In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one.
The Gospel reading for today is an exciting story reported by St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke. There is a very sick man who is unable to walk, someone who is paralyzed on a stretcher whose friends want to help him. They are not sure how to help their sick friend, but they think that if they can bring him close to Jesus, he will be healed. However, there is a big problem: Jesus is already inside the house of St Peter, surrounded by a large crowd. So how can this sick man be brought close to Jesus?
St Peter’s home has a flat roof with an outside staircase that gives access to the roof. The sick man’s imaginative friends realize they can all get on the roof, remove a few tiles and lower their friend down until he is beside Jesus. What happens? Jesus is impressed by their faith. As St Matthew relates, Jesus says, “Take courage, son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now, some people there, hearing the words of Jesus, believe only God can forgive sins and so Jesus indicates His authority by saying to this sick man, “Pick up your bed and go home.” When the crowds see this, they are all struck with astonishment and begin to glorify God.
Let’s consider the relevance of this story to us today, because I believe we all have within us the attitudes of this sick man and his friends. We each would like to be close to Our Lord Jesus Christ, but when we see many others gathered around Him we are not sure how to place ourselves in a situation in which we, just like this sick man, can be close to Jesus Christ.
How can we grow close to Our Lord Jesus Christ? St Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century author of The Confessions, is very blunt and not at all diplomatic when he writes: “You have been a paralytic inwardly. You did not take charge of your bed. Your bed took charge of you.” St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and teacher of St Augustine, was rather kinder in his advice: “The Lord looks with affection on the humble,” preached St Ambrose, “Learn, you who are sick, to gain health through prayer…. Seek the prayer of others, call upon the Church to pray for you, and in [the Lord Jesus Christ’s] regard for [the Church] the Lord will give what He could refuse to you.” Whatever our weakness is, whatever our “bed” is, we each need to “take charge” of that weakness and humble ourselves “to gain health through prayer”—through our own prayer, the prayer of our friends, and the prayer of the Church.
The fifth century bishop and preacher, St Peter Chrysologus sums up this Gospel story with a message that reaches out to me and hopefully to you: “Take up your bed. Carry the very mat that once carried you. Change places, so that what was proof of your sickness may now give testimony to your soundness. Your bed of pain becomes the sign of healing, its very weight the measure of the strength that has been restored to you.” In other words, we can each experience today what St Matthew tells us Jesus said to the paralytic: “Pick up your bed and go home.”
Now, it might or might not be helpful to you personally to know how these fourth and fifth century saints wrote and preached about this Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic. What these early Church Fathers are saying to me is: “Don’t run away from your weakness. Accept it. Pray about it. Seek help from your friends and from the Church—from the teachings of the Church, from its liturgy, from its pastors. Let us try and move into the present moment, into our situation here at St Aidan ‘s. We all want to “take up our beds,” to face and resolve our weaknesses. What can we do?
First, we can be baptised, just like Rebecca today. We can receive the Holy Spirit, as Rebecca has just done. Unlike the first apostles who were told in Acts, Chapter 1, verse 4, “to wait for what the Father had promised,” to wait for the Holy Spirit, each of us who have been baptised have received the Holy Spirit. We do not have to wait, but we do have to listen, we have to listen to our fellow Christians, to the teachings of the Church, to our own consciences about how to be a Christian.
I don’t know about your ability to remember sermons, but I have to admit that I do not remember very many of the sermons I have heard during my 19 years as an Orthodox Christian. However, there is one I do remember, given by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Knightsbridge in London in 2002. In his usual dramatic style, Metropolitan Anthony took up his shepherd’s crook and walked slowly into the congregation who rapidly gathered around him. Then he preached and, as I remember, what he said was: “We all have a responsibility to draw as close as we can to Jesus Christ, and then to bring that presence of Jesus Christ within us to others. Do not try to bring to others more of Jesus Christ than you yourself have within you. However, do accept the responsibility to communicate your very own understanding of Jesus Christ. That is genuine evangelism—that you draw others into the understanding of Jesus Christ, limited as it may be, that you already hold in your heart. That is all God expects of you. That is all you should expect of yourself.”
Our situation is that we are baptised, and we pray, and we seek to communicate what Jesus Christ has given to us—life, hope, the possibility of growing close to God the Father, because, through the Holy Spirit, we have come to know that the Father’s Son, Jesus Christ, is Lord of each of our lives. Within our own limited knowing of Jesus Christ as Lord, we can each experience the freedom to be ourselves, not to pretend that we are saints, but to recognise that we are indeed seeking to draw close to Jesus, just like the paralytic and his friends.
To conclude, unfortunately we all have portions of our personalities that are paralysed, just as St Augustine firmly reminds us. However, we can all pray for whatever our particular paralysis is to be unfrozen. We can pray to be drawn close to Jesus Christ. We can each go to Holy Communion and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives. A few weeks ago, as Lent began, about 80 per cent of the people present in this church received Holy Communion. That is a powerful witness that we here at St Aidan’s wish to draw near to Jesus Christ. Perhaps soon almost 100 per cent of the baptised Orthodox Christians present at the Divine Liturgy in this church will receive Holy Communion precisely because we each accept that we are in the same position as the paralysed man and his friends—we wish to draw near to Jesus Christ. So be it. As the Book of Revelation concludes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all [of us]. Amen.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.