Jesus entered a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
“Jesus… own city,” referred to in the text, was Capernaum. He moved there early in his ministry and made it his hub of operation after the people of Nazareth tried to kill him. The first piece of information is an account of a sick man whose friends cared enough for him to bring him to Jesus. This is probably the same account and the same man, reported in Mark’s Gospel, whose friends had to remove part of the roof of a house to lower him down to where Jesus was teaching. The home referred to in the text was probably Peter’s and Andrew’s home where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Friendship is a wonderful thing.
Every week we are reminded that, “love of neighbor” is so high a matter for Jesus that we have it repeated over and over again in the Church. Along with loving God with our whole being, love of neighbor is the fulfillment of all the Law. Yes, God is our happiness and only God himself is sufficient for the human heart. But it is not the case that nothing short of God awakens our love, our reverence, and our trust. Friends do that. Friends may open our hearts and it is sweet indeed when friendship meets at the foot of the Cross. But our hearts require, indeed our hearts long for, a permanence no man can promise. And friends know this to be true. True friends will not promise more to one another, will not seek more from one another than Jesus has made us to be. We are created for embodied fellowship with one another and we are better for that fellowship. A true friend in Christ is a soothing comfort all because that friendship finds its end in Christ and his Kingdom.
And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
Whatever these men understood about Jesus, he saw their faith and their obvious love for their friend. One upshot of this account, and others like it in the Bible, is that Jesus acted on the faith of the sick person’s friends, not the faith of sick person himself. Search the scriptures and you will find that Jesus frequently acted upon the faith and request of one person, for the benefit of another person. In the several cases where Jesus raised a person from the dead, it is obvious that the faith of the beneficiary of his miracle had nothing to do with it. Only three weeks back on Trinity XVI we had the Gospel account of a widow who was burying her only child:
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her Weep not… And he (Jesus) said, Young man (a dead man who was obviously not exercising personal faith), I say unto thee Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.
And frequently we see a father or a mother approaching Jesus on behalf of a sick child or a demon-possessed servant. In the Gospel for Lent II we have just such a story:
And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
We see this sort of event repeated over and over again throughout the Gospels as well as our own lives and the lives of our friends. It is a blessing and a comfort to have friends; it is especially a blessing to have friends who love us and who love Jesus. It is a mark of the importance of this sort of event, of this great consolation, in the life of the Church, that they are multiplied in our liturgical calendar throughout the Christian year. This poor man had intercessors who brought him to Jesus and that made all the difference in the world for him.
and Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
Another upshot of the Gospel today is the comfort, the blessing, and the necessity of intercessory prayer in God’s order for our life in the Body of Christ. John Wesley said, “God does nothing but through prayer.” But this is what I want you to see: in these specific events in our Lord’s earthly ministry what is being described is not circumscribed by what we call intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is indispensable, but it is not a matter of getting what we want for ourselves or others we love. Intercessory prayer is part of a whole. Intercessory prayer is a manifestation of a way of life. We are all called to intercede for one another and for the life of the whole world. When someone asks you to pray for them they are asking you to take the role of these friends who brought the sick man to Jesus. Jesus honors intercessory prayer, yes — but there is more to it — the very order of the Body of Christ may be described as intercessory prayer –- this is how we best live. This is how we most authentically live together as Christians. It is not merely that intercessory prayer works (which it does), but it is not a tool we pull out of our spiritual tool box when it is needed. It is not like a power drill. It is not instrumental, pragmatic, or utilitarian. God has ordained intercessory prayer to be the way we live together; and God has ordained intercessory prayer to be for the good life of the world, as well as, for the good of heaven. It is not that God needs our prayers, it is that God has ordered our life such that prayer is our finality.
And as I have already said, Jesus frequently acted upon the faith and request of one person, for the benefit of another person regardless of whether they have faith or not. Baptism is the archetype, the spot on example: every little baby who is baptized into Christ has this beginning through the intercession of others who love him. He can only smile or cry and sleep as his parents and godparents not only intercede for him but also speak what he cannot speak for himself. At the moment of baptism the priest does not ask the parents and godparents if they wish to have the baby baptized. The questions of faith are posed, as it were, to the baby and the godparents answer in his name:
Wilt thou be baptized in the Faith
That is my desire.
Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the day’s of thy life?
I will by God’s help.
Intercession, friendship, fellowship, common prayer, and common life. Listen to me: the same thing binds us to Christ, binds us to one another.
By virtue of our baptism into Christ we are baptized into one body and we are from then on “members of Christ and members one of another.” We are not merely individual persons. Love of neighbor is the natural state of being in the Body of Christ. Friendship, fellowship, community in the Body of Christ is sacramental interconnectedness.
Let me suggest a practical way in which you may enter a little more deeply into our common life in Christ. Take one of those prayer lists home with you and everyday this week at 12:15 p.m. if you can’t be here, take it out and read the names of your fellow members out loud and use the prayer on page 18 of the BCP.
Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
If it were left up to us more often than not the good would root out the best. As important as physical healing is, especially to the ailing person, Jesus knows what is best for us, not merely what is good for us:
Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
Some may object to this because they think our Lord associated the man’s illness with personal sin. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. It is nearly impossible to tell from the text. But what is certainly the case is that the Gospels never argue that all sickness is a direct result of personal sin, albeit many in Jesus’ day and in our day believe that to be the case. In the New Testament, signs and wonders were the primary evidence of the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. Jesus corrects this mistaken notion that always linked illness to personal sin. Of course it may be that particular sins would naturally lead to sickness –- alcohol abuse will certainly lead to a deterioration of health and morals and community. It is also the case that our world in every part of its life has been affected by original sin and actual sin and there is naturally a link between sin and illness in that sense. But it would be a mistake to always take illness to be a direct result of personal sin. But – and here is the point I want to make – whether my sickness is a result of personal sin or not, the fact of the matter is that Jesus wants what is best for his children.
Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee…
The good that we desire may fall far below the best that God wills for his Kingdom and his children. And so frequently – not always – but frequently Jesus and his Church will combine prayers for healing with absolution. So St James writes:
Are there any sick among you? Let him call for the elders (the priests) of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven…
A large portion of the Book of Common Prayer is dedicated to the Visitation of the Sick and prayers and Psalms for healing. And it is frequently the case that those prayers, as in the Unction of the Sick combines forgiveness and release from sin with restoration of bodily health. Here is a point I want you to take away: when Jesus heals a person’s body — whether it is a New Testament account or whether it is in this present day — that healing is also a vivid sign of Jesus healing human character.
Two things: first, friendship in the Body of Christ means that we are connected to one another sacramentally, and we love one another best when we prayer for one another. Secondly, God continues to heal the sick physically, but in addition to that, God is healing our broken character. He is renewing our life and growing us into his own children who manifest his character in this broken world.
And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; they sins be forgiven thee…