By their attitude, the scribes in today’s Gospel reading, Mark 2:1-12, are preventing God’s word from acting as a force that sets men free. The man’s stretcher makes me think of the many who are crippled because of the absence of love. Lying there and unable to rise are those who are without hope, who are imprisoned within their own loneliness, and whose hearts are dry and withered. That was the situation of the man by the pool (John 5:2-9). It is the condition of millions in our world today! Thank God the man in today’s reading had four friends who loved him, because almost everything around him was loveless. Jesus himself would find himself abandoned of love when his time of trial and crucifixion came.
The ancient world is not very different from our modern world. But today too there is love to be found, here and there. I saw a wonderful report yesterday on BBC World News about a new fight against cancer in a British hospital using targeted, individually tailored medicines and treatments based on a person’s DNA and immune system. Some of the patients featured died, others are still living. But what struck me is the hope that radiated in this hospital, from every doctor and nurse and on every patient’s face.
[[ You might be able to catch the program on repeat showings on the BBC World News cable channel, available in this country. Or, you can watch it on YouTube: The BBC website also has several articles relating to this program, for example: Defeating cancer, the ‘evil genius’ ]]
No one talks about forgiveness of sins in this hospital or in any hospital, obviously. And yet, what I saw in the faces of patients in this program is a spiritual healing that could be called a “forgiveness of sins” of sorts. I say this because every time we go against the cold, faceless world, and give hope, we are atoning for some of the world’s sins. It’s interesting that in Matthew’s version of this same miracle story, the people react with awe, and they glorified God who had given “such authority to men.” In Mark’s version today the people say, “We have never seen anything like this!” In Luke’s version they say, “We have seen strange things today.”
Yes, it is “strange” when healing is more than simply medicinal, more than simply a matter of physical recovery. The deeper healing is in the faces of patient and doctor. Jesus looked at the face of this paralytic and the faces of his friends, and went to that deeper level of healing. Sometimes that’s all the healing that can take place.
It’s true, only God can forgive sins. But how did God choose to do it? Not through sacrifices of animals, not through imposition of self-punishment on people. God did it by becoming one of of us. Only God can forgive sins, but God becomes man in order to do it. Thus Matthew’s version is on the mark: they glorified God who had given such authority to men.
Instead of placing burdens and road blocks on each other – as the scribes and the Pharisees were doing and still do today in churches! – we are given authority to heal and to lift burdens. That is our calling. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, as we heard last week (Hebrews 12:2). He has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow. He promised that we would do even greater things than he did (John 14:12).
One of those greater things is to make room for the unexpected. I hope our worship is not like the house in today’s reading: closed to the outside. We’re not packed with people, there’s plenty of room – unlike the house in which Jesus was preaching – and yet it could still be true that there’s no spiritual room, no opening to the outside.
Are we a church where people are touched deep in their inner core? Are we a church of rules, or a church that enables people to touch God? This is why today we honor St. Gregory Palamas, who lived about 700 years ago in northern Greece. His theological insights are difficult to explain in a sermon. But the purpose of his complicated language was actually quite simple: his primary aim was to insist that human beings can experience God’s presence really and fully in their lives. And furthermore, it is possible for human beings to be filled with divine glory, the same glory that shone from Christ on the mountain.
I don’t know about glory and divine light. But I do know that we can be messengers of peace and healing. Let us be such a church.
[I was a bit out of sorts this morning, but here is the audio file of this sermon:]