“Alternative Medicine”


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

In past times, baptism was seen by some parents as a kind of vaccination—a protection against the disease of original sin that supposedly arrived in children’s souls when they were born.

Because parents held this belief, they felt that it was necessary to get their children baptized as soon as possible after they were born.

Most of us today would find that view superstitious—we don’t think the baptismal rite is a kind of magical spell; and we don’t think the priest is a magician.

On a theological level, this idea implies that God would punish a child if his parents neglected to baptize him right away and something happened to him. The child would receive eternal punishment even though she had done nothing wrong herself!

But, in my view, it’s possible to see some truth in the vaccination image. For just as inoculation against smallpox draws an invisible ring around the child that protects her from getting that disease—so baptism offers protection from the evils of the world. For the sacrament introduces the child to the power of God.

This power is portrayed in two of the Scripture Lessons that we heard today. In the first lesson, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Elijah, is staying with a poor widow. While he’s there, the widow’s only son becomes ill and dies. Elijah immediately responds to the tragedy and revives the boy.

In the Gospel lesson that we just heard, Jesus heals an adult who is also the beloved only child of his widowed mother. The man has been given up for dead and is being carried out of his house as Jesus is passing by.

Jesus tells him to get up from his stretcher. To the crowd’s amazement, the man awakens, arises, and begins to speak!

It is worth noting that this sort of healing wasn’t unique to Elijah and Jesus. At the time of Christ, there were pagan holy men and Hebrew rabbis who claimed to be able to help the sick—just as today, some Orthodox Jewish rabbis offer healing – and there are New Age gurus who claim special powers.

We should also recognize that these various kinds of religious healing occurred alongside secular forms, which were forerunners of modern medical practice. We could therefore see the actions of Elijah and Jesus as a kind of “alternative medicine.”

And the stories share a second similarity. Besides making sick people better, the miracles provide endorsements for the authority of the healers.

In the Old Testament Lesson, the widow says to Elijah after he has brought her son back to life: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” Her son’s new-found health showed that Elijah was a prophet of the Lord.

In the Gospel story, the crowds who witnessed Christ’s miracle proclaim that, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” The writer goes on to say that, “This word about spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.”

The miracles thus authenticated Elijah and Jesus as people who could reveal the truth of God. Miraculous healing was a sign of the divine presence.

But faith healing shouldn’t be viewed as the only way to address the frailties of the body. In the early church, you could be religious and still make use of herbs that were known to help various illnesses. If healing also came through prayer, as Christians sometimes discovered—so much the better.

This analogy with herbal drugs is a good one. Such home remedies supplement medical prescriptions and procedures. They don’t replace them. So, too, religious forms of addressing human needs are also meant as alternatives to be relied upon when secular remedies don’t work. In serious cases of physical or mental illness, even non-churchgoers may pray for God’s help.

Yet the many forms of religious practice mean that spiritual medicine is exercised over a very broad scope. Solitary prayer, for example, is not only called for in times of sickness. It can be a way we examine the state of our souls—we look inside ourselves to see what is working and what isn’t, the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone.

So, too, religious practices draw us beyond ourselves. The children baptized today will no longer be simply individuals—beloved by their families, of course, but still just individuals. Through baptism, they become part of the community of the Church.

That is why, when children are baptized, they have godparents. The godparents make the vows that the children are too young to understand and make for themselves.

“Godparents” thus become “spiritual parents.” They have particular care for the child’s interior life.

They are also, in a sense, “alternative parents.” While the child’s legal parents are charged with all the responsibilities of providing food, clothes, shelter, and education for their child, the godparents are able to focus exclusively on the child’s inner life – his questions, his problems, his faith. They are there to provide spiritual medicine.

And there is one final parallel we might draw between medicine and religion: a lot of people neglect their physical health. Studies indicate that some 40% of Americans don’t take the drugs their doctors prescribe for them. Many people also don’t go to their doctors for regular checkups; they refuse to get the medical tests the doctor prescribes for them.

By the same token, many people also neglect their spiritual health. Christians forget all the benefits of comforting prayer and meditation. They don’t enjoy the supportive community of the church, and they don’t share as often as they could the mystical Christian sacraments.

Yet these benefits are still available to them. God offers blessings to all of us who have been marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen.

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