|Accepting Our Freedom in Christ
Accepting our Freedom in Christ
Reading: Mark 2:1-12
Introduction: When Jame's and Jackie's first-born son came into the world he was as healthy and wonderful as the proud parents dreamed and prayed he would be. The apple of his Dad's eye. The first eight years of his life, in fact, were all wonderful, healthy, normal growing up years. But then when Mike was eight, he contracted polio. For months he hung on the edge of life in a Houston, Texas hospital. When he was finally able to go home again, he was paralyzed from the neck down to his feet, and he required an iron lung in order to receive enough oxygen for life. No one looked to the preacher father or to the mother or to the son and said, “Who sinned, this boy or his parents?” It was just a tragedy of life. The question was, what would the quality of life be for little Mike from then on. Fortunately, Mike had wonderfully supportive parents, and friends, and he lived at a time when medical technology was making rapid advances. He got to where he could be out of the iron lung for several hours at a time. The medical community also kept inventing more portable equipment, and bed-type wheel chairs to improve his mobility. Mike's story is really remarkable in the end. Mike's toes have done incredible things over the years. First with typewriters and then computers, Mike not only got a high school education, he graduated from college. He is an accomplished painter, and a prolific writer with free lance articles in a number of different magazines and a book published by College Press a few years ago. He's a ham radio operator and served as president of the local club where he lives for several years. Mike and his parents are indeed remarkable people.
Mike is fortunate to live now, when handicapped people are considered valuable assets to society, when they can have a chance to live productive, reasonably whole lives. In the first century, Mike probably would not have lived to begin with, but had he survived as a paralytic, he would have experienced all the prejudice and rejection that other humans can sometimes heap upon those whom they no longer consider to be real people. In the first century, any physical ailment that left one immobilized and unable to work, whether it was blindness or paralysis—any kind of crippling disorder that made one abnormal—also made you a non-person. That is why it is common in the gospels to read the words “blind beggar” together. At whatever age such a disease or disability left one at the mercies of other people to care and tend for you—you became a non-person, socially and religiously. A paralyzed person could not participate in the Jewish religious life at all because he was impure—like the leper in the story that precedes this one in Mark, the paralytic was ritually unclean. He could offer no sacrifice, he couldn't participate in the feasts like Passover. He was outside the religious and social boundaries. Obviously there were no wheel chairs, no educational tutors, no need to practice with those toes even if he could move them. It was not uncommon even for families to dissociate from such people because they could not care for them—they were too big a burden.
Such conditions have to be understood before we can see this story unfold in front a crowd that includes some of the religious leaders—Mark calls them scribes, the people responsible for copying Torah, those who thought themselves to be the real authorities of God’s law because they lived with the words constantly. In Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus has returned to Capernaum only after a time of literally being forced away from town by overwhelming crowds of people. Word is out that he is a miracle worker, one who casts out demons and heals the sick, one who touches lepers and makes them clean rather than becoming unclean himself. Mark says the crowds seeking him are such that he is forced for a a time to stay in the country and people from every direction are coming to him. On the day that he returns to town, the house where Jesus is staying is packed. Mark tells us they are stacked up inside all the way to the entrance of the house—people are standing all around the door trying to hear what Jesus is saying. Mark has made it clear that although Jesus is a wonder worker, his primary mission is to preach, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.
Now I want you to imagine with me that you are the paralyzed man in this story. Jesus was in town once before, and people lined up outside this same house one evening and were healed of all kinds of diseases. You didn’t make it that night, and the obvious difficulty of being carried out of town several miles in pursuit of this miracle worker meant waiting until he came back to town. You are blessed with some people who care enough about you to bring you to Jesus when he comes back to town. So the anticipation builds as they pick up your mat and begin the tedious process of carrying you across town to the house where this man Jesus is reported to be. Ironically, what you experience when you arrive is what you always experience anytime you venture out in public—crowds of people who don’t see you and don’t care about you or your circumstances. When the people who care enough about you to carry you all that way arrive at the house, no one in the house budges in order to let you get close to the teacher. The scene really symbolizes your life at this point—forever on the outside looking in. No one considers it an option to move out of the way because you just don’t count. They got there first!
