Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralytic / Martyr Sabbas the General / Acts 9.32-42; John 5.1-15
F/S/HS. Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen!
This morning, four weeks following Holy Pascha, it should come as no surprise that our church continues to give us Gospel and Epistle readings that celebrate the power of Christ is Risen. Jesus, in our Gospel, heals a paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. The Apostle Peter, in our Epistle, heals Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years. Then raises Tabitha from the dead. Holy Pascha, in other words, is a reality! Christ is Risen, and now the paralytic is Risen. Christ is Risen, and now Aeneas is risen. Christ is Risen, and now Tabitha is Risen! Christ is Risen; may we too rise up!
But I want to zero in on one particular sentence from our Gospel reading and milk the richness of its sober teaching. It is a sentence whose implications are played out in our own life in ways that we do well to prayerfully ponder.
This paralyzed man, this paralytic—unlike Aeneas, unlike Tabitha, we don’t know his name—he has laid on the five stony porches near the pool of Bethesda for what seems like an eternity—for thirty-eight years. We can only guess his sorrowful circumstances. Did someone come and take him home each day, and bring him back the following morning? Did he drag himself to and fro each day? Was he married? Does he have a family and friends?
So much that we don’t know about this paralytic. And Jesus’ dialogue with him is surprisingly spare when compared to other similar healing narratives. Jesus asks him a question, v. 6: Do you want to be made well? The man answers, saying that he has no one to help him be the first into the pool after the angel has come and stirred the waters. Jesus responds: Rise, take up your bed and walk (v.8). And so the man rises and takes his bed and indeed he walks. He is healed.
Then later that same day Jesus encounters the man again, in the local temple. Once again, the narrative is very spare. Only this time the man says nothing; Jesus is the only one who speaks, saying two sentences only: See, you have been made well. And then the second and final sentence—sober words!—the sentence that I want to reflect on this morning. V. 14: Sin no more, lest a worst thing come upon you (read twice).
Here is one of those occasions—there are a couple in the Gospels—where Jesus directly correlates a person’s physical illness with their sin. It was a common belief during our Lord’s time that illness and misfortune were divine retribution for sin. Not only does Jesus not reinforce this common belief, but he nearly goes out of his way to dispel such an abusive belief, as in the story of the young man born blind which occurs four chapters later in this same Gospel. Asks Jesus’ Disciples: Was it his parent’s sin or his own sin that led to his blindness? And Jesus’ response: Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind, but that the works of God should be revealed in him (John 9.3).
But this morning’s Gospel is different. This time the paralytic’s condition is indeed directly related to his sin; and if he continues to sin, Jesus warns him, a worse condition may come upon you.
And we can’t help but ask, as many of our church fathers and mothers ask: What was, what is this man’s sin? What transgression has he committed such that he remained a paralytic for nearly four decades? And just as the identity of the Apostle Paul’s “thorn” is never revealed, so too is this paralytic’s sin not revealed. But that does not keep our church fathers and mothers from speculating about the nature of his sin.
I’ve shared with you in a recent homily what I want to share once more this morning. The tenth of twelve prayers that the priest prays during the reading of the six Psalms near the beginning of Matins or Vigil, is a paraphrase of David’s great psalm of repentance (Psalm 50/51). In this tenth prayer (which I prayed earlier this morning, during our Matins service) I say the following words silently: Against Thee have we sinned, O Lord, Thou who knowest the hidden and secret things in the heart of men and who alone has power to forgive sins. And then this tenth prayer goes on to ask create in me a clean heart, O God.
The task of all of us, dear ones, of all mature Christians, is to prayerfully search the hidden and secret things of our heart, to know these hidden and secret things and to confess them before God. Surely this paralytic knew what Jesus was referring to when he told him Sin no more, concluding with the rather ominous lest a worst thing come upon you. Now that our Lord has healed this man, Jesus is calling him to an ever higher calling—the calling to live a more righteous life by ceasing to commit the sin that contributed to his paralysis … lest a worst thing come upon you.
