More Than a Healing
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Forgiveness is God’s business. I’m starting here with the end. This is the good news for today. God is the God of forgiveness. Why are we even talking about such a basic truth?
Because we can put up barriers between ourselves and God’s forgiveness. Because guilt and shame can be paralysing. Because even what we are taught in church can result in us carrying heavy burdens of guilt and shame. Because we might hold differing positions on who has the authority to forgive wrongdoing. Is it solely the person against whom the offence was committed? Is there any wrongdoing that is beyond forgiveness? Is there any kind of wrong that we can do from which we can never come back/never be made whole once again? We find in our story today that forgiveness and wholeness are inextricably linked. These four men bring their friend to Jesus for healing, and they find more than a healing. Forgiveness and wholeness. They go together. Do sin and illness go together? Not in a causal sense, no. Not in the sense that you can look at suffering and draw a causal line to that suffering from sin. Christians have been no to say things like “You’re not being healed because of a lack of faith.” That is wrong. Christians have been known to say, “This suffering/this calamity must be the result of some sin on your part.” That is wrong. This is not to say that doing wrong doesn’t bring consequences that might be damaging to one’s health or the health of one’s relationships – I don’t have to paint a picture here.
Healing happens in this story, but it’s not primarily a story of healing. Faith is happening in this story, but it’s not primarily a story about faith. This is a story that some of us have heard from the time we were children. We liked it when we were children, thinking of people climbing up on roofs. Thinking of people to whom property and propriety meant little (this still appeals to me and anyone with a subversive streak). Jesus has been on a preaching and healing tour. The four disciples that we heard about last week are still with him. Simon and Andrew. James and John. It’s come to the point where he can’t even go about openly in towns, so great is his popularity. That won’t last, of course, and in our story, we hear the first stirrings of opposition to Jesus. The scandal of Jesus. The scandal of the cross. The scandal of forgiveness. What is the big deal though? The big deal, the good news here, is what is at the heart of the story. At the heart of the story is forgiveness. God is on the loose in the world. Forgiveness is on the loose. Wholeness is on the loose. Not through any prescribed set of actions or words. Not through paying one’s debt to society or evening up a score. Not even through dependence on the forgiveness of others, and how difficult it is for humanity to forgive.
We need forgiveness. Nicole and I have been watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” It’s a show about a young woman who aspires to be a stand-up comic in the late 1950s. I was amazed to see this scene in which Mrs. Maisel’s estranged husband talks about forgiveness during a vacation in the Catskills. He had left his family to pursue a relationship with his secretary. Here’s the scene.
Forgiveness is on offer. Wholeness is on offer. We need this, don’t we? For two years, many have felt less than the whole. Why is this? Part of the reason surely is that we’ve been separated. I have felt unwhole over the last two years because I have been separated from people. Feelings of unwholeness can become paralyzing. I’ve known the temptation (and no doubt succumbed to the temptation) to withdraw into myself, to not feeling up to doing the work that relationships require in order to be maintained over the last two years.
We’ve been separated. The thing about sin is, it separates us from God. The thing about sin is, it separates us from one another. The answer to questions about forgiveness is not simply to avoid people (unless we need something from them, like a light). Into our situation steps Jesus. Well, actually Jesus is sitting because he’s teaching in a house. He’s in Capernaum which is his home base at this point. He’s left his home in Nazareth. It might be that this is Peter’s house. It might even be Jesus’ house, we’re not told and we’re not surprised as Mark is not a details guy. Whatever the case, Jesus has an interest in this house. He has a stake in this house, even if it’s only as a place in which he can stay and/or teach.
In the middle of the teaching, the first house committee in the New Testament goes to work. You have to admire the faith of these men who wish to bring their friend to Jesus. We have to consider the role that our faith might play in someone else being forgiven and made whole. Their friend needs help. They believe that Jesus is the one to provide it. They will go to any length or height. These houses had flat thatched roofs. Under the thatch would be a layer of soil, then some clay tiles laid over the roof beams. In the middle of his talk, pieces of dirt and clay start falling from above. Daylight appears. We heard about the heavens being torn apart two weeks ago. A new situation. Here we have much the same thing. The roof is torn apart. Tear the roof off the sucker. We want the forgiveness. Let the sunshine in. The man is lowered down to where Jesus is. Jesus does not speak words of condemnation. He does not say “Look what you just did to the roof?!” or “I’m in the middle of my sermon here!” Instead, Jesus, seeing their faith, says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” On the surface or at first glance, the crowd might have thought Jesus was talking about the destruction of the roof. There is something much deeper going on here, and the crowd is quick to realize. “Son, your sings are forgiven.” The “Son” thing here is not a term of belittlement or condescension, it’s a term of endearment. Let us hear those words directed to ourselves. “Daughter, your sins are forgiven. Dear daughter, your sins are forgiven.” “Dear son, your sins are forgiven.”
