For a variety of reasons, some parents refuse to vaccinate their children against contagious diseases. Among these parents, some have no particular problem with vaccinations as such. They withhold vaccines from a particular child whose immune system rebels against such medications or whose respiratory system crashes in response to inoculations.
Another group of parents harbor deep suspicions about vaccines, believing that, contrary to overwhelming scientific evidence, injections meant to prevent diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough actually cause autism.
Until recently, criticism of anti-vaccine parents has occurred at the fringes of media and social media. With the December measles outbreak at Disneyland, the discussions about vaccinating our children have multiplied across media outlets.
The Disneyland outbreak has affected about 100 people across the states so far. Most people did not notice an earlier outbreak in Ohio. A group of unvaccinated Amish missionaries returned from the Philippines infected by measles and the infection spread to 383 people.
Some people argue that vaccinations should be mandatory. As you might imagine, parents of infants too young to receive vaccinations fear the prospect of sitting with their baby in a pediatrician’s waiting room next to an unvaccinated child harboring a contagious disease and perhaps not even showing its symptoms yet.
People fear an epidemic, especially an epidemic like measles. It’s a disease whose incubation time is around three weeks. The person sitting right next to you, looking fit as a fiddle, could be oozing the potentially deadly germ from his pores all over you and your loved ones.
That’s the nature of contagion. We spread diseases to each other simply by being together. If we don’t prevent a contagious agent or quarantine that sickness when it does occur, we risk an epidemic.
Given that we associate contagion and epidemics with debilitating and deadly diseases, it may seem incongruous to you when I say that God has started an epidemic. Not an epidemic of deadly viruses or bacteria. But an epidemic of eternal life.
I want you to think about Jesus’ healing and his exorcisms along the lines of a contagion. What he bears within him—who he is at his very core—works its way into other people’s hearts and minds. Jesus embodies eternal life, and that life is catching.
He began his teaching ministry with a simple sermon: repent. He didn’t mean by that to stop doing rotten stuff. “Repent” means to change your mind. But neither did Jesus tell us to revise our own thinking or to recalibrate our own emotional responses. Instead, Jesus says, “I’ve come to give you a new mind, a new kind of life.”
In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come near. God has waded into the crowd. Jesus has not come down with some sickness. He is infused with God, so he carries eternal life.
Jesus has an unassailable wholeness. He could catch a cold and skin his knee like the next guy, but his circumstances could never diminish his vitality. His freedom was never compromised. He chose always to love sinner and saint, critic and supporter alike. Someone else’s attitude or expectations, someone else’s admiration or contempt could never control or hold Jesus captive.
Jesus is perfectly whole and completely free. This is why he can heal our body and free our soul from demonic forces. Eternal life is contagious.
Christ’s wholeness and freedom can profoundly affect anyone who comes in contact with him. In the case of Peter’s mother-in-law, he takes a sick person’s hand. In the Capernaum synagogue he commanded an unclean spirit to come out. But remember the case of the woman who simply touched his cloak. Her chronic issue of blood vanished simply because she rubbed up against him.
Jesus came to start an epidemic, to saturate the earth with the very presence of God and, by so doing, to spread eternal life like wildfire.
Jesus is patient zero. The epidemic traces back to him. But like any epidemic, the epidemic of eternal life spreads out from patient zero through successive patients who contract the condition.
Now this is an unusual sort of contagion. That’s because it spreads best when the symptoms are fully manifested. When eternal life shows itself in us, it is most likely to spread to those we encounter.
There are many examples of eternal life breaking out on planet earth. There’s fidelity through trying times, forgiveness, and almsgiving, for instance. For now I want to concentrate briefly on just one. Perfection.
Yes, you heard me right. Perfection. Only, you have probably already misunderstood what I’m getting at. Or more accurately, you have misunderstood what Jesus was getting at.
You may recall that Jesus said to be perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. That seems impossible. And if by perfection Jesus meant to be flawless, then he really was telling us to do something that we could never possibly accomplish.
But it was Greek philosophers who understood being perfect as being without flaw. Jesus lived in a Hebrew context. And, for a Hebrew, being perfect like God is perfect means to be compassionate like God is compassionate.
Jesus taught us that the rain falls on the good and on the evil, on the wheat and on the weeds. God’s love is for sinner and saint alike. Period. God never gives love for being good. On the contrary, God loves us to make us good.
When we have caught eternal life, we begin to be compassionate like God is compassionate. Whether we agree with someone or not, we love. We reach across the differences that might divide us—liberal and conservative, pro-choice and pro-life, marriage equality and traditional marriage—and embrace.
Compassion does not always beget compassion. Some people avoid succumbing to compassion somehow. They retain their animosity and condescension even in the face of unrelenting love.
But we can be certain that responding to animosity with aggression and contempt will never produce compassion. And we see with astonishing frequency that compassion does manage to infect wary and hardened hearts.
For instance, when I was teaching philosophy one of my students disappeared from class for several weeks. He was a philosophy major and I knew him well. Finally, he walked through my office door.
Given his experience with his family of origin, he showed up ready for me to drop the hammer. I could tell he had his guard up.
I said, “Man, are you okay? I’ve been worried about you.” For several moments, he couldn’t speak. He sat down and eventually shared with me the harrowing experience that had kept him away from school.
Later he told me that experiencing compassion instead of blame and judgment had affected him in a deep, abiding way. My concern for him drew us closer together, and I believe that it gave him a new understanding of himself and, I hope, a new capacity for loving others.
Our role as followers of Christ is to spread the divine epidemic. Sometimes we must use words. But for the most part, we spread this holy contagion with what we do, not with what we say.
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Bastrop, Louisiana.