The Week Following the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (B)
Service of Word & Table, York Chapel
Duke University Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina
1When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Mark 2:1-12 NRSV
Bart the faith healer
I remember very frequently during my childhood hearing my minister say from the pulpit that the best source of theology in popular culture was the cartoon Peanuts. Of course, within this highly trained theological community we all know that’s an irresponsible statement. Clearly the best source for theology in popular culture is the Simpsons.
In an episode entitled “Faith Off,” America’s favorite bald, yellow everyman Homer begins his celebration of homecoming weekend by setting a bucket of superglue over the dean’s door. Because deans are heroic, unstoppable figures, Homer ends up with the bucket on his own head. After the town doctor delivers the news that he can’t remove the bucket, Homer’s son Bart recklessly drills two holes through it so that he can see. Turns out he still can’t see too well, though, and while driving the family car he careens them into a ditch in front of Brother Faith’s Revival. Inside the tent, Brother Faith works his way around to Homer, and tries to remove the bucket, but finds that, and I quote, “Satan really jammed that thing on good.” Brother Faith enlists Bart as his “holy helper,” and Bart lays hands on Homer, exclaims under direction, “I have the power,” and the bucket comes off.
Lisa tries to explain that the “miracle” was actually just the result of the stage lights heating up the bucket, but it doesn’t matter: the bucket is gone and we’ve had our laugh.
The Simpsons episode serves to suggest how we might react to today’s scripture if it hadn’t come out of the Bible. We have a word for stories like this. Crazy. It’s really pretty strange, when you think about it, that here in the context of worship, what you rightfully expect me to do over the next few minutes is sing the praises of four men who wrapped up their poor, paralyzed brother in his mat, dug through the mess of thatch covering some little house, and dropped him down next to a traveling evangelist who didn’t even know how to be a good traveling evangelist: where were his tent, fireworks, and theme song?
Don’t get me wrong—especially if you know someone on my Board of Ordained Ministry. I say some crazy stuff in sermons but it would be terrible to stand up here and rant about Jesus being a lousy evangelist. It’s our expectations that I mean to attack. As bad as it would be to insult Jesus’ evangelism skills, it is even more of an insult to his holy word when we read it with our minds so shut that we consider four men dropping their buddy through a roof to be business as usual in Bibleland. It is indeed something of a show, and it’s certainly one we’re intended to be watching.
Sins and sickness
All good seminarians know that Mark’s gospel moves quickly and urgently through the story of Jesus’ ministry, so we find ourselves at the beginning of chapter two and already he is a celebrity. By this time in their gospels, Matthew is introducing the wise men and Luke’s talking about a new tax plan, but Mark is telling us about how Jesus can’t get out any more because of the fans and now even his house is surrounded by people begging for a sermon. The siege reaches a new level when people start digging a hole through the roof. Jesus looks at the man who gets dropped through, is moved by the faith of his friends, and forgives him of his sin.
Now, it just so happens that there are scribes sitting around, waiting for Jesus to do something wrong. They see this occur and become righteously indignant that Jesus would be so brash as to forgive sins, which is, of course, God’s right alone. Forget for a moment, though, how mean the scribes are. Imagine yourself as one of the friends on the roof: you probably aren’t very happy either. “Gracious, man. Who cares if his sins are forgiven? We wanted you to heal him so he could walk!” Perhaps Jesus was so focused on the kingdom that it didn’t even occur to him to heal the man’s paralysis. Jesus healed the dangerous sickness that he saw: the sin in the man’s heart.
But immediately Jesus knows what’s happening—he perceives the growing annoyance in the roofers and the scribes—and he answers them all. Some were upset that he forgave sins, some were upset that he just talked about sins and didn’t do what they wanted. Jesus used the desires of the latter to quiet the complaints of the former. To the friends, “You wanted him to walk? He shall, but I hope one day you remember what I did first—it is far more important.” To the scribes, “You want proof that the forgiveness of sins was legitimate? Fine. I’ll heal his paralysis too and then you will have a visible sign that I can do both things.”
