A Viral Gospel

A virus – in the biological sense – I am informed, is a “small infectious agent that replicates only inside the cells of other living organisms.”  Medical science began to understand the pathology of viruses about 130 years ago, and for nearly all that time there has been no such thing as a “good” virus, as there are, say, “good” bacteria in the gut, etc, that the human body needs and relies on.  But recently some scientists working with mice have begun to see that there are situations in which a specific virus can have a curative effect in certain circumstances.  So maybe it will turn out that there is such a thing as a “good” virus.

Such a development would make sense in a world where the concept of “going viral” has taken on increasingly positive connotations.  A video of a sneezing baby panda, for instance, has been viewed on line nearly 217 million times.  In a world where the competition for the attention of ideas seems to be ever increasing, your video, idea, image, or snippet of text going viral can be like hitting a jackpot of some sort.  And it represents exactly the kind of success we seem to value: immediate and far-reaching.  That’s going viral.

Viral phenomena were, of course, unknown in first century Palestine when the word about Jesus began to spread.

In the 14th verse of the 4th chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, the Apostle identifies someone named Luke as a “beloved physician.”  This person may or may not be the same person who wrote the Gospel attached to Luke’s name, and the Book of Acts, which is a second part of that Gospel.  Some scholars think, yes.  Other scholars think, no.  But let’s assume, as it has become commonplace to do, that the author of the Gospel of St. Luke was, in fact a physician.  St. Paul tells us nothing of Luke’s skill, knowledge, or wisdom as a medical practitioner.  We can assume that Luke was that rare kind of doctor who made house calls, since he is called a “beloved” physician, but beyond that we know nothing about his medical practice.  We do know that Luke cannot possibly have had any knowledge of viruses, which is somewhat ironic, since what he had on his hands was a virus – or at least something that was about to go viral in a way that has seldom been matched in human history.  He had the story of salvation that comes from God by the power of the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

How odd that we live in a world that is easily petrified by the threat of the spread of a virus (think Ebola), and whose imagination has more than once been captured by the potentially unstoppable nature of viruses, and which has seen the replication of a video of a sneezing baby panda 217 million times, and yet in the church we have so little confidence in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the Good News of the Son of God.  How rare it has become for us to expect from the Gospel any kind of viral accomplishments: immediate and far-reaching.

(In sincere fairness, it must be said, that a virus wreaked havoc in this church right here on Locust Street, and robbed this parish and many others of too many of her sons during the AIDS epidemic.  So it would be unwise of me to confuse the literal virus with the figurative one.  Please know that I know the difference.)

But I am struck, when I look at the modern American church and beyond, that we sometimes seem as though we have this Gospel on our hands that we can’t seem to get to go viral – as if its infectious replication inside other living beings is somehow a process we can’t get started, or maybe we are afraid to get started because we are not sure that it is good for people.

I wonder what St. Luke thought about the stories he collected about Jesus – beginning with the birth of John the Baptist, and going all the way to the Ascension of Jesus, just in Volume I!  I wonder if he thought he had a best seller on his hands.  I wonder if he knew he had something that would go viral.

He knew he had something that needed to be set down in writing for the sake of others.  Did he think of it as a prescription?  Did he believe that there would be healing balm in the words he penned?

Did he understand the weight of his words when he wrote that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick: I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”?

Was he thinking of the Hippocratic oath when he related the words of Jesus, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”?

Were some of his poorer patients on his mind when he recorded the words of the Magnificat?

Did he wish it was in his power to send demons, swine-bound, over a bank and into the depths of a lake?

Had he seen the power of faith in promoting healing; had he known that power in the application of the practice of medicine?

Had he himself offered up his seat to another and said, “Friend, go up higher”?

Had he treated rich men in grand houses, and also tended the sores of poor men like Lazarus who beg at their gates?

Had he himself given away his money to the poor in order to follow the Way of Jesus?

And had he shared what was left of his fortunes with the church like a good and faithful steward?

Was it his privilege to host the church in his home when the bread was broken and the cup was passed, following Jesus’ command to “Do this in remembrance of me”?

Had he himself searched for the location of the empty tomb, hoping to find its stone still rolled away from the mouth of the cave?

Did he know people who had been there with Jesus when the cloud lifted him up out of their sight?

What did make of all these stories that he set down, all these sayings of Jesus, all the parables, and the canticles?  What did he think he had on his hands?

And what do we think we have on our hands with this Gospel of Jesus?

Do we know what we have?  Do we have any inkling that its power and appeal might be greater than the image of a sneezing baby panda?

Do we even suspect anymore that that there is something essentially holy in this text that should be replicated, word by word, without mutation, on the living cells of our lives?  Or has the Gospel fallen prey to the germophobia that characterizes so much of the rest of our society?  Have we become so well vaccinated that the power of the Good News of Jesus struggles to take hold in our broken world, our broken lives, our broken hearts?

If we come together today to give thanks for St. Luke and his ministry as either physician or evangelist, then it is for this reason: that by his ministry something very good went viral in the world, became infectious, contagious, and began replicating within the cells of human life.

And we need to remember the power of the ministry of the Gospel.  We need to know what it is we have here, and we need to make sure that it is not sealed up in child-proof containers, or with lids so tight that arthritic hands cannot remove them.  We need to have confidence again in the viral appeal of these stories – this wonderful collection of stories that Luke has given us.  And we need to try again to reclaim the power of narrative to shape our lives, to lead us to understanding, to transmit faith, and to express hope.

Who knows if Luke wrote down these stories with the idea that they might go viral, as they assuredly did?  What we know is that he wrote them down because he knew they would be good for us – better than any medicine he knew.

The power of medicine and the power of the Gospel are not mutually exclusive categories.  Often they work best together – I expect Luke knew that, too.  But in our world, the more we invest in medicine, the less confident we seem to be in Jesus and his parables, or his Cross, or his empty tomb, or his apostles and their remarkable determination to spread Good News.

Volume II of Luke’s writing – the Acts of the Apostles – is the account of the early church, and particularly of St. Paul, to make the Gospel viral: to spread it abroad, replicating it as widely and as wonderfully as possible.  No matter that Luke knew nothing of actual viruses.  He knew of the pathology of hope that restored St. Paul’s vision, flung him across the globe, upheld him through shipwreck, sustained him in prison, motivated his preaching, and shaped the growing Body of believers.

The mice at NYU School of Medicine were given significant doses of antibiotics, which had the effect of killing off the good bacteria that mice (like humans) need in their guts in order to stay healthy.  Then the mice were infected with murine norovirus, normally harmless in mice.  With the introduction of the virus, the guts of the mice returned to normal, and their health was restored.

There are, indeed, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

I don’t want to live in a world without antibiotics.  But as a thought exercise, swap the word “Gospel” for the word “virus” and see where it gets you: With the introduction of the Gospel… their health was restored.  And that’s just talking about mice!

Jesus is talking about you and about me – and St. Luke knows this, which is why he wrote down his majestic narrative of Jesus for us: he knew it would be good for us, even if we have not always been sure.  He knew that the word about Jesus was already beginning to go viral: “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country,” he writes.  And he knew that this report - expanded by his pen – would continue to heal the world and transform those who heard it.

On his feast – Luke’s feast - it is our challenge to learn to know this too, and to tell the stories of Jesus that he told, and share them with the world.  For the Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus, because he alone is anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year – even this year – of the Lord’s favor. 

That’s the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Pray, God, let it go viral!

Thanks be to God!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, 2015

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 19, 2015 .