We need to talk about the NHS.
Like the BBC, the NHS is a beloved national institution, which we highly prize and also get frustrated with. People at church work for it and almost all of us will have benefited from it. We celebrated it in the London 2012 Olympics. We’ve been encouraged to clap for its workers, and protect it. We’ve had our hearts in our mouths recently, as we’re warned that it’s close to breaking-point. It’s right for us to thank God for his common grace to us in providing it.
But the status of the NHS in our national thinking does need questioning. It’s taken on mythic qualities this year. It has become a secularised Messiah. It functions as our national saviour. We feel the force of the words:
“Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives”
And who dares blaspheme it? Woe to you if you missed the clap for carers!
This mortal life
But the NHS is not, will not, and cannot do what the church is called to do. The NHS only deals with this “mortal life”; while as a church we share the good news of “eternal life”.
Your mortal life is what’s coursing through your veins at the moment. It has a pulse; it breathes. This mortal life is what ambulances drive on blue lights to save. Your mortal life is what paramedics and ventilators and ICU wards are trying to preserve. Your mortal life is what the vaccine is all about. But this mortal life is, by definition, mortal! It doesn’t last. The death statistics for this mortal life are still 100%.
In contrast, the church is called to share the good news of “eternal life” in Jesus. John wrote the letter of 1 John so that his Christian readers may “know” that they “have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). This is a very valuable thing for us to know. We might be tempted to think it was an unnecessary letter for him to write; surely, the church already knows this?! We’re in the eternal life business, aren’t we? After all, it’s right there in John 3:16, our favourite verse. But, I’m not so sure. I hear very little talk of this eternal life in the church’s speech to the world (including my own).
The main terms I hear the church talking to Britain in are the terms of this mortal life: mental health, social justice, domestic abuse, and the NHS. For example, the Diocese of Peterborough recently ran “Well-being Sunday”, to promote positive mental health. Salisbury and Lichfield Cathedrals have been keen to tell the media that they’re opening as vaccine centres. This is while they keep their doors closed to the message of eternal life on Sundays.
Do we believe that Jesus Christ is placing eternal life inside people – a deeper, truer, longer life than anything available on the NHS? Do we believe that we possess a life that cannot be killed by COVID? Here is a life that cannot be bruised by domestic violence. It cannot be squeezed by poverty. It cannot be starved by food hunger, choked by depression, or buried by an undertaker. Do we really believe Jesus plants an eternal life inside us that will never breathe its last?
Do we really believe this is the victory that has overcome the world (1 John 5:14) and that when this passing world is done, we will be more alive than ever (1 John 2:17)?
Why aren’t we talking about it then?
De-throning public health
A people who possess this eternal life are going to treat mortal life differently to those who don’t have it.
It doesn’t mean we’ll disparage this mortal life. John is quite clear that we still care about “this world’s goods” (1 John 3:17) – so, for clarity’s sake, mental health, social justice, domestic abuse and NHS are things for us to care about; in fact, Jesus will incentivise our concern with these issues (1 John 3:16,18). The history of hospitals is actually closely linked to the growth of the church.
But a people that believes in the resurrection of the dead are going to think about “public health” differently to those who don’t. A church that possesses eternal life is going to relativize the significance of the NHS. If you’ve got eternal life it radically alters how you look at this mortal life.
At a time when our mortality is more apparent than ever, we need to chip away at the pedestal we’ve put NHS on and prise its fingers off our national consciousness. We have something infinitely more life-giving to share with our country.
“This is the testimony that, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11).
Worship God. Share Jesus. Save Lives.