A Man Healed at the Pool of Bethesda
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 11, 2014
The Lord Jesus asks the paralytic man a simple, direct question, “Do you want to be healed.” He does not get a direct, simple answer. Instead, the paralytic deflects the question and tells Jesus a story that sounds rehearsed. I imagine he had told it a hundred or more times before. It always sounded a bit fishy to me.
“The reason I have been laying here all these years is because no one will help me.” He defends himself and blames his paralysis on others for not helping him! The ego loves to feel sorry for itself. Of course, it was not all his fault. The labels we bear come from within and without. Society teaches us how to blame ourselves and others. We are not born with it. We learn how to think from the people around us. We go along with it because we don’t know any better.
The reason he could not answer “yes” is that he was afraid to. What would he be if his paralysis disappeared and he could move normally? His sense of self would be shattered. His identity ripped out from under him. The life he had carefully crafted for 38 years would fall like a house of cards. He would have to begin to live as a healthy person. This was for him a fearful proposition.
It is clear that his problem was psychosomatic. That doesn’t mean that his paralysis wasn’t real, but that both body and mind had joined forces in maintain his situation. When healing came up and stared him in the face his defenses rose up to resist. He was more frightened of healing than he was of being paralyzed, comfortable in his suffering, wedded to his misery. His faith was placed not in God, but in his paralysis. The part in him that would say yes to healing had been silenced.
John Sanford has an interesting take on this. He writes that human beings are naturally inclined towards faith, so much so, that if we cannot find a fitting place to put it, we will place it in something unworthy of it become unhealthy. The paralytic put his faith in his disease.
And then Sanford defines faith in a beautiful way quite in keeping with today’s Gospel. “Faith is the quality of soul that opens us up to healing.” The paralytic did not have this kind of faith which would have moved him to set aside his fear of healing and to accept whatever changes healing would bring.
Even after his healing the former paralytic falls again. He becomes passive and defensive in the face of the Pharisees’ question, “Who told you to take up your bed and walk on the Sabbath?” The man answers this time blaming Jesus. “That man told me to.” His body might have been freed but his mind was still shackled. His retreat into self-defense reveals that the healing of his mind would take much more time to complete.
Jesus knew all of this. Later Jesus tells him, like the great psychologist he is, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befalls you.” In other words, don’t go back to your former way of thinking. The sin referred to means a return to his false, closed and defensive sense of self. A state of disease demands high maintenance, so does health. To be healthy in mind, body and soul, we must practice being healthy in mind, body and soul. Healing is never instantaneous because disease is always, in some sense, psychosomatic. All disease has a psychological element that must be addressed as the body is treated. The paralytic was just beginning the process of internal healing. He had just begun the process of repentance.
The Lord Jesus works a miracle and leaves it to the man to nurture the new life he had been given. If he chose not to maintain it, then he would regress and perhaps face something worse. In this encounter Jesus confirms this obvious truth: “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of life, but by realizing who you are on the deepest level.” (Eckhart Tolle) Peace lies under the surface and cannot be found anywhere else. We must recognize and soothe and defuse the defensive parts of us so that the truth in us that seeks God can speak and be heard. Internal peace cannot be won by aggression, but by love.
So, the Lord calls us to look carefully and be honest. How do we define ourselves? What is the sense of self we are nurturing? What is it we have placed our faith in? Is it worthy of our devotion? Are we willing to let go and be reborn into new life?
The Paralytic must have asked himself, “If I allow Jesus to heal me, what comes next?” So do all of us who are asked do the interior work of recognition and integration. What will happen if we do?
Jesus tells us that we will find rest. Making peace within is how we take on the Lord’s light burden. “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light and you shall find rest for your souls.” This is the path to freedom and happiness.
“When we become like the birds and the flowers,” DeMello writes, “totally unselfconscious, too busy with the task of living to care what others think…at last we will have become fearless and free.” This is what happens after true repentance takes place. Here is a famous quote from the naturalist John Burroughs, “Take the leap and the net will appear.” Faith is a leap. Try it and see.