It’s season one, episode six of the Walking Dead and there’s not much time left. Rick Grimes and the gang have zombie-wacked their way through post-apocalyptic Atlanta and arrived at what they think is their best hope for a zombie virus cure: the Center for Disease Control. But when they get there, there is no cure, and all they find is Dr. Edwin Jenner, the last doctor standing. Dr Jenner tells them the whole place is about to go up in flames. If they want to make it, they have to escape now.
They run for the exits but just before they do Dr. Jenner leans over to Rick Grimes and whispers something into his ear. As Rick listens, his countenance falls. He staggers out to join the rest of his party. They make it outside just in time as behind them the CDC erupts in a massive explosion. And the season ends.
The pre-netflix viewers were left wondering, for months, “What was that? What did the doctor whisper to Rick?”
It isn’t until season two, thirteen episodes later, when tensions are high and arguments among the party are reaching a boiling point that Rick finally blurts it out, “Look, he said we’re all infected… Whatever it is, we all carry it.”
It’s great television. But I’ll admit, it may be a little too close to home for now…
Thankfully we are not in a zombie apocalypse, but we are in a pandemic. And apocalypse or not, it’s something that’s unprecedented in our lifetime. And no, we aren’t all infected, but the evil of this coronavirus is that we could be infected and not know it for a few days, even a couple weeks, and that means we could spread it to others, so for now we keep our distance.
Did you notice the way I said that? The “evil of it”? For Christians (especially Methodist Christians, actually) the terms sickness, and disease, and sin, and evil, and death, they’re all interchangeable terms. They are in the Bible too. They’re all seen as aspects of one underlying human condition, the condition of a fallen, corrupted world, infected by Sin and Death.
So, in one sense, the Bible-informed church looks at the science behind a pandemic like ours and says, yes, this too is another aspect of a fallen creation, infected by the power of sin and ruled by death.
This is the testimony of scripture, and it is central to the preaching of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. But compared to him, I’m putting it lightly. When Wesley described the human condition he said, “[in every human there is a] carnal mind, which is… against God, which so infects the whole soul, that “there dwells in” humanity, ‘in our flesh,’ in our natural state, ‘no good thing;’ but ‘every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is evil,’ only evil, and that ‘continually.’”
For Wesley and much of the Bible, the problem of sin is not just bad conduct and it’s not just some people, it’s universal, and it’s deep. What’s wrong with the world, is also what’s wrong with our bodies. We’re all infected. Whatever it is, we all carry it.
In order to grasp who God is and what God has done, the Bible, and Paul, and Wesley want us to take an honest look in the mirror, and first acknowledge that we can watch all the escapist TV, and do all the live streamed yoga, and homeschool like a champ, and eat all the vegetables, and take all the vitamins, and live our best quarantined life, and at the end of the day we are still mortal. But on week three of this pandemic, chances are you’ve already been reminded of that.
Paul says it like this, at the end of the day, to set our mind on the power or strength or health of our own flesh still ends in death. But, says Paul, (and this is a big but) But, says Paul, the Good News is that because Christ is in you, now there is more to you than flesh. “You are not in the flesh,” he says, “you are in the Spirit because in Christ the Spirit has infected your flesh with its own life.”
David Finnegan Hosey is a campus minister in North Carolina, an accomplished author, and a friend of mine from seminary. He’s also a person living openly with mental illness. In his first book Christ on the Psych Ward he talked about his own experience of self-quarantining under different circumstances. He was having an attack. He said his body wanted him to die, so he admitted himself to a hospital and lived there for some time.
There he was treated by doctors and tormented by his sickness, or sin, or evil, whatever it is. When he got out he wrote this book and in it he described a scripture that haunted him, that saved him, repeatedly, it came as a simple phrase, like a whisper, “My Grace is sufficient.”
It’s a line from the Bible, from Paul in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s writing about his own struggle in the flesh, it’s not clear if what Paul’s struggling with is a sickness, or an illness, or sin, or evil. Whatever it is, Paul says he can’t shake it but one time in the middle of an attack Christ spoke to him, like a whisper, and said, “My Grace is Sufficient for you.”
To explain this phenomenon, Christ’s whose grace, even whispered, is sufficient in the midst of illness and death, early Christians described Christ in the language of Isaiah who wrote, “surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Christ lived as a healer and a teacher, but also as one who was tempted by sin, and, we can assume, experienced illness and disease. In his death on the cross, he fully assumed all the brokenness of humanity’s underlying condition: our sickness, our sin, our disease, our evil and finally even our death.
The testimony of scripture and the church is that this is how God has dealt with infected flesh, by becoming infected himself, even to the point of death.
But the story does not end there. In his resurrection and the dissemination of his Spirit in baptism, Christ who assumed our sin-sickness, and bore our disease and death, has transformed our underlying condition, innoculating our original sin with his redeeming grace to the point where my friend David says in Christ Grace is now our pre-existing condition.
Paul says, “if Christ is in you, though your body is dead because of sin even as you are still alive, the Spirit is life because of Christ, and life even beyond your death. To be stuck in the flesh is death, yes, but you are not in the flesh, because of Christ, you are in the Spirit, and to be rescued and infected by the Spirit is Life and Peace, even in the face of Disease and Sin and Death.”
I think what makes the Walking Dead a great show is, mostly the zombies. But in addition to that the interesting thing to watch is that after Rick Grimes hears that whisper, after he shares Dr. Jenner’s proclamation with the rest of the group, what follows is a story of how people live their life based on this news that was whispered to them. This whispered new reality shapes who they are not just as individuals, but as a people in a weary world.
I believe what Paul says here in Romans does exactly the same thing, only it’s based on a very different whisper. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is this whisper of good news that “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Put more simply, the Gospel is this, “My Grace is sufficient.” This is the Good News of Jesus Christ whispered by the Spirit even into the ears of diseased, sin-sick souls. “My Grace is sufficient.”
May God grant us faith to believe this whisper of Grace, and then to let it shape who we are not just as individuals, but as a people in a weary world. Repent and believe this good news. Amen.
Benediction from Wesley: “Faith in Jesus Christ is God’s method of healing a soul which is diseased. Now, “go on from faith to faith,” until your whole sickness be healed”