the hospital. Mengo has been at the forefront of the battle against AIDS in Uganda for years. So why was there this lay off? Answer - the Americans were withdrawing the U S AID which funded 70% of the costs of the clinic. And this was due to the staff's orthodox Christian ethic on human sexuality.
Added to that this past week we have heard that there is an outbreak of the Marburg Virus at the hospital with the death of a radiographer. This is a deadly fever similar to Ebola. 8O suspected cases have been isolated, with 38 being Mengo workers.
So do pray for Rose Mutumba, the staff at Mengo, the 50 Southern Sudanese students studying there and those 80 suspected cases. Pray for healing and protection. Pray that Rose and the staff will remain steadfast and trusting in that "precious and very great promise" of the risen Christ in 2 Cor 12.9:
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
So, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness and fifth, godliness.
That covers godly beliefs and godly habits. It means having a godly Trinitarian world-view and not a secular relativistic world-view or an Islamist world view. It means praying and meaning, "Hallowed be your name" when you pray the Lord's Prayer.
But it also means being faithful in religious routines and habits – such as daily bible reading and prayer; coming to church on a Sunday, being in a small group and if you can, serving the church in some way. Yes, for Doctors and Nurses that can be difficult when you have to work nights and week-ends. That is why, as you can, you need to make "every effort".
And godliness relates to the sixth characteristic, brotherly affection.
It is this that helps generate Christian fellowship. It is interesting that it is called the Christian Medical Fellowship. How Christians need the support of one another and to care for one another. And that too needs effort.
So virtue, knowledge, self-control, godliness, brotherly affection and, finally, and seventh, love.
This is the greatest Christian virtue that has motivated Christian doctors and nurses and others down the centuries. It is that special Christ-like love which includes loving the unlovely – and wanting their best. But how is love itself motivated? Answer – as the Holy Spirit impresses on you that God loves you and so Christ died for you. As 1 John 4.19 says:
" We love because he [God] first loved us."