On the Sunday of the Paralytic

Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes for Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Reading is from John 5:1-15

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.  Christ is Risen!

In one of the hymns at Great Vespers we read this: The paralytic… was like a dead man unburied.  Paralysis of his body was the least of his problems.  He was also paralyzed in mind and heart.  

Sitting by the Sheep’s Pool for thirty eight years had hardened him into stone.  You can hear how destitute and isolated he must have felt when he spoke to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool…”  But you can still sense that inside this man paralyzed in body and mind there was a soft center.  Depression, anxiety, fear and aggression are often defense mechanisms.  What do they protect?  Usually that little thing we work so hard to develop and strive so ardently to preserve at all costs, the thing we like to call the “self”.  We cobble this construct out of the debris of life, our desires, our talents, our fears, our guilt, etc, etc, we call it “me” and then set out to make sure that it uses every possible means to assert itself and ascend the great heap of other “me’s” at any cost.  That means it takes no prisoners and ends up becoming one.  The paralytic was imprisoned not by his disease, but by his mind.

Viktor Frankl, the great psychologist, was the only survivor among his family of the Nazi death camps.  There he noticed that a few, rare persons were able to rise above their suffering and care for the prisoners around them.  “We who lived on concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s one way.”

This is why Jesus asked him this all important question, “Do you want to be healed?”  The Lord went to the heart of the problem, cutting through the defenses and past the little “me” in the paralytic to the truth of his being.  The “little me” did not want to be healed.  It had grown comfortable in its misery and had developed an amazing little fortress to defend itself.  But the image of God in him, the truth of his identity, the part of him most deeply imprisoned and forgotten heard His voice.  I would be willing to bet that there was much more to the dialogue between them, but the result was this: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”  And then later when Jesus and the man met again in the Temple, Jesus said to him these wise words, “See you are well. Go and sin no more that nothing worse befall you.”

The point of developing an authentic spiritual practice is liberation.  Do we really want to be healed?  The Church holds the means of salvation for us and offers them freely as did the Lord at the Sheep’s Pool. The Church awakens in us the gifts of God given to all made in His image through Her sacraments, prayers and liturgies.  The Lord Jesus came to set us free and there is much we can do to become “co-workers” in our own liberation.  

The instantaneous liberation from physical paralysis was only one aspect of the miracle.  The other was to awaken the man to the truth of his nature.  The Lord advised him to be careful that he not fall again into the mire of the mental state that held him prisoner for thirty-eight years.  The antidote to that poisonous mental state, the very one we are all imprisoned by, is an authentic spiritual practice of meditation, prayer and the conscious nurturing of virtuous thoughts and actions.