This sermon was delivered on May 19, 2019, the Sunday of the Paralytic (John 5:17-27; 6:1-2).
C H R I S T I S R I S E N
The encounter of the paralyzed man with Jesus in today’s Gospel reading applies to each and every one of us. We know that Jesus, coming to the pool of Bethesda, found a man lying there who had been incapacitated for thirty-eight years. Even though we do not know this individual’s age, we could say that his illness grew to full adulthood, almost taking on its own life, supplanting nearly four decades of healthy living that this man could have had.
But illness is a fickle thing. Some people are ill and incapacitated for decades, like this man. Others suffer a short bout with a disease and recover, but some perish. Others appear healthy and one small defect causes a sudden failure that forever alters or even ends their life. Some diseases never have outward physical manifestations but give their bearers a lifetime of anxiety or sadness or confusion. The suffering of some is plain for all to see, while the suffering of others is virtually invisible. Illness wears down the old and robs the young. Illness, no matter its form, intensity, or duration, is inescapable.
But we know that all illness is a result of sin. In their disobedience, Adam and Eve ushered in not only death, but everything unpleasant that we experience generation after generation. The other constant, generation after generation, is that we all participate in this sin.
When the fulness of time had come, the eternal Word of God entered time and space, and took on flesh from the Virgin Mary and became human. This god-man, Jesus the Christ, came to reconcile our fallen humanity to God. As St. Paul would write in his letter to the Christians in Rome, we
rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death was passed on to all men, because all sinned.(Romans 5:11-12).
We see here that illness and death are part-and-parcel of our fallenness. And while we have been saved in Christ, we are not taken out of this fallen world, the environment polluted by our sinfulness. The rules of the system do not change to accommodate us. Instead, Christ gave us the command to “be in the world, but not of the world”, and as he said to his disciples elsewhere: “in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world,” and he promised us that he “will be with us to the end of the age”. The world and its ways have not changed; what is different now is that God has revealed his nearness to us in Christ. If we manage to perceive this even in the slightest, suddenly our perspective on illness and even death is changed. And because these two are inextricably linked to sin, our perspective on sin must also change.
Christ’s promise, that he will abide with us until his return, is recited in the Gospel reading offered in the baptismal service. And it is precisely this event of baptism that helps us understand Christ’s encounter with the paralyzed man at Bethesda. You see, the prevailing tradition of the Church until more recent times was for those who were entering the Church to be baptized on Holy Saturday, the Saturday leading into Pascha. Mind you, these were mostly adults, not infants.
While our practices of baptism have changed for various reasons, the structure of our liturgical calendar and services has not changed as much or as quickly. It is for this reason that we still hear today—the third week after Pascha—of this encounter with the paralytic, who needs help to be put in the healing waters, and whom Jesus charges at the end not to sin anymore, lest something worse happen to him.
The message to the newly-baptized would have been clear: don’t forget what has happened to you. After your life of sin—of spiritual illness and paralysis—Jesus has healed you and given you a fresh start. Keep on the straight path; don’t return to your sinful habits or you risk something worse happening to you. That “something worse” could indeed be bodily illness. However, the greater risk that Jesus referred to would be alienation from God and eternal damnation, since bodily illness can actually lead us to true humility and repentance.
But what if we are not newly baptized and, as is the case for most of us, the glow of our salvation in baptism was never truly nurtured, and faded long ago, in infancy? What if this thing we have come to know as “church” is simply a social network of vaguely like-minded and somewhat homogenous people—not a community rooted and thriving in its established and continual salvation?
Those of us who are supposed veterans of the Christian faith, proud, life-long Greek Orthodox Christians, what do we have to show for it? How have we grown closer to God and to our neighbor? Do we still use rude language? Drink too much? Curse? Gossip? Cheat? Steal? Abuse? Neglect? Boast? Lie? Overeat? Overspend? If we continue to do these things, and chalk it up to our “personality” or resign ourselves to say “that’s just who I am” then we are pathetic paralytics. We have chosen to be identified with our illness and not with Christ.
And here is the scary thing that we must note. Bodily illness rarely goes unnoticed; its hallmarks are discomfort and pain. We waste no time tending to it. But spiritual illness? It is completely the opposite. The more spiritually ill we become, the more numb and desensitized we become to matters of the spirit. By outward appearances we might appear to be good—even faithful—people. True spiritual illness and paralysis is characterized by indifference.
What does this look like in our contemporary world? It looks like fitting in, going along with what the world wants and does. Being “normal”. Chasing that career. Getting that plastic surgery to look just right. Saturating ourselves in the vicissitudes of politics and breaking news and sports and celebrity. Wearing all the right brands. Living with our girlfriend or boyfriend while shunning marriage in the Church. The list could go on and on.
If we live our life at that level of existence—even if we think of ourselves as Orthodox Christians—we are deceived. We have been duped. We have been stung and paralyzed by the numbing venom of the devil. Life is passing us by and we are stuck. Christ stands right in front of us in the Eucharist and we pay him no mind. We have forsaken our baptism and are already experiencing something worse befalling us.
The good news is that Christ is always standing here, ready, and calmly and sincerely asking: “Do you want to be healed?” If you hear his words today, and if your heart is moved even in the slightest by them, do not hesitate. Take up your pallet and walk—no, run. Run to him in prayer and thank him for what he has done. Come, confess your paralysis to the Physician and let him effortlessly unbind you. Come, receive his blessing and, moreover let his own Body and Blood fill yours. Let him fill you once more with the glorious light of his salvation, so that you can walk upright in the assurance of his power.