Choral Evensong Lent 3 2020: The Virus of Sin
Joshua 1.1–9; Ephesians 6.10–20
As always in times such as this, there is humour. A rewrite of a Simon and Garfunkel Song; a photo of a Securicor man stashing toilet roll in the back of a secure van. These things have been circulating on the internet, as well as a short clip from ‘Yes Minister’, which we can be sure is frightening accurate even though it is forty years old. These things are very funny: Funny because they help us laugh at ourselves as well as others, but also because they are focussing on things that matter to us. The Simon and Garfunkel rewrite of ‘The Sound of Silence’ which has as its by line ‘Fight the Virus’ is funny because it sprinkles grains of truth on our chaotic world. Humour, as you know is dangerous, satire is banned by weak and paranoiac regimes, because it speaks and gets through where other mediums cannot reach. Humour is a weapon, and some feel the need to guard against it. Perhaps you don’t think a picture of a security guard loading a bag of Andrex into the slot where all the gold goes is funny…
Our readings this evening are all about security protection – spiritual security and protection, and these are understood metaphorically in terms of military protection. So we have the armour of God: Spiritual armour against an unseen but pervasive force, which was understood in St Paul’s time to undermine, destroy, weaken the spirit, allowing in sin, demonic influence and ultimately, perhaps, mental illness and even death. St Paul, in writing to the pagan converts in Ephesus uses these words: “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. He would have known the words of Joshua which we also heard: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Ancient words which ring far from hollow in these most interesting, worrying, dangerous of times. Whether interesting, worrying or dangerous depends on who you are, and what you think about science, expertise, politicians and journalism. It also depends on your understanding of God and the strength, meaning and perspective of your faith.
Some people are a bit fatalistic – there is nothing we can do, the virus will run its course, what will be will be. Others think it can be stopped, defeated, prevented, controlled, managed. Whatever any authorities advise or tell us to do, we all have our own views on whether we feel it is right to be advised or told what to do, whether we should be dictated to in this way. And the language we use reveals our opinions and our opinion about opinion. Some people even think that the sooner everyone gets it, the sooner it will all be over. And perhaps it will for some people, sadly. Individual and collective reactions range from ignoring it completely to ‘spirit of the blitz’, to panic. Everyone has an opinion, a view to support and view to criticise. Opinions do not change facts of course, but in the twenty-first century it is opinion not fact that is the main currency of debate. It gives the man on the Clapham omnibus an equal voice to a professor of epidemiology.
Some people are looking for armour to wear, others think it is unnecessary. And into this situation speaks our Bible this evening. We spent yesterday afternoon reading the Bible at length – all of the Corinthian correspondence, and the lovely book of Ruth. The Bible is not a spell book with a verse to read into or apply to any and every situation. But sometimes there is irony, serendipity, a sense of, oh, gosh, look at that, when something pops out, apparently at random. It makes you think, it does.
Spiritual armour, protection against unseen forces. Viruses. And the word virus itself has become metaphorical hasn’t it, in relation to computers. The way in which a computer virus ‘infects’ the host and replicates itself by destroying the host to some extent is analogous to what real viruses do. Viruses, remember are not cellular, and are not considered to be living organisms – they rely on the cellular machinery of the host.
In this season of Lent, I wonder if sin can be thought of a virus. Sin is in the air as it were, it is all around us, and it is easy to be infected by it. Indeed we probably all are infected by it. Sin is not a thing in itself, it needs a host in which to thrive and replicate. A sin cannot sit on a bench and mind its own business. Sin is harmless if it is not in a person. But when we catch it – as we all have done – it latches on, and grows within us. When it comes to sin, there certainly is a ‘herd contagion’ everyone has it. We cough and sneeze sin, and it does damage to ourselves and others. It can infect others.
We never build immunity to sin, although we can protect ourselves against it by donning the armour of God. Just as we can treat a virus, we can treat sin. We may never get rid of it – it is not living nor non-living – but we can learn to live with it, can learn to live in a world that is full of sin, and can take precautions against it. We treat sin with the mercy of God, administered where there is repentance. We take precautions against catching more sin by donning the armour of God:
“the belt of truth around your waist, and …the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet …whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
These are St Paul’s weapons and armour for the fight against sin and devil. Or, in modern language, we might say that these are the pills, the precautions, and the treatment we should take. How might a modern Ephesian be counselled? Like this perhaps?
“take the tablet of truth, the medicine of righteousness, the handgel of faith to quench the onslaught of nasty bugs, the face mask of salvation and the vaccine of the Spirit, which is the word of God, to fend off all assaults of body and soul.”
Perhaps this is funny – perhaps it is serious. Or both: it is funny because it is serious. The corona virus is a serious matter. And sin is a serious matter. Both need to be protected against, handled with care, precautioned, managed, cleansed and defeated. And in respect of both we put our trust in reason and faith.
So, whether in body, mind or spirit, as St Paul puts it: “put on the armour of God, and keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints”. Which is to say, search out and pray for the sick, and make sure that your medicine cabinet, physical and spiritual, is well-stocked and ready for viral battle. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/03/2020