St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Sunday of the Paralytic

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes, Sunday April 25, 2010

John 5:1-15 (Sunday of the Paralytic)  

Many people over the long span of history have been afraid of God.  It was not at all clear that God loved his creation and cared for humanity for the large majority of people throughout history.

Still, the words “Do not be afraid,” resound in the Old Testament, for example, when angels appear, but that message was often lost in the fearful, violent environment in which they were uttered.  Most people could not comprehend that there was nothing to fear from God. When survival is the main concern, as it was for the them, fear is preeminent. God was seen as necessary for protection, but also an object of fear, easily offended, somewhat needy, capricious, uncaring, and willing to send anyone who crossed him into an eternity of everlasting, conscious, unspeakable torment. In other words a God who acts very much like us on a bad hair day. 

Is it any wonder that the history of religion is so blighted with cruelty, war, and genocide not just in ancient times, but today as well?  The reasoning, conscious or otherwise, is simple and goes like this, “If it’s ok for God to act like a petulant child, then why shouldn’t we?”   

It is simple. We can’t because of Jesus. Because now we know what God is like, that we were made to be like him, and that anything else is flatly not God.  The Incarnation does not mean that Jesus is like God. It is much more radical than that.  It means that God is like Jesus.  What we see in Christ is perfect God.  What we see in Christ is the Father. “Have you been with me so long, Philip, and do not know that if you have seen me you have seen the Father?” In Jesus “the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily.”   

What of the Old Testament scriptures that seem to reveal an angry, violent God?  They were written in time when that is the kind of God that made sense.  Gradually we see a change in scriptural imagery from the angry, jealous God of the Books of Law, to the socially concerned God of the prophets, and then to the more interiorized, mystical God of the Wisdom books, like the Song of Songs.  No, it was not God who was changing.  It was the human consciousness of God that was changing. 

So, how do we read the Old Testament with its evolving perspectives?  We read it in the light of Christ.  “You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you will find life, but do you not know that the Scriptures speak of me?” All Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of Christ to be understood correctly.  Even the mundane sections that speak of the ordinary reveal him.  Did he not become “ordinary” for our sakes.  Was not most of his life on earth also taken up by the humdrum day in and day out ordinariness of life just as ours is? 

We discover in Jesus that the revelation of God before the Incarnation was incomplete and evolving.  The Scriptures all point to Christ as their fulfillment. God revealed himself slowly and gradually because, as Emily Dickenson wrote, “The Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” The patriarchs and prophets and the Holy Scriptures are merely fingers pointing at the moon. Love cannot be mediated it must be experienced directly, face to face.  We do not worship the Bible or any other created thing which can only be mediators of Truth. We worship the Truth himself while we venerate matter through which the revelation comes. 

This brings us to today’s Gospel. The story of the healing of the Paralytic at the Sheep’s Pool.  The post-Resurrection Gospels we read during Divine Liturgy after Holy Pascha remind us of the significant elements in the life and teaching of Jesus calling us to reflect on what has been revealed through him.   

Today we learn that the God who had been feared is actually a God who cares deeply about us.  Christ shows what many throughout history had not dared to believe; that God is love and that he cares.  Now we know the Truth.  He who appeared angry is not. He is compassionate and understanding. He does not create our pain and suffering and does not will them. Sickness and natural disasters are not a punishment from a vengeful God, but a tragic condition afflicting a broken creation.   

“Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” Writes St. Peter.  St. Paul says it like this, “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts.” Abraham did not know this. As intimate as David was with God, he could not have understood this, or Moses, or Deborah, or the other Old Testament heroes.  They did not yet know the Messiah although he was among them and with them, but not yet not in the flesh.  He had not yet been born. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, they were all looking forward to this day. 

Glimpses of this truth appear in the Law and prophets and in the Wisdom books, but only in part.  Remember when Jesus said that there are many things he wanted to tell his disciples, but they could not bear them now?  At every stage of development, if we perceptively read between the lines, you can hear this same message.  “Wait, there’s more, much more. The Messiah is coming.”  For us, forever, there will always been more, much more. 

One wonders what more God has to reveal to us since Jesus is everything, God made flesh. But to understand him is beyond our capacity. We should be careful not to fall into the trap of arrogance believing that we have reached the height of perception. That we now understand in full.  People in every age fall into that error. God is infinite. He will always be teaching and we will always be learning, The question is this, how teachable, how open, how flexible are we?  Believe me, there is much, much more to learn.  If we think we understand it all, we will not be able to learn anything.