Sermon for Sunday, May 10/23
Fourth Sunday of Pascha: The Paralytic
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
From the fourth century, not long after the decriminalization of Christianity, we have received catechetical discourses from St Cyril of Jerusalem and St Gregory of Nyssa. Nowadays, when someone comes inquiring about Orthodox Christianity, we have no secrets. We talk about the Holy Trinity, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and how God is glorified in his saints. But Saints Cyril and Gregory did it differently: for anything up to three years, a catechumen attended services and learned how Christians live. It was a moral catechism: We don’t put our unwanted children to death; we care for our elderly; we don’t steal or lie, but give an honest day’s work; we pray for our nation and strive to live peaceably and to rejoice, even under tyranny. We don’t eat food offered to idols, we work hard to build peace and community with one another.
The catechumens were at all the services where scripture is read, sung, and interpreted – Vespers, Matins, and the first half of the Liturgy. But after the reading of the Gospels and the Litany for the Catechumens, there’s a line you won’t often hear in parishes: The deacon says “Catechumens, depart! Let none of the catechumens remain!” We don’t have that custom here, but with Fr Daniel’s blessing I’ve asked Fr John to read that command this morning so you can see how it worked. (If you’re a catechumen, stay where you are.) After “Catechumens, depart,” there are more prayers as the catechumens make their way out, and there’s the Entrance with the Gifts – these are still just bread and wine, and this Entrance stands for the burial of Christ’s body. Then, just before we recite the Top Secret text of the Creed, the deacon exclaims, “The doors! The doors!” He means: The catechumens should all be out by now, so close and lock the doors! The private Mystery of the Eucharist is about to begin.
That word Mystery today means something to be figured out. But in Greek it means something private, shared only with those close to you, insiders and those who are initiated. We read that “God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man to his friend… The secret counsel of the Lord is with those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them” (Ex 33:11; Ps 25:14). Mysteries, in biblical times, were like your family secrets, not shared with strangers: “For I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies…” It was quite a different world from today, where the Liturgy is on the internet and our dogmas are right on our website.
Catechumens, who were not yet initiated into the Mysteries, prayed and learned the Bible – then on Lazarus Saturday catechumens were baptized. That’s why on Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, instead of Holy God, Holy Mighty, we sang “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). And then, after their baptism, they began to be taught what had just happened to them in Baptism. And Saint Cyril and Gregory begin teaching them what they have received when they were given the Eucharist.
For the past few weeks, in our Gospel readings we have been returning to Christ’s resurrection, through the eyes of Thomas, and then the Myrrh-Bearing Women. Today we turn a corner and for the next few weeks in the appointed Gospel readings the Church will teach us something about the Baptism we have received.
Today, at the midpoint of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, three weeks after Pascha, Christ goes up to Jerusalem. “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.” Seven hundred years earlier, King Hezekiah had ordered the Gishon stream diverted to flow through a stone tunnel and create this pool as a freshwater reservoir within the city (2 Chronicles 32:2-4). Coming down the wide steps from ground level to the level of the water at Bethesda, you’d see five colonnades, rows of pillars upholding roofs to shelter under, because this was a stopping place for pilgrims going up the hill into the city walls, bringing animals to sacrifice at the Temple.
We also know this pool by its other name, Siloám*. In two weeks when we reach John chapter 9, the Lord will send the blind man to Siloám to wash away the mud on his eyes and be healed. In today’s Gospel, John the pool’s other name Bethesda – the House of Mercy. This pool was also used for washing sheep that were to be sacrificed.
So before we begin telling the story, here is a picture of baptism already: A man who is powerless to save himself is brought to the House of Mercy, to a place where sheep are made clean and fit for God, to a place where the grace of God is active in the water to bring wholeness.
This man has been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Every day he has had someone bring him here to the water, where he hopes to receive healing. He knows that from time to time an angel stirs up the water and someone receives a miracle, and he is waiting for it to be him.
What patience! How many of us have prayed with constancy for anything for that long? But this man waited and hoped in the Lord. Yet even when grace came, he had no strength to respond: “I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Saint Augustine tells us that the pool with five gates is like the Law of Moses, which has five books; even if we enter by those gates and obey every letter of the Law, it can’t save the soul. “For the law convicted sinners; it did not absolve them.” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17.2.1–3.3) Only when the water is stirred by grace is anyone saved. When obedience and faith are joined, then grace becomes active, and grace – God in action – is what makes the difference. Everyone who was ever saved, during the time of the Law and under the Gospel, was saved by grace, the action of God.
Saint John Chrysostom writes that the healing of the paralytic foreshadows the Mystery of Baptism: “What kind of a cure is this? What mystery does it signify to us?… A baptism was about to be given that possessed much power. It was the greatest of gifts, a baptism purging all sins and making people alive instead of dead. These things then are foreshown as in a picture by the pool. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 36.1.)
