Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace - Healing (Mark 2:1-12)

After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home.  So many gathered there that there was no longer space, not even near the door.  Jesus was speaking the word to them.  Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed.  They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was.  When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Some legal experts were sitting there, muttering to themselves, “Why does he speak this way?  He’s insulting God.  Only the one God can forgive sins.”
Jesus immediately recognized what they were discussing, and he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?  Which is easier--to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your bed, and walk’?  But so you will know that the Human One [the Son of Man] has authority on the earth to forgive sins” - he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”
Jesus raised him up, and right away he picked up his mat and walked out in front of everybody.  They were all amazed and praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”

Today, we are continuing in a series of messages called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the generosity of someone else to make their journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on the generosity of God to make our spiritual journey.  We have been deepening our understanding of grace as the free, undeserved gift of God’s presence in our lives.  But how do we get grace, how do we experience grace in our lives?  That’s a good question, and that question is at the heart of these messages.

I have asked us all to keep an image in our mind, of God driving around in a great big bus full of grace, and making periodic stops where people can hop aboard the grace bus for the ride of their lives.  In order to experience the grace promised, God asks us to do two things - those of you who have been here, do you remember what they are?  Say them nice and loud for the rest of us: the first thing is to-----show up, and the second is to-----have an open and willing heart.  So you’ve all shown up today - good job - and I hope your hearts are willing and open to what God might do.

The grace bus has already made two stops in our series: holy communion, and baptism.  God gives us grace in both.  The more frequently we receive Communion with an open and willing heart, the more frequently we receive God’s grace in our lives.  Likewise, though we are baptized just once in our lives, the more frequently we remember the covenant and promise God makes with us in our baptism, God’s grace becomes active and real in our lives.  Today, we are invited, with open and willing hearts, to climb aboard the grace bus as it pulls into its next stop - healing.  May we pray.

We’ve never seen anything like this
Jesus said to the man who was paralyzed, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”  They were all amazed, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:10-12).  You think?  It is only the 2nd Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus’ reputation is already such that as soon as he gets to town, a crowd forms to see him, hear him, and be close to him.  At the house where he was staying, we are told that “so many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door” (Mark 2:2).

Four men, bearing their paralyzed friend on a stretcher, come to the house in hopes of getting him close to Jesus.  I am struck by the insight of those determined friends who know instinctively that healing and wholeness is related to proximity to Jesus.  They arrive, and the crowd of people is so large and so dense that there’s no way they can get their friend to Jesus.  Yet, this is only a minor inconvenience & temporary setback.

We know from archeological evidence that homes in this time and place often had stairs from the ground leading to a flat roof.  The roof was considered living space, and often used in the early morning and late evening, away from the heat of the day.  And so, the four men bear the stretcher up the stairs to the roof, lay their friend down, and literally start tearing the house apart; this is the magnitude of their determination in getting their friend to Jesus.

You can just picture the scene.  Jesus is standing in the middle of the house - speaking, teaching, talking, laughing - with the crowd that gathered.  His lunch, interrupted hours ago, is sitting on the table and has long gone cold.  Suddenly, bits of plaster, and wood, and straw begin to fall from the ceiling onto Jesus, those around him, the floor, and even onto his lunch.  A spectre of sunlight pierces the cool shadow of the house, and the crowd looks up as the hole above their heads gets wider and wider.  They are astonished to see four men tearing chunks of the roof away with their bare hands, and when the opening is finally wide enough, they take the corners of their friend’s stretcher, and gently lower him down through the roof to the feet of Jesus (Mark 2:3-4).

This story often elicits the response - usually from someone on trustees - “What about the building?  Did the insurance cover the damage?  Did these guys pay to get it fixed?”  And yet in the story, the state of the building is far less important than doing what it takes to get people close to Jesus.

Faith, child, forgiveness
Verse 5 tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”  Let’s hit the pause button there.

The word “faith” comes from the Greek, pistis.  Used in conjunction with miracles in Mark, it implies perseverance - overcoming obstacles in order to get to Jesus.  In our text, there are several barriers to overcome - the crowd blocking the normal and obvious way to Jesus, and the roof blocking the abnormal and not-so-obvious way to Jesus.  The four guys demonstrate their faith in their perseverance in overcoming barriers to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus.

When Jesus sees the faith of the friends, he forgives and heals the paralytic.  Jesus commends their faith, the faith of those roof-destroying friends.  Notice that is is not the faith of the individual that Jesus commends, but the faith of his friends - his community.  He didn’t ask for healing or forgiveness, he didn’t confess his sin or profess his belief.  He isn’t what we might call “deserving,” he’s done nothing himself to receive this gift from Jesus.  In other words, it’s about grace.  The story is more about the character of God - who freely gives through Jesus, and the community - who overcomes obstacles in order to get someone to Jesus - than about the response of the man.

Now, what about the paralyzed man himself?  Jesus calls him, “Child.”  The Greek is teknon, which means “child” or “son.”  When Jesus addresses him as teknon, he is addressing him with affection and endearment and a closeness that was reserved for members of the family.

