St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Sunday of the Paralytic

Sermon preached by Deacon Jeffrey C. Smith on Sunday, May 10, 2009

Good Morning and Happy Mother’s Day!

I am going preach today on John Ch. 5 v. 1-15, the paralytic at the Sheep’s pool.

First I want to provide some background by setting the place: I believe the names and places mentioned can make it very real. It takes place near the Sheep’s Gate in Jerusalem, where they led in and washed the sacrificial animals, linking it to healing and to the temple, so this pool became known as the Sheep’s pool, the pool of Beth-zatha, from which comes the word, Beth–hesda (House of Grace). It was dedicated by the Romans to Asclepius of course, the god of healing, and is near today’s Church of St. Anne, in the northeast corner of the city. Bethesda MD, by the way, is named after this place, and not coincidentally contains our National Institute of Health. I love that connection.

Now let’s set the scene chronologically: Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (the Gospel says one of the Jewish festivals – it may have been Pentecost). This is his second time in Jerusalem during his ministry. The first was just after the Miracle at Cana. This second visit provokes the beginning of a conflict with the Jewish authorities. And his final visit one year later is the scene of the crucifixion. So we are now midway through Jesus’ ministry, the second of three years – three Passovers. At Passover or Pentecost, Jerusalem would have been crowded, and this Gospel does indeed mention the crowds.

Now, let’s look at the miracle itself: The Gospel says this was a certain man with an infirmity, crippled for 38 years, lying among a great number of sick people, blind, lame, and paralyzed, a pathetic crowd of broken humanity. Imagine the depression of being so NEAR the healing source, but not being able to get to it. Imagine him getting a little closer to the pool, a little more, a very little more, but no! Some else is in the water. Think, if he had attempted this every day for 38 years, I count nearly 14,000 attempts to reach the pool, yet always being left behind. Surely, someone might have paused to lend a helping hand, but no, he was always left behind. When Jesus approached him, he had been ill for a long time. Jesus saw him lying there, and presented himself to this miserable specimen of a person. The troparia we sang this morning adds to the scene: "The paralytic, who was like an unburied dead man , cried out, 'my bed has become my grave. Of what use is my life? I have no need for the sheep's pool; for there is no one to put me into it'." Jesus goes directly to the most pathetic case. It really stops you short. He heals only one person – Why? It reminds me of the icon of Jesus’ descent into hell, drawing Adam out of his grave. Jesus singles out one person to demonstrate his love.

But there are also other interpretations. Allow me to quote Chromatius of Aquileia – because he sounds like a real preacher. “The water is baptism which is life. But that water was moved only once a year, whereas this water of baptism is always ready to be moved. Then it was an angel that moved the water, now it is the Holy Spirit. That water healed the body. This water heals both body and soul.” But here is the central, all important, most radical question that Christ puts to us: “Do you want to be healed?” What a question! I should think so. But then again, maybe not. For this man, at least he was in shade, not out toiling in the heat. Just as when we sin, we are there because we don’t really want to be healed. Our hearts won’t choose what we wish they would. We don’t want what we say we want. We mistake our imagination for the desires of our heart. We want to be Christ like, but then again, we’re not so sure. We don’t want to be drawn away from our comforts. In theory we want to be made whole, but in reality, the accustomed way will do. Selfishness is a disease, but yes, it pays dividends.

And so Jesus asks this man, “Do you want to be healed?” He has the power to do so, and he is ready to heal, but the Paralytic doesn’t really answer his question. Instead he says, “I have no one to put me in the pool. When I try to get down there, someone always steps out in front of me.” There is piteousness here, but also truthfulness. He describes his situation like someone might speak to a doctor. He doesn’t realize that Jesus can heal him, but maybe he does. It’s almost as if Jesus can’t stand it anymore, so he simply says, “Rise, (and here’s what causes all the trouble – not the healing), take up your pallet and walk.

The Gospel also reflects the other paralytic dropped through the ceiling in Mark, in which Jesus also says, “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” In both Gospels, Jesus follows the healing by commanding them to “Go and sin no more”. It says this paralytic recovered instantly. I imagine his atrophied muscles made strong again to support his body weight. And I know something about atrophied muscles, as it is hard for me to imagine Natasha’s father Peter walking again. In this case, it happened.

Now at long last, the paralytic is healed, making his way out into the light, but then wait, he is roughly challenged. He is told, “Today is the Sabbath. It is against the law for you to carry your bed.” Wow. Now that is something, to not see the healing, but to only be aware of the law.

Carrying a bed or mat (in other words, “working”) was not lawful or permissible on the Sabbath. But Jesus tended to do things like this and upsets the established order. God is a rebel as well as a king. The newly healed man replies, “The man who cured me, He told me to take up my bed and walk.” It’s possible that he was just stunned that he had been healed and blurted the first thing that came to his mind. I can imagine saying the same thing. But he also deflects the accusation. I am reminded of Adam in the Garden of Eden, when the Lord asks “Adam, have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And Adam replies, “It was the woman who gave me fruit.” Just so, this man who is now accused of breaking the law, blames Jesus for his healing in order to save himself. That’s stunning. But don’t we do the same? Perhaps this is why Jesus finds him in the Temple and says, “See, now you are well, go and sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” You see, this admonishment is really another act of mercy. Finally the paralytic is able to identify Jesus as the source of his healing, and be at peace.

As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we have been freed by our baptism, but not freed to sin again. This is a heavy kind of freedom, but thanks be to God, for our burden is light.

Amen.