37 Fourth Sunday of Pascha: The Paralytic - May 18, 2008

Acts 9:32-42

John 5:1-15

On this the Fourth Sunday of Pascha, we are coming into the heart of the Pascha Feast, which as I have told you, in Orthodoxy is not just for a few hours on Pascha Sunday and then it’s over. Pascha in the Orthodox Church is eight weeks long. It begins with Pascha. It reaches its high point in Ascension; and it concludes on the Last Great Day of the Feast, Pentecost.[1] You could say that this week, when we celebrate (on Wednesday) the Midfeast, we are drawing near to the empty tomb. On Wednesday, when we celebrate the Midfeast, we will hear the Scriptures say, “In the middle of the Feast, Jesus ascended to the temple and taught the people – with authority.”[2] In coming to these Sunday Gospel readings that are in the middle of the Feast, then, we are coming to what the Feast of Pascha is all about. Jesus is teaching us in these eight weeks the meaning of his death and resurrection. From this morning’s Gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus is about our being healed of our paralysis. And, in the larger context of the Scriptures, I would see our paralysis to be our inability to do the Law of God. Jesus is teaching us how to come to him so that we can be healed of our paralysis, our inability to do the Law of God, the Law that gives life and light, as God tells us through his prophets.

When I say that Jesus is teaching us how to come to him, I know full well that in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the paralytic. This is in contrast to the other Gospels of the Paschal Feast. In the Gospel for St Thomas Sunday, the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women, the Sunday of the Samaritan woman (next Sunday), the Sunday of the blind man, believers are coming to Jesus. Coming to Jesus, they see him in his resurrection. They are healed of their doubt and their blindness. They come to know him as the one of whom the prophets spoke. But in this morning’s Gospel, unlike the others on this point, Jesus comes to the paralytic. Of course he does, for the paralytic couldn’t come to him. How many of us feel or have felt that we are unable to come to the Lord to be healed, to see him, to know him as the Son of God who gives life to the world?

And yet, there is a sense in which the paralytic must still come to the Lord in order to be healed. One notes how the paralytic opens up to Jesus and tells him his problem: “Lord, I have no one to help me.” The paralytic is confessing to the Lord standing before him his inability to do what needs to be done for him to be healed of his paralysis. In this confession, the paralytic is coming to Jesus. He is coming to him in his heart. In this, he is like the publican we read about way back when we were getting ready for Great Lent. And, I think it may be significant that when he says, “I have no man” to help me, he addresses Jesus as Lord, for he says, “Lord, I have no man to help me.” He is putting his trust not in princes or sons of men, but in Jesus as Lord. He is not trusting in himself; he is not putting on airs, pretending to be well or righteous when he isn’t; he is acknowledging without excuse that he is helpless. He is saying, in effect, Lord, if you do not help me, I will never be healed.

I think this is how the paralytic is coming to Jesus. It is how we must come to him if we want to be healed, if we want to see him in his resurrection, if we want to know him as the Son of God, the Creator of the world, the author of our being, the one in whose image we are made.

But we need to attend very closely. The lesson Jesus is teaching us does not stop here. As soon as the paralytic confesses to Jesus that he is helpless, that he cannot do what he needs to do to be made well and that he has no one to help him; that he is, in effect, completely at the mercy of God, Jesus says to him: Take up your bed and walk. This is the same command that Jesus gives when he says in the Gospel that we read on those Sundays of the Cross: if you want life, then take up your cross and follow me. As soon as Jesus speaks, the paralytic is made well, and he is made able to take up his bed and walk.

