There’s this really common thing now where people say they love Jesus and have a relationship with Him, but they want no part of ‘religion.’ Jesus is good, religion is bad. When people talk this way, you have to ask what they mean by the word ‘religion.’ Usually they mean something like ‘a bunch of empty rituals and traditions that you focus on instead of having an actual relationship with Jesus.’ But that’s not what the word means, and never has been.
If you look into what it actually does mean, you find something really beautiful. Do you know where the word comes from? The Latin, “religio,” has two parts: “ligare” means to tie together, to connect… like your 'ligaments' tie your bones together. And “re”, meaning what it always does, to do something again. “Re - ligare”… to bind back together. To reunite what was torn apart. To restore and bring back what was alienated.
If you want a symbol for being cut off and alienated, you can’t do better than the first reading from Leviticus. The person with leprosy is totally cast out. He can’t approach anyone. If he wants to communicate, the best he can do is stand a long way off and shout at you. He can’t even dress like other people. The goal is to be as far removed from society as possible, but if he absolutely must be out and about, he has to go around shouting “unclean, unclean,” so that people know not to come near him.
That's pretty extreme, but we all know in our own way what it is to feel lonely, isolated, cut off. We know what it is to feel unwanted. And if we don’t close our eyes and close our hearts, we know that some of our neighbors feel like that leper. Maybe you’ve been there: when things get really tough, you can get this weird feeling like people are actually low-key afraid of you. People who are grieving sometimes get this feeling. They’re hurting so much, and people don’t know how to deal with that, and they feel like they’re being avoided. Or they’ve just had a diagnosis, cancer or something really scary. Or their spouse is divorcing them, and suddenly they feel like they must have some kind of warning sign flashing over their head, like… what? Like it’s contagious or something? It’s little things, like the feeling that people aren’t quite making eye contact like before, or you don’t seem to get invited to things quite as much, or no one seems to know how to talk to you so they just… don’t.
It’s something many of us have felt, and we see it symbolized and taken to the most extreme level in the fate of that Biblical leper. Spending his life as an outcast, shouting “unclean, unclean,” so that the shiny happy clean people would know to run away from him… imagine that being your life.
And now maybe we’re prepared to understand how shocking, how scandalous this Gospel story is, when it begins, “A leper approached Jesus.” Oh, no! This guy has just not only broken the law, he’s blatantly trampled every social convention.
So of course Jesus is going to get along great with this guy.
And what Jesus does is simple and pure and healing and wonderful: Re-ligion. He does the most unthinkable, brave, astonishing, convention-smashing thing, and he reaches out and actually touches that man.
Now, if you want to call yourself His disciple you must do the same. Maybe you see someone who’s really, really hurting and maybe you feel a certain uneasiness, a vague desire to run away from that pain. That feeling isn't pretty, but it’s human, and good can come from it. It can be a clue: if you feel that way, others probably do too. Chances are this person is feeling alone and avoided. That’s your invitation to be Christ for that hurting person.
You don’t know what to say. Of course you don’t know what to say! If all you can do is make eye contact and awkwardly stutter out something ridiculous… that might mean the world. It’s a human connection. It’s a touch from another person that says ‘you aren’t alone.’
Our second reading switches gears a little, but it offers another angle on this "re-ligion" thing. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” That’s also about binding together. It’s about bringing everything we do into one, coherent whole.
Notice that Paul talks about the most ordinary things: “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” That really is, the more you think about it, an amazing and huge idea. Do everything for the glory of God? Drink a cup of coffee to the glory of God? Take a shower to the glory of God? Shop for groceries to the glory of God? Yes!
What does that mean? Like if you’re eating pizza, with every single bite you’re whispering, “oh, Jesus, this pizza is awesome, thank you so much, all the glory’s for you!” Well, maybe if it’s Quattro’s. But that’s not really what Paul means. What he’s saying is that all of life, even the most ordinary moments are holy if we are truly living re-ligion.
There are some things that can’t be done to the glory of God, and that’s a good definition of sin. But in all the tiny beautiful moments of life, from a cold beer on a hot day, to studying for a test, a song on the radio, the noise of crickets at night… true religion is to be present to all these gifts completely, and to truly appreciate them as we only can when we’re in touch with what connects them all together.
Eat, drink, do everything you do to the glory of God. That’s a life of wholeness and integrity. And it’s the compassion and the courage we need to reach out to the people who are hurting and feel alone. To reconnect what was divided, to bind up what was broken, to reach out to the ones who feel alone: that’s religion, and it's the work of every disciple of Jesus Christ.