In the town of Capernaum lives a man who suffers from what we would call paraplegia.
He is paralyzed from the waste down – unable to use his legs.
He is utterly dependent on those who live around him – dependent on them to provide food and drink, to put a roof over his head and clothes on his back.
As is often the case with individuals who make appearances I n the gospel narratives, we know little about this man. We don’t know the cause of his paralysis and we don’t know for how long he has suffered.
On the other hand, we know something not insignificant about this man – we know that he has friends. We know this not only because he is alive – which itself requires the presence of friends in that context. We also know he has friends because they actually appear right alongside him in the gospel narrative. This man does not appear alone in the pages of Mark’s gospel – but with his friends.
Now the town of Capernaum is not only the town in which this man and his friends live. This town also provides a base of operations from which Jesus goes out travelling and teaching and performing miracles in his earliest ministry. Since Jesus spends a fair bit of time in Capernaum, you might say that the people of that town have a head start in getting to know Jesus.
So it is that on one occasion when Jesus stays over in Capernaum, that the townspeople come out in droves to see him at the house where he is staying. Some go to see him just because they are curious. Some go because they want to hear his teaching. Some go because they long for healing. And among those seek out Jesus for healing is the man suffering from paraplegia – but, again, he doesn’t go alone. His four friends carry him.
It’s a familiar story – you’ll remember the details. The friends arrive at the house, but there are so many people crammed in and around they cannot get in. Faced with this obstacle, the friends demonstrate a degree of persistence and imagination – they climb up on the roof and tear a whole through the dirt and tiles. Maybe it is the paralyzed man himself who makes the suggestion: “Hey, guys, take me up to the roof, you can make a hole and drop me right into his lap.” And that’s exactly what the friends do.
When the story of this suffering man finally intersects with the story of Jesus – when the story of these five friends finally intersects with the story of Jesus, we notice something peculiar.
We read in the narrative: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man: Son, your sins are forgiven’.”
What’s peculiar about this? Well, perhaps we find it a bit odd that Jesus forgives the man’s sins rather than meeting his more obvious (at least more obvious to us) – his more obvious need for healing. Perhaps that’s peculiar. But what is more peculiar, perhaps, is what the narrative doesn’t say. We don’t read these words: “When Jesus saw his faith, he said to the man, ‘your sins are forgiven’.” No, the narrative says: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man…”
Their faith? Jesus extends forgiveness, and ultimately the chance for a second life, on account of their faith? The faith of these five?
In western culture we tend to look at everything through the eyes of individualism – we tend to look at our spiritual lives with the eyes of individualism. And for this reason when we read the gospel narratives we tend to focus individual experiences of faith and healing. So,
Jesus heals Blind Bartimaeus because of Bartimaeus’ faith.
Jesus heals the woman with a flow of blood because of her faith.
Jesus forgives the woman who anointed his feet with tears because of her faith.
But here in this story there is something different. Jesus sees their faith.
Jesus is aware of their shared confidence in his power to heal.
Jesus notices their shared conviction that he can make a difference in this man’s life.
Seeing their faith, the faith of these five together, he responds by forgiving the man’s sins. “Your sins are forgiven you.”
Week by week here at KCKF we have different images on the front of our bulletin – and the image I selected for today is in some sense actually a problematic one. The problem with those praying hands is that they tend to reinforce the individualism we’re talking about. When we see those praying hands we may think of someone kneeling at the bedside before sleep, we may think of someone bowed in thankfulness over a meal, we may even think of someone sitting prayerfully in a pew…
But in each case those praying hands tend to make us think of an individual who is connecting with God – who is reaching out to God.
This morning the scripture passage we look at is actually the one we read from James. As we look at that text my point isn’t that it has nothing to do with the individual. At some level it is perhaps about the individual. We could look at the opening words in verse 13. James asks: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” At some level James is perhaps speaking of an individual spiritual experience.
This is father’s day, and so I can’t help but make reference to my own father here. My dad, perhaps like other dads, has never been too worried about embarrassing his kids. When we were younger, we would, as most families do, sometimes go out as together, perhaps to a mall or some other public place. And when we did so my dad had this wonderful habit of whistling hymns as he walked along. My sisters, teenagers at the time, would be suitably embarrassed – especially it if happened to be winter time and our dad was wearing his toque in a horribly unfashionable way. But regardless of our embarrassment, the whistling of hymns was a sign of his cheerfulness. “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” “Are any cheerful? They should whistle hymns while they walk along.”
At some level, yes this passage speaks to us as individuals. We sometimes suffer as individuals, and when we suffer James invites us to reach out to God in prayer. We often experience cheerfulness, and when we do James invites us to express our joy before God with a song, or by whistling.
At the same time, however, in our passage for today, the community takes centre stage. Let me point out a couple of things in this vein.
