6th Sunday after Pentecost / Martyr Hyacinth of Caesarea; St. Philip of Moscow / Romans 12.6-14; Matthew 9.1-8
F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, recall from last week’s Gospel that Jesus had been “on the other side” of the lake from where this morning’s Gospel takes place. He was in “the country of the Gergesenes,” where he encountered two demon-possessed men who lived all alone out in the wilderness, apparently banished from their nearby community. At one time in their life these two men had likely been a part of a temple faith community, quite possibly across the lake where this morning’s Gospel begins. They had families and friendships. Faith and community life enlivened their souls and gave sustenance to their life.
Then something terribly insidious began to unfold, so subtle at first. The cares of the world started to creep into their souls. One particular care blossomed into a full-blown passion—the coveting of mammon, money, material bounty. Each of these men caught wind of another community across the lake, where pig farming enriched lives. They left their own community and family and friends for that community. Then it all came crashing down. Instead, demonic possession gradually consumed their souls and bodies. Banished from that community, they lived alone and desolate.
Until Jesus met and healed both of them. Last week’s Gospel concludes with that pig farming community coming out of their village to meet Jesus, and to request something of Him that few others requested—that He leave their community and go away from them, so threated were they by His presence. One of the morals of last week’s Gospel—the risk of life not lived in a loving community of faith; the risk of pursuits that detach you from community life in order to pursue dreams of material excess; and the risk of displacing God and His church from the center of your life.
Now to this morning’s Gospel. Jesus does indeed leave that community. He gets into a boat and crosses over “to his own city.” Some of our church fathers speculate that those two-demon possessed men may well be in that boat with Jesus, so convicted were they to begin their life anew back in the community that first grew them up in their faith and nourished their life.
No sooner does Jesus arrive in that city than a small group of folks come to Him, carrying a bed on which lays their paralytic friend. Followed immediately by these most astounding words, from v. 2 of this morning’s Gospel. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgive you.’ So important, so vital, is the faith of the paralytic’s friends—a faith in God, a faith in Jesus as a healer—that because of their faith Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. And not just forgives his sins, but then goes on to heal his body as well. A third-party healing—because of their faith.
Stop and ponder the implications of this scene dear ones. What if one of you has greatly sinned and for whatever reasons you are too afraid or too ashamed or too jaded to come to Confession. Your friends in this church, sensing that you are struggling with something, start crying out to God in prayer for you. They show up at your house. They take you out for coffee. They want to help you. And because of their faith, because of their love for you, your sins are forgiven by God, who has heard their prayers. Truly astonishing—the communal nature of salvation, and the communal nature of forgiveness of sins. Because of your faith I am forgiven; because of your prayers, I am healed.
Thus this morning’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to last Sundays. Here, this morning, is a community of friends, friends faithful to God and to helping and loving one another, who are likely a part of the same worshipping community, who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus, hoping and praying for some kind of healing.
And we can only imagine what the two demon possessed men are thinking, if indeed they are witnessing this scene. This Jesus, He healed us, and now He heals this man, through the faith of his friends. Why did we ever leave this community and our temple to begin with? Why did we forsake the friendships we once had here? Never again! We will aspire to the same faith as this paralytic’s friends, so that we might bring healing to our friends.
St. Nikolai Velimirovic says that this morning’s Gospel is as much about the power and beauty and necessity of friendship as it is about faith; that, in fact, faith and friendship are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate the two. One who loves his or her friend displays their faith through love; long-suffering love is itself a form of faith.
Such was the case with three different friendships in the Scriptures: David and Jonathans, Elijah and Elisha’s, and Ruth and Naomi’s, all friendships given us as role models for the quality of friendships, and the quality of faith, that we are called to role model with those whom we call our friends.
About David and Jonathan’s friendship and faith we hear these words in 1 Samuel: Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day … Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
About Elijah and Elisha’s friendship and faith we hear, As the time came to be for the Lord to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha went from Gilgal. Then Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here, please, for the Lord sent me to Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.’ And then a few verses later, once again from Elisha’s lips to Elijah, I will not leave you.
And about Ruth and Naomi’s friendship and faith; Naomi, who has lost her husband and now loses her two sons. How tragic can it get! Naomi tells her daughter-in-law Ruth, who was married to one of those sons, to return back to the home from which she came, essentially saying that her life as she has known it is all but over. But Ruth replies, Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.
Sisters and brothers, one thing that Gerondissa Efpraxia said to Matushka and I years ago, which I had the hardest time swallowing and did not necessarily believe at that time, but which has indeed been the case; she said about parish life: People will come and go. Some will fall away from the faith and they will leave the church. Others will move away, for whatever reasons. It’s sad but it’s true, people will come and they will go.
And when they go, it’s like a gut punch. Because in their going there’s a hit, a renting to the fabric of friendship, a renting that does not take place in the friendships of Ruth and Naomi, Elijah and Elisha, and David and Jonathan, and in the friendship between the paralytic and his friends.
Perhaps the most difficult for me to swallow, the most challenging for me, are those amongst us who give lip service to the importance of their Orthodox faith, to the importance of friendships within the church, yet who come to church only sporadically, and nourish those friendships only half-heartedly.
St. Nilolai Velimirovic has more guts than me when he comments, in a spirit of wise judgment rather than being judgmental, that while such persons are of course always welcome in Church, always loved by God, their version of Christian faith and their version of friendship is a far cry from the biblical standard. At which time we, like the friends of the paralytic, must find faith in our own souls to pray for them, not knowing the struggles they are going through. Perhaps through our faith a healing might take place in their souls such that they root themselves more deeply in our faith community.
I want to conclude with a specific point named by St. Nikolai that touched my soul. St. Nikolai, speaking about the importance of the faith of the paralytic’s friends, observes that every one of us goes through seasons in our life where we struggle with faith, where we lack faith, where all things God and church feel rather dry and lifeless. What then?
What especially moves St. Nikolai, and especially moves me, is when that struggling person nonetheless demonstrates faith by simply showing up because of their love for their friends. Where it is difficult to come to church because of God, come then because of your friends. Come in order to ask your friend how he or she is doing. Come in order to stand by your friend and strive to find prayer on their behalf. Come in honor of this morning’s Gospel—because your love for your friend is a form of faith in God, a faith that might help your friend. As our Lord said elsewhere, Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me (Matthew 25.40). F/S/HS