Jesus hasn’t said word one about the paralyzed man’s faith.  The paralyzed man hasn’t done anything to deserve any of this, and honestly, how could he, he’s paralyzed.  And yet, according to Jesus, he is a teknon, a child, a son, a precious member of the family, and according to Jesus, that’s enough.

Reaction of scribes and Pharisees
In every generation, there will always be those who want to make it more complicated.  There will always be some who protest, “It can’t be that simple!”  But it is!  At the end of our passage, in verse 12, it says that “everyone was amazed and praised God, saying, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this!’”  I love that Jesus seems to elicit two responses that sound very similar, yet are very different.  One group responds positively, saying, we’ve never seen anything like it – wow!  But another groups responds negatively, saying, we’ve never seen anything like it – whoa!

In the stories of Jesus, this nay-saying group is sometimes represented by the Pharisees, sometimes by the scribes, or the experts in the law.  There are found in our story in verses 6 & 7.   Whereas others saw what was happening and were amazed and praised God, the scribes and Pharisees said, “We’ve never seen anything like this—and we don’t like it one bit!”  They didn’t say “Wow,” they said, “Whoa!” because God wasn’t acting how they expected God to act.

Throughout the Gospels, the scribes & Pharisees tended to be full of themselves.  Whereas the Old Testament prophets had written “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10), the scribes and Pharisees found their strength and power in knowing the right answers, following the right rules, and honestly believing they were better than those around them. 

This is the group that is always opposed to the work of God that is happening through Jesus.  Whether in Jesus’ time or in ours, they are always easy to pick out in a crowd.  They’ve never been known to smile, and they are paralyzed by the fear that somewhere, someone is getting better than they deserve – which is sorta funny, because we all get better than we deserve!   You can see why they don’t like grace very much, which is why they take such an issue with Jesus, who has the gall to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners.  Heaven forbid God should move in a way other than what they expect, let the muttering and grumbling begin.  This is exactly what happens when Jesus pronounces forgiveness for the paralyzed man.

Even so, they’re not fooling anyone, especially Jesus.  He says in verse 8, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?” (Mark 2:8).  They fancied themselves experts in God’s law, yet they couldn’t discern the work of God’s spirit in front of their very eyes.  The irony is that the scribes and Pharisees were the ones suffering from paralysis - spiritual paralysis - such that the transforming grace of God in their midst left them grumbling amongst themselves and completely unmoved.

What a contrast to those who were amazed and praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”  One group said, “Whoa.”  The other said, “Wow.”

Where do we fit in?
Friends, what I want you to consider this morning is this: where do you fit into this story?  Who do you identify with here?  You can actually be anyone in this story you want, except for Jesus.  That position has already been filled.  None of us is Jesus.  No one here needs a savior complex, so let’s go ahead and rule that one out!

But, who do you identify with?  Are you that paralyzed man, lying on your stretcher?  Are you simply part of the crowd, standing around not really doing anything, but sorta blocking the way to Jesus?  Are you one of the scribes or Pharisees, whose heart has hardened and become spiritually paralyzed, casting judgment and grumbling, all because God has the nerve to act however God wants without having to consult with you?  Or, are you one of the stretcher-bearers - stopping at nothing and doing whatever it takes to get people to Jesus?

What I have come to realize is this: at some point in our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves, each of us probably spends some time being each of these characters.

The scribes and Pharisees and the man on the stretcher have more in common in this story than they realized.  They were both paralyzed.  There are a lot of things in life that can leave us paralyzed - illness, weakness, anger, fear, addiction, circumstances completely beyond our control.  And yet the good news for today is that Jesus heals the paralytic - physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

If you’re the paralyzed one in this story, get some stretcher-bearers.  Find some people in your life who will carry you when your own strength isn’t enough, who will stop at nothing to get you to Jesus.  If you’re not the paralyzed one in this story, be a stretcher-bearer for someone else.  Have compassion, and stop at nothing to get those around you to Jesus.

Worship today is going to conclude with the ministry of healing.  At various points in our lives, we all need healing.  Healing comes in many forms - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational.  James 5:14 says, “If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  So that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.  If you are in need of healing this morning in any form, in a few minutes I will invite you to come forward, where I will anoint your forehead with oil in the mark of the cross, and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness in all areas of your life.  If you would like to stand in and be anointed for someone else, that’s fine.  Others who wish to come forward with anyone else for prayer and laying on of hands are welcome to do so.  If you can’t come forward, but need to remain in your seat, and you desire anointing and prayer, we’ll come to you.  This is an opportunity for all of us to practice being stretcher-bearers for each other.

Four men brought a man who was paralyzed to Jesus.  Grace was made real in life through the faith of his friends who stopped at nothing to get him to Jesus.  No obstacle was too great, no barrier was too high.  They just knew that they had to get their friend to Jesus, whatever it took.  Good thing they did, because in the presence of Jesus, the wounded are healed and made whole.  They were all amazed, [as are we], praising God and saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this” – Wow!

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