He is made well, one notes, by the Word of Jesus. The Word of Jesus is the Word of God, and the Word of God is the Law that was given first to Adam and Eve when God said to them: “Eat from every tree in the Garden. Only do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In other words, as Jesus says in the Gospel from St John that we read this last week, “eat and drink the bread that I give to you; the bread of God that is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”[3] Eat the bread and drink the wine that are the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Holy Eucharist, the fruit of the Tree of Life. You see how to eat and drink Holy Eucharist is to eat and drink the Word of God, the Law of God, that also comes to us as the words of the Law that we hear with our ears and are commanded to do with our hands, our feet, our lips, our mind and our heart. To receive Holy Baptism and to eat and drink Holy Eucharist is to receive the Law of God that gives life, as the Lord says to Israel through his prophet Moses, when he says to them at Mt Sinai: “Do this [Law that I have given to you] and you will live!”[4] It is the Law of God that gives healing because the Law of God is the Word of God that we are receiving – the very Word of God that made the heavens and the earth, that made all things to exist from nothing, and that is the Light shining in the darkness which the darkness cannot comprehend or extinguish.

We are instructed by the Lord through his Church to come to holy baptism and holy Eucharist in the same mind of this paralytic; for we come to baptism and Holy Eucharist through the sacrament of confession. To the degree that we lay aside every excuse and confess our sins to the Lord, to that degree the Lord heals us. That’s why the warning of the confession is so stern: Do not hide anything from me, says the Fr Confessor, lest, having come to the Physician, you go away unhealed. And, we walk in the way of Christ’s commandments in the healing that is given to us in Christ’s Word, and in the life that is given to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, which are the very body and blood of Him who descends from heaven to give life to the world.

Let’s return to the observation that in this Gospel Jesus comes to the paralytic, while in all the other Gospels of Pascha, believers come to Jesus. What Jesus seems to be teaching us is that we come to Him who has already come to us, and is even now standing before us as he stands before the paralytic, inviting us to believe in him, to take up our bed and walk, to take up our cross and follow him, to walk in the way of his commandments. Jesus, after all, has descended into hell. In a few weeks we will celebrate his Ascension to heaven. In his descent to hell and his ascent to heaven he has filled all things with himself. In his Holy Spirit, he is everywhere present, filling all things. We don’t come to Jesus as though he is somewhere else and not here. We come to Jesus by opening our hearts to him, by doing what he tells us to do and by believing in him; and we believe in him by speaking to him as the Lord. To speak to him as the Lord is to take off the fig leaves with which we try to hide from him, clothed with which we put on airs and stand before him smugly, in the belief that he’s as pleased with us as we are with ourselves, as though we were righteous.  To speak to him as Lord is quite the opposite: it is to confess to him that we have sinned, that he died on the Cross for us; to acknowledge to him that we are helpless, that we have no one to help us, and if he doesn’t speak his Word to us, we cannot be healed.

It is in the healing he gives to us as we confess our sins that we are able to take up our bed and walk. As I said, to take up our bed and walk is to take up our cross and follow him. To take up our cross and to follow him is to put ourselves on the cross with him. We put ourselves on the cross with him as we confess our sins, as we confess our helplessness, and in that mind of confession, we go about crucifying the lustful desires of the flesh so that the true desire of our flesh may be realized, which is to become one with the Lord who died for us and gave his life for us, that we may be made alive with the Life of his Holy Spirit that has conquered death, and that we may walk in the way of his commandments, the way of life and light, joy and love, which have shattered the gates of hell.

This is the point to which we must attend closely. We walk in the way of Christ’s commandments only as we confess our sins. As soon as we leave the mind of humility, as soon as we become proud of ourselves, thinking we are righteous and that God is pleased with us as we are with ourselves, we take ourselves down from the cross, and we become paralyzed again, unable to do his will, unable to take up our bed and walk. It is only as we confess our sins, it is only as we cultivate a broken and contrite heart in humility and meekness, in the fear of God, with faith and love, that we receive the healing and life-giving power of his Word and are made well so that we can take up our bed and walk in the way of his commandments, which have been revealed in his death to be the way of his holy resurrection. Amen.

[1] Jn 7:37 – the opening words for the Gospel reading on Pentecost Sunday.

[2] Jn 7:14ff.

[3] Jn 6:33

[4] Dt 4:1ff.