When a virus infects a body, it starts by taking over a healthy cell. That healthy cell becomes a factory for copies of the virus. The copies spread and make the whole body sick. An infected person comes into contact with other people and the virus spreads--through water droplets in a cough or sneeze, for example. Viruses tend not to discriminate. They can use any type of person as host, and so they can spread easily from one community to another.
When a new viral outbreak starts, the first line of defense is to quarantine the sick individuals or the stricken community. That way the spread of the virus to new hosts and new areas can be slowed down or sometimes even prevented, and necessary care can be focused on the people who are already afflicted. When the novel coronavirus started spreading rapidly in and around the city of Wuhan in China early this year, quarantine was the first strategy to slow the epidemic and to keep it out of regions and countries that didn’t have it yet.
But the thing about quarantines is that they usually only work for a while. Once a viral disease starts spreading outside of the quarantine, the strategy needs to change. Once an epidemic is on, public health officials focus on mitigating the inevitable spread of the disease. Instead of isolating and separating ourselves, we need to cooperate. Nations or cities with an abundance of medical supplies need to share with areas that are lacking so that the spread can be slowed and the human toll can be minimized. If people are afraid of being ostracized or stigmatized, they are less likely to seek the testing and treatment they need, and more likely to infect new people. If people are going to be stuck with a huge hospital bill just for getting tested--as has already happened in the U.S.--they are going to have a strong incentive to roll the dice with their own health and the health of their neighbors. A virus doesn’t care if we’re being foolish or if we’re being overprotective. It will use whatever we give it.
Obviously viruses are on many minds these days as the U.S. prepares for our own outbreaks of COVID-19 caused by the new coronavirus. But viruses are just inherently interesting. There’s a way in which a virus understands humanity better than humans do. To a virus, we’re just one big 7.7-billion-person mass of cells ready to be taken over and turned into factories. To each other, we are friend and enemy, citizen and stranger, rich and poor; people we are obligated to care about, and people whose suffering we may ignore. The viruses show us over and over that they are right.
Today our Lent series on the question “What Are We Doing Here?” continues with Martin Luther’s second “holy possession” of the church: the sacrament of baptism. Like everything else in the church, baptism is done in a wild diversity of ways, with a similar diversity of explanations for what it does. Lutherans follow the ancient church in teaching that baptism forgives what we call original sin, or sometimes ancestral sin. Through water and the Word of God, a new believer is washed free from sin and eternal death. Whenever we confess our sins and receive forgiveness in the church, we are returning to our baptism. We are reactivating it.
And in forgiving our sins and raising us to eternal life, baptism also joins us to the Body of Christ. Some of our brother and sister Christians take a different view, that baptism is an individual rite that expresses individual faith. But in our tradition, baptism makes us part of something much bigger than each of us alone. It makes us part of the People of God, the Body of Christ on earth. The apostles and the church fathers said that baptism had created a new nation, a new people called out of every nation and language. It joins us with people who sit across every boundary humans create for ourselves: friend and enemy, citizen and stranger, rich and poor; people we are obligated to care about, and people whose suffering we may ignore. The Body of Christ is everywhere. It is in Wuhan, it is in Italy and Iran and Washington State. Where one member suffers, we are all touched.
This is important because sin wants to separate us. What does Adam say when God asks about the fruit of the free? The woman gave it to me! This is the devil’s greatest trick. God created humans for community and cooperation and solidarity. The devil sows hostility and estrangement and separation. And sin tends to spread like a virus. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and nothing has been the same since because we cannot accept and embrace each other as we were created to do.
The devil tries a similar trick with Jesus in today’s Gospel. The devil is inviting Jesus to separate himself from ordinary humanity. Seize the love of the people by fulfilling their hunger. Seize the awe of the people by displaying your power by falling from the temple. Seize the obedience of the world by worshiping me, and receiving my power over the kingdoms of the earth. Break your human fellowship with these miserable sinful creatures and rule them the way they want to be ruled: through need and fear and wonder.
Jesus refuses the temptation. Jesus does not deny his humanity and he does not deny our humanity. Jesus stays in solidarity with us hungry, needy, fearful humans. He does not separate himself.
And Jesus’s solidarity with humanity is repeated over and over in the sacrament of baptism. Every time we baptize a new believer we ask them or their parents and their sponsors to renounce the devil and all his empty promises, the power of sin that draws us away from God, and the powers of the world that rebel against God. If sin can act like a virus, so can goodness. I’ve seen children help bring their own parents to baptism. I’ve baptized people in their sixties alongside six month old babies. Once a seven year old wanted to be baptized but she was afraid, so she asked a friend at the church to stand up with her. And just like a virus, baptism can seem to lie dormant for a long time--for years or even decades. And yet when you come back to Jesus, there it is waiting for you.
This is why baptism is so central to our faith, and why it is such a powerful and universal sign of the Christian community. This is why we celebrate it, every time. It’s why we pray for the newly baptized and why we lift up baptism anniversaries. While the world tries to pull us all apart, Jesus will endure anything to hold us together. Amen.