What then is this man’s sin? Again, we do not know for sure. But listen to one particular interpretation by St. Ambrose of Optina. [By the way, I entered the narthex this morning, for Matins, and could not help but turn immediately left and venerate the icon and relic of St. Ambrose, in part because of this interpretation].
St. Ambrose, who empathetically acknowledges the sorrow of this man’s thirty-eight years of paralysis, dives deep into his paralysis and speculates that this man’s sin is not so much one of the laundry list of sins that we commonly think of: greed, envy, lust, avarice, anger, gluttony, sloth, pride … on the list goes.
Rather, St. Ambrose suggests that this man’s sin is that he has forsaken the love of God for him. Furthermore, because he has forsaken God’s love for him, he has grown numb and resistant to showing love for God and love for others. In other words, this man has transgressed the two Great Commandments.
Notice, St. Ambrose insists; truly notice what is missing in this morning’s Gospel narrative; and what is missing in this paralytic’s life; and what might be missing in our life! Nowhere do we see what we almost always see in other narratives of healing; nowhere does thanksgiving flow from this man’s lips once he is healed; nowhere is there a reference to him falling down before Jesus in adoration or worship, or belief in God.
Notice something else, St. Ambrose points out. Unlike another paralytic, who had four friends who brought him to Jesus, this man has no friends; there is no one to carry him only a few feet to the pool, to be the first into the waters after they have been stirred by the angel. Why not? Where are his friends? Perhaps, ponders St. Ambrose, it is because he has no friends, born out of becoming callous of heart, absent of gratitude, without love or the capacity to receive love, because he remains so enclosed in a self-made veil of grumpiness and moodiness, unable to see beyond himself. Paralyzed in body, his spirit has become equally paralyzed.
Surely, observes St. Ambrose, this man could have asked, and ought to have asked there at the pool of Bethesda that morning, Who are you who just healed me? What is your name? Surely he could have expressed to Jesus a measure of gratitude and thanksgiving, worship and awe for having just been released from his thirty-eight years of bondage. But nothing.
Then that same afternoon in the temple, when Jesus and this man once again encounter each other; again, nothing from this man, even after Jesus says to him, See, you have been made well. As if our Lord has to remind him that he is now well!
Go and sin no more is then our Lord seeking to awaken in this man prayerful reflection about the hidden and secret sin in his heart, the sin of not receiving or giving love or thanksgiving. Followed then by a warning to the man—lest a worse thing come upon you—if you continue in your sin. Oh my! Lord have mercy, that his man might indeed awaken to his secret and hidden sin, and sin no more.
Sisters and brothers, in the days leading up to Pascha our hymnology and Scripture readings were about the narrative of Adam and Eve’s fall from Paradise. Then we were given the narrative of our Lord’s ransacking Hades and pulling Adam and Eve from Hades and restoring them to Paradise. This coming back to life and Paradise, says St. Symeon in one of his hymns, involves a long long long journey back home.
What a gift, what grace, what mercy, when we are able to clearly see the hidden and secret things down in our heart that keep us from walking our long long long journey back home. This morning our heart wrenches with sorrow for this paralytic, thirty-eight years stricken; just as our heart rejoices that Jesus has healed and raised him up. But St. Ambrose takes us to a place where this man become our very selves, where we too do well to look deep within our own selves and address whatever it is that blocks us from the love of God wanting to penetrate our souls, and our consequent loss of gratitude and thanksgiving and worship and love for God, and love for others.
So dear ones, while we venture along our long long long journey back home, let us be mindful ourselves that every affliction that comes our way, even if it lasts thirty-eight years, is mysteriously allowed by God’s providence, for the building up of virtuous character, and sometimes as a test to see if, amidst our afflictions, we will continue to give thanks to God for all things. F/S/HS