Or maybe it’s not so wonderful. Maybe some are questioning in their hearts. In our scene, scribes are thinking “We have a whole system that must be followed for people to be forgiven by God.” Someone has put it like this, “The issue is whether Jesus can know that the person is being forgiven by God and can pronounce the man forgiven apart from any of the prescribed ceremonies and sacrifices—apart even from an explicit confession on the part of the sinner. But only God can do that!” In our scene, God is doing that in the person of this man who says “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Hear this as good news because forgiveness is what we need. Forgiveness is what humanity needs. This man who is God is forgiving.
Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly. Forgiveness is offensive. It offends our pride; our desire for revenge; our desire for retribution; our desire for reparation; our desire for abject apology; our sense of fairness even as we might want to set our own parameters around when forgiveness should be extended. There was a time in my life that I thought it was a perfectly good Christian response to withhold forgiveness from someone who had committed a wrong against myself or (even worse) against people that I loved. I thought that it was a good and Christian response to withhold forgiveness and treat them with complete and utter indifference (of course I wasn’t indifferent at all, far from it) until such times as they apologized. Reading with new eyes (or new eyes of the heart) the story of the Waiting Father changed this for me one day. Reading about the father, whose son had taken his inheritance, declaring in effect that he wished his father were dead, and squandering the money in a far-off country. Reading of how the son had a whole speech prepared about how sorry he was. Reading of how the son didn’t even get to say his speech as the father saw him coming from afar, was filled with compassion, and ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Realizing that day that I was the one who had been in a far country, living apart from my Father’s mercy; living apart from my Father’s forgiveness which is always on offer in the form of His outstretched merciful hand. Jesus is teaching here in the house of forgiveness and the roof is torn off as forgiveness reigns in the kingdom of God.
The Son of Man is here. The Son of Man has the authority to forgive sin. Sometimes a son of man is not just a son of man. The expression meant “human being” or “guy” more colloquially. The man is here. The guy is here. Jesus as fully human. The guy is here. God is here. Jesus as fully God. The Son of Man is a figure described in Daniel 7: 13-14:
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One[b] and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
This is the one who is here. Was Jesus talking about himself right then or was he talking about this figure who would appear at the renewal of all things? I would say “Yes.” As someone has said, Jesus’ “… use of this phrase means something like, ‘God is going to send someone who will transform the world and put an end to oppression, and I am that someone.’”
To follow the Son of Man is to take part in his forgiving, whole-making work. Where do we need to be active participants in the forgiveness of God in our lives, in our relationships, in our church? Where is God calling us to accept mercy and extend mercy? What will forgiveness mean in Ukraine in the surrounding region in the weeks, months and years to come? Does this seem like an impossibility? Do we think the days of God working miraculous signs and wonders are over? We remember stories like that of the Rev. Dale Lang, who found forgiveness for the young man who killed his son in Taber, Alberta. Rev. Lang made the connection between forgiveness and healing or wholeness like this. “The problem will be if you can’t reach that place of forgiveness, then you’re going to get stuck in that place of anger and bitterness,” said Lang.
“Forgiveness is not saying it’s okay or acceptable, it’s saying that I’m choosing to let go of this for my own health and to move on in life.”
Where forgiveness comes, healing and wholeness come. We are freed from the paralysing weight of guilt and shame; freed from the hatred or desire for revenge that eats us up from the inside. The power of hearing that you are loved and forgiven. The power of forgiving.
For the follower of Christ, we’re forgiven to be forgiving. When we forgive, the kingdom of God is made known. I’m going to close with some thoughts from NT Wright on what this means in our lives and in the communities in which we live: “We have to find ways of bringing healing and forgiveness to our communities. It can be done… but it is enormously costly. People will oppose it. But the new life that comes, as a result, is enough vindication, enough proof that the living God is at work.
Forgiveness can also, of course, change individuals. It can, as in this case, go down to the hidden roots of the personality, gently healing old, long-buried, hurts. Often people think healing and forgiveness are impossible. They find God distant or uncaring. But true faith won’t be satisfied with that. This story is a picture of prayer. Don’t stay on the edge of the crowd. Dig through God’s roof and find yourself in his presence. You will get more than you bargained for… Once you’ve met the living, forgiving God in Jesus, you’ll find yourself on your feet, going out into the world in the power of God’s love.”
May each and every follower of Christ find themselves this way. Keenly aware daily of the truth that we live in the forgiveness and grace of Jesus, and that we are forgiven to be forgiving. May this be true for all of us. Amen