But your friends are persistent. Seeing the customary stairwell on the outside of the house that leads to the roof, they start trying to carry you up. It was difficult enough being carried on the streets. Now you are crumpled up on this portable mat as they ascend the stairs keeping you on the mat instead of sliding off! Then comes the really embarrassing part. Your friends start tearing a hole in the mud and thatch roof of this house. As the skylight begins to grow, of course, no one in the house can miss the noise and commotion and falling debree that interrupts the teacher as he speaks. Soon even you, with no feelings in your limbs, even you can feel the tension of the crowd and the icy stares coming up through the expanding hole in the roof. When the hole is big enough, your friends grab your mat and precariously start lowering you down toward the people below. People begin to pull back and make room—if they weren’t interested in letting you in the front door, you know how pleased they are with this interruption. Ever been stared at by a crowd of people who think you don’t belong? You already have a paralyzed body, so what is the worst case scenario here? If this miracle worker doesn’t or can’t heal you, then what? It’s too late to wonder now as all eyes are upon you—all eyes but the teacher’s, that is. He is still starting up at the hole in the roof, or so it seems. We readers know he not just looking at the hole, he is looking at the faith of the people who brought you.
You suddenly realize that the grumbling and murmuring has ceased and an icy silence has settled over the room as the teacher, for the first time, looks down into your eyes and speaks. “Your sins are forgiven,” he says. Those aren’t the words you were hoping to hear! Even if you live with the conviction that it is your sin that cost you your health, your body is in the same shape as before. Mark, our story-teller, interjects at this point that people in the crowd find this statement of Jesus not just puzzling but blashphemous. They still don’t see the paralyzed man, they now hear a false teacher claiming equality with God. Jesus turns away from you, the paralytic, and starts talking with the crowd. “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic (there’s that “third person” address you’ve become so accumstomed to….), ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Rise, take your mat, and walk.’ If we’re talking about words from the mouth, it takes fewer words and there is no verification process for forgiving sins, right? While God alone can truly forgive sins, what do those words mean at this point in the life of a paralyzed man or this audience? But then come the words you came to hear, words that verify the authenticity of forgiveness. Rise, take up you mat and go home.
As readers, we skip through this part of the story too rapidly! Anyone seen Christopher Reeves lately? Remember the enormous stir last January when he filmed a commercial in which computer generated imagery had him walking again? Many thought that was in poor taste—after all we all know he’ll never walk again. Anyone seen atrophied muscles, unused tendons? Anyone been through rehab after knee surgery even? The claims of this story are unbelievable! And what are the risks suddenly for a man who came hoping to be healed? What must it be like to experience the resurgence of muscle tissue in your legs, to have feeling where there was none, to have strength and coordination to stand up, then bend over and pick up the mat, then start walking out of the room. He came in through the roof, an object of stares and cold rejection. He now walks out, a whole person. Now which words are more valuable; “rise and walk,” or “your sins are forgiven.”
I have often wondered about the rest of the story. Life after walking out of the room for this man. What was it like to be fully human, perhaps for the first time? To be capable of full participation in society? To learn a skill, get a job, journey to Jerusalem and experience temple worship for the first time. What was it like to be free? Free from paralysis, free from sin?
I asked you to identify with the paralytic this morning because, curiously, I believe that is the last person we think of in this story. When I teach preaching classes at school I often assign this text to my students. Almost without exception when they preach this text, they ask their fellow students to identify with the friends who brought this man to Jesus. After all, that’s what we Christians are supposed to do, right? Bring hurting people to Jesus. But the faith of the friends is not the reason this episode makes its way into the gospel record. This story is here because it illustrates the ultimate identity of Jesus as Son of God as the one who reverses the human condition. Jesus is the one who makes humans whole, according to God’s original intent. People who witnessed this scene were amazed and glorified God. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” they said.
I wonder this morning, have we? Have we seen anything like this, or experienced anything like this? I don’t mean the sight of Christopher Reeves walking, I mean the sight of people who have come to see themselves as less than human being made whole again. Physical handicap doesn’t make one sub-human in our time. What does that to most of us is our own guilt and shame. Many of us long to hear those other words of Jesus and have them stick. We hear those other words in church, “your sins are forgiven,” but we don’t really believe them. The announcment of forgiveness is not a permission slip to sin again, it is the announcement that we are fully human—restored to the paradise design of the God who made us in his image. We are not free to sin again that grace may abound, but free to see that image of God in ourselves and in those around us. We’re free to glorify God in all of life’s settings and relationships.
We come to “grace-oriented” churches like this and sit anonymously in our seats and we never “see” and we go home “unseen.” And we are never quite released to be fully human, to act and interact with other fully human beings in the wonder of whole relationships. We carry our dysfunctional baggage in, and we listen to the announcement of freedom, and we carry our dysfunctional baggage out again. We announce release from paralysis, and go home to live in our own paralyzed worlds. We announce freedom in Christ, Holy Spirit indwelling, living presence of God in your life, in my life. God is with us, who can stand against us……but will we see each other even leaving the parking lot. Will we receive the wholeness, will we treat each other as whole human beings full of God presence this morning? Will we go home glorifying God because we have truly experienced amazing things this morning?
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, November 26, 2000.
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