First of all, notice what we read in verse 14. James writes: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
Our culture is not only one dominated by individualism. It is also a culture marked by the logic of privacy. As a result, many of us are not inclined to share our grief, our suffering, our sickness with other members of the church. But since our faith cannot be lived alone – since we belong to one Body – James invites us to share our sufferings so that others can pray for us. If you’re suffering, let the leaders of the church know – not because they’re prayers are more powerful but because they represent the whole community. To ask these few to pray for us, is in a sense to have the whole community praying for us. We are not only to pray for ourselves, privately in our homes or bedrooms. It’s not easy, but we are invited to become vulnerable enough with others in the community to let them in on our grief and pain – to become more than mere individuals of faith – to become a community of faith in Christ.
Think back with me to the paralyzed man of Capernaum. Picture him saying to his friends: will you bring me to Jesus. In view of his particular, pressing need he says to his friends: Will you bring me to Jesus?
When we suffer, that is the question we are invited to ask of our sisters and brothers in the church. My friend, will you bring me to Jesus. My friend, will you tell God about my pain and my suffering. My friend, will you pray for me. “When Jesus saw their faith, when he saw their shared faith, he responded with grace. When we speak to God on behalf of one another, in our struggles, God sees our shared faith – God responds.
Perhaps there is a very concrete way to act on this. In the bulletin each Sunday there are prayer slips included. I suspect that often when we see those slips we think to ourselves – I don’t want to bother anyone with my problems. Or we think – what I’m going through is just a private thing. James speaks to us: “Are any among you sick or suffering or in need? They should call for the elders of the church to pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord.” Or we could put it like this: “Are any among you sick or suffering or in need? Let your pastor and the prayer/visitation group know by filling out a prayer slip. They will pray for you.
There is so much we could look at in this passage of scripture – in fact, we are going to come back to it over the next two weeks. This morning let’s just look quickly at one other way in which community life is at the heart of this passage. James writes in verse sixteen: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
What’s interesting here is what James isn’t saying. James doesn’t say: “You should confess your sins and pray to one another so that you as individuals might find healing.” No the “you” of whom James speaks is the plural you, not the singular you. Confess your sins to one another, pray for one another, says James, so that you as a community may be healed.
Healing is not something that comes only to us as individuals. Healing – whether physical or spiritual – is something that comes to us also, and decisively, as those who belong to one another in the Body of Christ. Healing doesn’t make sense if it’s just my healing or your healing.
Actually, at some level I think we probably get this. I don’t think James’ logic will come as news to us because we understand the way that systems work. Just look at the environmental catastrophe continuing to unfold in Gulf of Mexico. When you’ve got a revolving door between the companies pumping the oil and the government bureaucracies supervising the pumping, you’re going to run into problems. When you’ve got a whole civilization that is almost desperate for cheap oil to maintain its prosperity, its consumerist way of life, you’re going to run into problems. And when next to nothing has been spent for fifty years on the development of techniques and technologies for oil clean up, you’re going to run into problems. It may be an almost impossible task, but we understand that the whole system has to be healed – it’s never going to be enough for it to happen piecemeal.
What God has in mind when he comes to us in Christ Jesus, is not simply that I be made whole, or that you be healed, or that each of us in our way is relieved of suffering – the point is not even that every individual in the world somehow find the healing they need. God does not even come so that we as individuals might be saved and go to heaven.
Rather, in Jesus Christ God comes to form healed communities – ultimately, in Jesus Christ God comes to heal the whole creation. The Church is a community that has been received indeed into wonderful hospitality of God. In Christ the Church is a community that knows itself as embraced and loved and forgive by God – a community that knows itself as caught up in God’s mission of love in the world.
We don’t always get it right – perhaps it’s fair to say we get it wrong more often than we get it right. James says to us: “Pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Pray for one another so that you as a community may be healed – so that you might love and support and help one another. Pray for one another so that God’s love might shine in you. Jesus said: “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Pray for one another so that those around us will see Jesus’ love in our love for each other.
When he was asked to help carry the paralyzed man to Jesus, maybe one of the friends thought to himself: ‘Is this going to just be waste of time?’ When they got to the house, and the paralyzed man suggested the roof option, maybe one of them thought to himself: “I hope this is worth all the effort.” Maybe two of the friends who carried the man hadn’t spoken to one another in years, and didn’t quite know how to get over their alienation from one another. Maybe the other two didn’t know each other very well, and didn’t show much interest in getting to know each other.
Those five friends, walking down the road toward Jesus, toward the house where Jesus is staying, are a picture of the church. Perhaps it is fair to say that we more often get it wrong than right as we live together in community. But the subtext of our life together is the faith we share in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus saw their faith… When Jesus saw their faith…
Perhaps as they returned home that day, it was not only the paralyzed man who was forgiven and healed. Perhaps two friends who had been alienated spoke with one another for the first time in a long time. Perhaps two who didn’t know each other made first overtures of friendship. Perhaps those who had questioned the power of Jesus to heal felt a new confidence in their hearts. Perhaps as they walked away they whistled a hymn of praise.
Therefore pray for one another, so that you may be healed.