Saint Chromatius of Aquileia says: “That water was moved once [in a while]; this water of the church’s baptism is always ready to be moved… Then an angel descended; now it is the Holy Spirit. Then it was the grace of the angel; now it is the mystery of the Trinity… That water healed the body; this water heals both body and soul. That water healed a person’s health; this heals from sin. There, the body was only healed of its infirmities; here, body and soul are freed from sin. There, many who were weary lay sick at that water because it only cured one person a year. No one will be left lying sick here where the waters of baptism are, if they resolve to come and be healed” (Sermon 14).
In many places in scripture, Christ responds to a person’s trust in him, and says, “Your faith has saved you.” Here, he doesn’t wait for the paralyzed man. He asks, “Do you want to be made whole?” The man’s response is just to lament that he can never get down to the water in time. He is not looking to Christ to heal him; verse 13 says he didn’t even know who Jesus was. But Christ brings all the power of God and all the faith that’s needed. Where was faith? It came into this place when the Lord entered.
If you were baptized as a baby, where does faith enter into your baptism? Your parents and your sponsor brought you to the water and offered their faith. Remember that other paralytic, who could not reach Christ through the crowd, so he was lowered through the roof. Who believed? Saint Luke writes, “When [Christ] saw their faith” – the four who brought the paralytic – “he said to him, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).
In two weeks we’ll see the blind man receive his healing in this same place. He doesn’t even know the Lord is passing by, but Someone puts mud on his eyes and says, “Go wash at Siloám.” And he obeys and receives his sight.
I do not understand Ibuprofen. I have not studied the pharmacokinetics of nonsteroid anti-inflammatories. Yet it works. The apostles knew that Baptism and the Eucharist, anointing with oil and every other sacrament work, though we have now spent two thousand years trying to explain just how.
In Baptism, the soul is born again (John 3:3-6), united to Christ (Rom 6:3-11) and his Church (1 Cor 12:13), and becomes a participant in the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).
Just as we don’t know the rest of the paralytic’s story after his healing, we don’t know the rest of the story after anyone is baptized. In a way this man’s life ends and begins here at the water; and in our Baptism we were buried with Christ and raised with him into newness of life. It’s only a beginning, and that’s why we pray daily that we may complete each day in peace and repentance, and for a Christian ending to our lives: painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.
The human heart is deep water; nobody can see all that’s hidden in those depths. Sometimes God disturbs the water and gets your attention.
What shall we do then?
Is God stirring up the waters in you today? You’re dissatisfied with the state of your soul, you feel like you’re falling short and you ought to be more. That’s the call of God to come to the House of Mercy, meet him and receive grace.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian says, “‘The kingdom of heaven is within you’ (Luke 17:21). Insofar as the Son of God dwells in you, the kingdom of heaven lies within you also. Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. O sinner, here is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly… Remain in your heart, for God is in your heart.”
Don’t be in a hurry to go home today. Or, when you get home, get your prayer rope, light your candle, and enter into that temple God is building in your soul. Meet him there.
The newly-glorified Saint Amphilochios of Patmos says, “Christ often comes and knocks at your door and you invite him to sit in the living-room of your soul. Then, absorbed in your own business, you forget the Great Visitor. He waits for you to appear and when you are too long in returning, he gets up and leaves. At other times, you are so busy that you answer him from the window. You don’t even have time to open the door.”
And what if the waters are not stirring?
When we first came to faith, the name of Jesus would make us want to weep. Now we can argue sarcastically about the Holy Trinity with our hardened heart frozen in our chest. We don’t always hunger and thirst for righteousness. Prayer is not an epiphany for us, it’s just hard. The water isn’t moving.
The “What shall we do then” is the same: Show up at the House of Mercy.
CS Lewis wrote that “When we carry out our ‘religious duties,’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last water comes, it may find them ready.”
We want to “pray at all times” (Eph 6:16) but to pray at all times we need to pray at some particular time.
You know, that “morning prayers” chapter in your prayerbook is a suggestion. That 3000-knot prayer rope you don’t use is probably shaming you, not healing you. But I’ll bet you know the Trisagion Prayers: O heavenly King. Holy God, Holy Mighty. Our Father. You could say the whole thing in 30 seconds if you rush. (Don’t rush.) After trying and failing every prayer rule for years as an Orthodox Christian, I began simply saying the Trisagion Prayers every morning before my shower or coffee. I might be praying a little more than that now, but that little decision to honor God with one minute every morning was what changed. In time Grace came and put a spark in the kindling.
Grace is God’s job. Our part is to be present. So we come to the water. Like the blind man who’s not received a miracle, but he goes to Siloám; like the paralytic making his way daily to the House of Mercy. Like the myrrh-bearing women, not expecting to meet the resurrected Savior, just showing up at dawn to honor him because that’s what we do.
God hasn’t given us any promises of quick holiness – the paralytic waited 38 years for grace. But be present, day in and day out, for the simplest of prayers.
In our own lifetime, Saint Luke the Surgeon wrote, “Make your heart a monastery. There sound the semantron, there call your vigil, cense and whisper ceaseless prayers. God is next to you!”
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.