“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me . . . truly I tell you, [no one who welcomes you] will lose their reward.”
When I was in college, I was challenged by Karl Marx’s claim in his book, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that religion is the opium of the people and by a similar assertion by Sigmund Freud in his book, The Future of an Illusion, that the truth and reality undergirding our religious beliefs and practices were a mirage. Fifty years later, these ideas are still very much a part of the cultural air that we breathe. I was pleased to read that the state legislature has passed a law that will protect students who want to take issue with those assumptions, who will want, in one way or another, to witness to the positive effects of their religious faith and heritage.
Science itself, which is often used to support Marx’s and Freud’s theories, is increasingly a source of contrary facts and conclusions.
Just yesterday I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “In Tough Times, Religion Can Offer A Sturdy Shelter.” The author cites several scientifically rigorous studies in America and around the world, among a variety of religious practitioners, reaching the same conclusion, that people of faith are more resilient to stress and illness.
In the face of an alarming rise of prescription opiate addiction in our society, we may fairly ask Mr. Marx and Dr. Freud which lifestyle is healthier, the secular one in which religion has been belittled and removed, or the one in which religion has been honored and sustained, with all the challenges and benefits that a mature faith will inevitably demand and receive.
We should remember that people flocked to Jesus precisely because he offered them hope and health that he knew they could find in no other way, not even from a particular economic or psychological theory, as helpful as they may be. And in today’s gospel Jesus goes even further than the fact that our faith makes us more resilient to stress and illness. He promises us that if other people who do not yet know him and the benefits he has to offer welcome us into their lives, into their homes and businesses, they will receive the same reward of a hopeful and healthy life that we have received.
CS Lewis even used a medical term for describing this process. He called it good infection. You and I have been infected with Jesus. We are carriers of his hope and health. Christianity is naturally contagious. To the extent that we mingle with those who do not yet enjoy the benefits that we have received from Jesus, we are able to infect them.
I think this analogy can be extended to include the cautionary observation that if our faith is weak, we may only succeed in inoculating other people against a virulent, full blown Christianity. It may be that impotent form of religion that Marx and Freud were setting up as a straw man against a most robust faith.
That’s why I’m such a supporter of programs like Cursillo, Alpha, DOCC, Kairos, New Beginnings, summer camp, Vacation Bible School, IF tables and any other sustained and intensive Christian formation program, because they administer a much stronger dose, which if genuine, will give the recipient a taste of the new life that Jesus offers which they will subsequently only try in vain to find anywhere else.
But this is certainly not the only or even the primary way we infect others with the hope and health of Jesus. The model he is commending to us today illustrates how he can use you and me as individuals to infect others and thereby extend his kingdom one person at a time. In fact, one of the limitations of a more programmatic approach to spreading the gospel is the natural resistance that people exhibit if they feel ganged up on. This is the fear that opponents of the new law protecting the healthy expression of faith in our public schools used to try and defeat the law, believing that a Christian majority might abuse this privilege in intimidating and suppressing the views of others who may be in the minority. Let us pray that Christians will not abuse this privilege, but will use it to promote a more hopeful and healthy environment within our beleaguered educational system.
Jesus commissioned and sent out his apostles one by one and he sent out seventy other disciples two by two so that those outside the fellowship and communion of the faith might be able to welcome them into their homes and into the places where they work and play in a way they could not welcome a larger group. One person can befriend and invite themselves into the life of another more readily than a larger group can. Perhaps you have answered a knock at your own door from a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness and you had to decide on the spot whether or not to welcome them into your home, knowing that if you did, you might very well become susceptible to their beliefs.
Even if we do not take the initiative and invite ourselves, if ever so briefly, into the life of a stranger, we often find ourselves in contact with people we haven’t met before who may or may not make us feel welcome by meeting our need for something as simple as a cup of cold water, or which aisle we can find the mayonnaise, or how to upload this sermon to our new web site. It is in those simple exchanges, Jesus is telling us, that his infectious love is spread, that they receive evidence that the kingdom of God has come near them through our brief contact with them, passing on the hope and the health that is in us that we received through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
One of the early leaders of the church, in commenting on Paul’s passage from his letter to the Romans which we heard today, reminds us that it is our baptism that allows our physical presence through a smile or an encouraging word, or through the actions of our arms and legs in concert with our renewed mind in Christ that enables us to be used as instruments of his righteousness, as the means of transmitting the good infection of Christ to another person. So all of us are called to take the initiative with the Karl Marxes and Sigmund Freuds of this world who don’t yet know how hopeful and healthy they can be and what hope and health for this world there will be as more and more people become infected.
Jesus is telling us that we have what it takes to change the world. As we leave here today, let us remember that even the scientific community knows we have something that everyone needs, the hope and the health that come from God. And as Jesus said elsewhere, and as he would repeat to Karl and Sigmund, if you don’t believe what I say about myself, about my true identity as the very Son of God, if you think what I’m doing and what I have accomplished on the cross is all an illusion or an addictive pain-killer, believe me because of the positive effect that my presence is having on those who have welcomed me and my Father into their lives. The evidence of changed lives, Jesus promises us, will speak for itself. AMEN.