Many readings we hear in the Liturgy are about healings. I do not know in full why some people are healed and others are not but the fact is that God does what He knows is best. Any Christian dealing with illness needs to pray and be discerning. Sometimes one prays for a cure, sometimes for strength to endure, sometimes for a good death. I am grateful to our brother Subdeacon Peter for a remark he made at the parish Bible study last week. We were considering another healing, told in Acts 3 where St Peter and St John were the instruments of God’s healing work. Peter pointed out that man had almost certainly been seen by Christ and had not been healed by Him. When the time was right he was healed, but by the apostles.
Today’s reading has two other elements that we can explore a little. One is helping and the other, forgiveness. Forgiveness means simply setting aside all penalties or desire for vengeance.
You may know that in the Judaism of Christ’s time, illness was seen to be the result of sin. It followed that if someone was ill or disabled he or she was guilty of some awful sin, or perhaps the parents were. In that understanding, forgiveness had to come before a cure. As only God could forgive such a radical fault, in pronouncing forgiveness Christ was accused of blasphemy. This accusation cropped up throughout His ministry. In forgiving Christ is demonstrating a claim to divine authority. Unless He was and is who we claim Him to be this was indeed a blasphemous thing to do. But, Christ is indeed God in the flesh - one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Forgiving and reconciling us to God is exactly what He came to do. He declared forgiveness for our short-comings. Because of this forgiveness, we can enter into the life of God and be part of His kingdom.
The greatest help we can have is from Christ Himself. We also have our friends and the Church. It is important then that we work together and help each other. This paralysed man could not come to Jesus alone; his friends had to carry him. They did what they could. They brought him to Christ. We also need to give and receive this help.
As many of you know my canal boat has been out of the water for repairs recently. It was leaking. The problem was a bad weld which meant that the structure was not as sound as it should have been. It has now been welded and we have that miracle again – a steel object which floats, thanks to the skill of the welder. A piece of steel does not float, a boat made of steel does. The Church is similarly a miracle because all the parts are connected and welded together in Christ and the Church functions as a whole.
We are also both in a hospital and in an army. We care for each other and heal but we also fight together against evil and witness to God’s saving work. We are equipped for this, both as army and hospital, by the sacraments and leadership of the Church, working in obedience to God in the Church and guided by her Tradition.
Part of that array of support is the Holy Liturgy. We are fed and strengthened week by week as we receive Holy Communion. We take this very seriously and due preparation is needed, but I fear some regard it as too frightening. We see babies brought up, because it is good for them, but often we do not see the parents also receiving. Is not the receiving Christ’s Body and Blood not also good for them? Sometimes there is a tendency to treat Holy Communion as a reward for being perfect, when it is rather a strengthening medicine for the fight to achieve better things.
Sacramental confession is also a healing sacrament. Christ forgiveness is channelled through the Church. We are blessed in this parish with a very able and sensitive priest who is an excellent confessor. I know this directly from experience. He was my confessor until we started working as colleagues. There is nothing to be afraid of in confession and much to be gained. I would urge you all to consider making more use of confession. It is not an optional extra but part of what the Church is about. I urge everyone to partake of these sacramental helps.
Now let us think about three holy people.
St Seraphim of Sarov famously spent three years praying for forgiveness of his sins. There is no evidence that he was especially bad, in fact rather the opposite. He was steadfast in his repenting though, and was attacked by demons and temptations. He held on, and was later to participate in God’s energies. The stories about him are many. He was equipped by this struggling and turning to God to do great things. He was able to achieve much, largely because he was aware of his weaknesses and strove always to do God’s will. He did this not merely as a charismatic individual but as part of the Church.
The other two are rather more obvious “baddies” to start with. One is St. Taisia who is celebrated on 10th May. She started life rich (tradition tells us) and distributed all her enormous wealth to the poor and built a hospice for monks. She was a great beauty and, having become poor voluntarily, she lapsed into sin. She took up an immoral profession - she might have taken another path but did not. In due time and guided by the Holy Spirit, St. John the Dwarf went to Taisia. They talked and she decided to leave behind all the wealth she had made and begged St. John to take her right away to a convent, where she would be able to atone for her grievous sins. St. John fulfilled her request by going with her from the city to the desert. Night came as they travelled. He told her to get a little sleep, so they could continue their journey early the next morning. He went some distance from her as he also wanted to rest, but suddenly he saw how divine light lit up the entire sky, and in this light an angel bore Taisia’s soul to the throne of God. St. John approached her and found her already dead. She repented and that was acceptable to God. Again it was the action of another member of the Church who helped her.
The other example is renowned as the good thief; the one who repented on the cross with Jesus. I always find it wonderful that the one person we know who got into paradise was a convicted criminal. He truly repented and he had the chance to talk directly to Christ. Like Taisia his experience shows us God’s mercy and His forgiveness.
Repentance then is possible right up until to death but do not under any circumstances presume on God’s mercy and defer repentance. Forgiveness is waiting for us NOW when we turn to Christ. Use the help that is available and let us carry each other in love and prayer as we all strive to a greater perfection.