The Healing of the Paralytic
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, May 7, 2023
Good morning! This morning, I would like us to take the place of the paralytic and to put ourselves in his shoes, to feel what it was like to be in his place, and so I am going to use the first person and describe myself to tell his story.
The Gospel takes place today among the five porticoes of Bethesda – a place of broken humanity – which is where we usually find Jesus – not at the great Temple of Solomon in all its glory. How characteristically Jesus acted here. With resolution, he threaded his way through the mass of suffering to find me, the most desperate case in the whole place. There he is! And there I am. He proved his righteous power and love and keeps proving it day after day for all of us who are desperate. What we, what I needed most at that moment was hope in a desperate place, a new hope that aroused me, that can arouse all of us from the lethargy of a dull, crushed acceptance of what we are, with a realization that our case is not closed, and that our issues have not been fully decided.
“Do you want to be healed?” he asked. What a question for a wretched soul lying and waiting for 38 years! Every day I tried to reach the pool with my useless limbs, (sometimes almost making it!... a little more, a very little more… and, but no!) Always, it was someone else, not me. Someone else with friendly helping hands pushed past and brushed me aside. Oh, I despaired and felt slighted and jealous of my brother’s success. And so, I crawled my way back to my corner. Every day for 38 years, 10s of thousands of attempts and effort. Then Jesus asked me, “Would I like to be healed?” Would I like it? As I am shut up in living death? Me, who knows nothing of life. I, who every day of my life see someone else who is joyfully saved, while I am left behind. And they keep coming, and they keep going out into the world. And always, I am left in my filthy corner. And you ask me, “Would I like to be made whole?” Yet again, I’ve grown used to putting in the days among the porticoes. I almost like it here. I can lie in the shade in the heat of the day, so near to the pool. Maybe this is good enough. Do I really want to be healed? In theory, I would like to be made whole, but maybe this is good enough.
So, Christ puts this question to all of us. “Do you want to be healed?” The only thing that hampers his gracious purpose lies precisely at this point. It is the same question our forebears, Adam and Eve faced. Do we want to be with our Creator and Savior – do we want to be whole - or do want our independence in hell? We have heard his promise. Our hearts run out to him. But we don’t really want what we say we want. At a distance, being with Christ looks nice, but the nearer we get closer to the cross of repentance, we’re not so sure. What about the little comforts we have in our corner? So, we drop his gift, we forget his grace, and we turn back to the way things were.
“Rise, take up your pallet and walk,” the Lord said to me. That was the very thing I could not do, except pitifully, stumblingly, the very thing I’ve been trying to do for years past counting, without any success. But looking at Christ, I found that maybe, just maybe, I could.
If we put ourselves in the place of the paralytic, we might ask, “How can Jesus help me?” Of itself, our willpower is certainly not enough to change us. Thinking is not enough. Wishing, willing it to be done... no. There is always someone else who is faster, smarter, more willing, and able than I am. Yet, looking at Christ, we find that somehow, we can do what we have failed to do, that we can be what we could never be on our own. We can reach up and grab hold of what is utterly beyond us. The scripture is filled with a staggering promise, the promise of eternal life with Christ, that no one is beyond our Lord’s helping hand.
Back in Bethesda, in the excitement of a sudden and unexpected cure, I allowed Jesus to slip away unthanked, without even learning who he was. And when I was roughly challenged for picking up my mat on the Sabbath, I answered weakly, ‘The man who healed me said to me, “take up your pallet and walk,” I don’t know who he was.’ I was trying to get myself out of trouble by throwing the blame on Jesus. This is what I didn’t say: “the man who healed me told me to do this, and what he says is good enough. Otherwise, I would still be lying there in my filth.”
But Jesus found me later and said, “See you are well! Go and sin no more, that nothing worse may befall you.” Something worse than 38 years of misery and uselessness? Could that be denying Christ’s healing power in my life? I was weak and stupid. But Christ came back and found me yet again. Was I worth it? No. My healing on the Sabbath arguably sent Jesus straight to the Cross. This sabbath healing was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for the Sanhedrin. You could say he died because of me. He died so that I could be made whole. And that is no metaphor. This is literally what happened. Christ called me, a stumbling block to healing, not a great example at all. And how have I changed? That is a very good question. How was I healed? Am I any different from what I was? Jesus certainly didn’t benefit from his kindness to me. How can I give him thanks, with the Eucharist that is his due?
So, we all cost him day by day. And yet he looked out to save the lost, to save me, and paid the full price by giving his life, and seemed to count it worthwhile. What an example, what a joyous opportunity to start our lives again, fresh, and new.
Thanks be to God!