24 July 2011

Sermon on the paralytic, 2011

Today’s text presents a challenge to the preacher. It’s the account of the paralyzed man whose friends bring him to Christ. What makes it a challenge is that we read about this same event more than once a year. The gospels record lots of events from the Lord’s life; why would the church choose to repeat this same one, but from different evangelists?
I can think of two reasons. In the first place, the events that get repeated speak to deep needs of our human condition. We need to hear some things again and again. That’s why couples who’ve been married fifty years still say “I love you” to each other. As St. Paul told the Philippians, “To say the same thing again is not burdensome for me, and it is necessary for you.”
In the second place, each evangelist looks at the same event through a slightly different lens. If you read the parallel accounts closely, you find that different evangelists mention different things. Sometimes the differences can be slight. But the life of our Lord Jesus is a jewel, and turning it ever so slightly brings new light to us.
That’s the case with today’s text. Matthew’s version is very similar to the other evangelists in many respects. Other people bring the paralytic to Christ. Seeing their faith, he speaks pardon to the man. The scribes murmur, and the Lord silences their grumbling by healing the man.
All these things we need to hear again and again: that sometimes we are sick because of sin; that we need each other (Christianity is a team sport); that Christ’s word really brings about changes in our life.
But today I want to focus on something unique to St. Matthew’s account. Look how the text ends. “When the crowds saw this, they were amazed and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Did you catch that? “To men.”
It’s not at all what we would expect. Jesus is the one who heals—not the enemies, not the crowd, not the apostles. So why would St. Matthew say that God gave such authority to men? What can this mean?
Recall, first, the words of the Lord. Before he healed the man, he told the scribes, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Here he calls himself the Son of Man. And that in itself would fry our circuits. For it’s an expression that harkens back to Prophet Daniel. In a night vision, Daniel saw one like a Son of Man, being presented to the Ancient of Days. This Son of Man receives an everlasting dominion, an indestructible kingdom. When Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man,” he’s claiming precisely that for himself—a divine title.
But here’s what fries our circuits. That title is Son of Man—a word that speaks clearly to the Lord’s humanity. And to drive the point home even more, he says, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” In other words, this isn’t just for night visions of far-distant spiritual events. This authority is for here and now—for life as we live it, with all its warts.
When God the Son took on our flesh, and became incarnate of the Virgin, all the fullness of his divinity was poured out on his humanity. So now, both according to his divinity and his humanity he knows all things, he has all authority, he is everywhere present. His deity does not destroy his humanity, but fills it. All this is his by virtue of the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.”
When Matthew says the crowd glorified God who had given such authority to men, it means first and foremost that God gave such authority to this Man, his Son made flesh for us. The divine essence cannot be communicated to his humanity, for that would destroy it. But the divine energies, in all their fullness, are given to his humanity so that, by the nature of the Incarnation, they belong to Christ’s humanity.
That still doesn’t explain the words “to men,” however. And here’s where it gets really marvelous. The crowd understood that in principle, if such authority was given to this man, then God meant it to be shared among humanity in all its persons. In other words, what belonged to Christ’s humanity by virtue of the Incarnation, is given through that humanity to others who share his humanity. What is his by nature, becomes our by grace.
We see that played out in the rest of Matthew’s gospel. To cite but two examples: When our Lord comes to the apostles, walking on the water, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command that I come out on the water too.” The Lord gives the word, and Peter walks on the water. Now Christ walks on the water because in the union of his Person, the divine energies are poured out on his humanity, in all their fullness. But why does Peter walk on the water? Because what is Christ’s by nature, becomes others' by grace.
Again, the Lord tells his apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” The divine authority to forgive sins is communicated through Christ’s humanity, to his apostles.
We mustn’t misunderstand. This doesn’t mean that any Christian can do everything Christ did, at any time of our choosing. The divine energies are divided in the Church. The Panagia receives their fullness by grace--"Rejoice, full of grace!" Gabriel told her-- but as St. Paul says, the Spirit divides the gifts among the people of God. We need each other, and the divine energy of God’s love binds us all in one body.
Further, the divine energies benefit us only when we receive them in humble, repentant faith. When Edison was developing the light bulb, he had a problem. As soon as the electricity passed through the filament, it would glow, briefly, then burn up. Only when he removed all the air, and put the filament inside a vaccuum bulb, would it continue to glow. So too the energies of the Spirit only work savingly in those emptied of themselves in the fear of God, in repentance and faith.
In the Eucharist, for example, Christ himself shares his true, life-giving body and blood with us, and thereby shares his life with us. But if we receive him without faith, without repentance, we receive them to our judgment. That’s why we call out “With the fear of God, in faith and love draw near!”
This gift of the divine energies is not just a theory. It’s a practical, daily reality, as we see in the lives of the saints. What enabled Christina, a teenaged girl, to endure unspeakable tortures? What gave strength to Boris and Gleb to give up their royal thrones and even their lives, rather than raise a hand against their unjust brother? It was this divine energy, working in them.
Beloved, God has great things in mind for us. We cannot accomplish them with our wealth, wisdom or power. He doesn’t need those things. He needs humble, open hearts. Let us receive him as he comes to us in faith and fear, loving him who so loved us that he gave himself into death for us. Then we will be able to say with Paul, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Then, too, like that crowd so long ago, we will give glory to God, who has given such authority to men.