People have been struggling with the relationship between sin and sickness since the first good person died, but some of us have made an art out of ignoring the problem. The Simpsons is funny because it picks up on an image of traveling evangelists that we, the established church, love to hate—or at least love to relegate to the sidelines—from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham. Brother Faith is imaginary, but a woman called Everybody’s Sister was real. Aimee Semple McPherson traveled throughout the United States and her native Canada early in the twentieth century with the bright sights and sounds of the Salvation Army and the passion of Pentecostalism, preaching Christ as savior, healer, baptizer, and coming king (215). She used to try to explain that her services were 99% salvation and 1% healing, but the insistence fell on deaf ears (174). The healing, however little she wanted it to be of her ministry, was the part everyone talked about and clamored for. Sister based her preaching and healing on Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.” If Christ could heal then, she reasoned, since he is present and unchanged today, he can do it now too. She found that people don’t change much over time either. During a trip to San Diego in 1921, so many people came to a prayer service that groups occupied every room in the arena, including a walk-in refrigerator, and spilled out to a nearby Lutheran church. One has to wonder about the relative effectiveness of prayer in a Lutheran church versus a walk-in refrigerator. Crowds found out where she was staying and came to the house with their prayer needs. She went to a hotel, but couldn’t leave without being stopped on the street by more people who wanted prayers (160).
For all those adoring fans, Sister Aimee had her critics as well. Even people who had supported the trailblazing evangelist Billy Sunday criticized Sister for saying that healing was a part of salvation: they feared, with some reason, that people who didn’t receive apparent healing would lose their faith (221).
I bet if Sister Aimee read Mark 2 with us, she would point to it as proof that healing was part of salvation. The two certainly appear to be tied up good in our text. But if not for the annoyance of the people around him, Jesus would have been done after he forgave the paralytic’s sins. Not because he didn’t believe that physical handicaps are difficult. Not because physical healing is harder to do—the scandal with the scribes was about the forgiving, not the healing: they’d seen healing before. Certainly not because the offering hadn’t been large enough or there wasn’t enough Spirit in the room. Jesus was spreading the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and he healed the sickness that was keeping the paralytic from that wholeness.
With a little scripture and a little imagination, we can come up with ideas about Jesus’ motivation, the scribes’ tactics, and the four friends’ annoyance at the whole episode. But we don’t get much description at all of the paralytic. We don’t even have a name: the only way we can refer to him is by a sickness Jesus didn’t even seem to care about at first. I’ve discovered looking back over my sermons that I make a lot out of our perspective as modern Christians: are we more like the critical scribes, or the faithful mat-dropping friends, or the paralyzed man who seeks healing for his legs and gets his life healed instead? There’s a different sermon in this odd little passage for each of those characters, and they’re all probably good sermons to hear, but you only came for one.
“Come down and meet us now”
As baptized Christians who have not yet reached perfection, we all find ourselves having received some measure of forgiveness—healing for a sickness we didn’t know we had at first—and still wanting more from the traveling Jewish evangelist. We’re sitting on the cold floor of a meager house, staring up at a God who knows us more deeply that we could have imagined—so deeply in fact that he sees right past what we thought to be our deepest desires. It doesn’t matter whether you approached Jesus yourself, or because you were failed by your legs or your will someone else had to drop you down next to him. He has pushed away the crowds and even added an open access through the roof, and set a table before us filled with what we need.
One way or another, we will see our way off the mat and we’ll walk out of the house through the crowd. Whether he will grant us physical healing, I cannot say. I can, though, be the prophet who says that God will strengthen us for our callings, so then
Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord, in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord; give up ourselves, through Jesus’ power, his name to glorify; and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die.
Charles Wesley, “Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine,”
The United Methodist Hymnal, 606
Aimee Semple McPherson used to tell about an early experience in her life. She had severely injured her ankle and she had prayed with her friends about it, but it continued to swell and cause pain. She discerned that this required “no common case of healing, but a miracle.” She didn’t need group prayers: this called for “the faith which would say, ‘Rise and walk’” (83). Her husband invoked the Holy Spirit and used that very phrase: Sister and her newly healed ankle rose and walked through one of the most amazing stories of ministry in the face of opposition and the work of the Holy Spirit that we know how to tell.
Jesus looked down at the paralytic and sees you and me and knows that we don’t require a common case of healing, but a miracle. May we live into the miracle of Christ’s presence with us, and hear his urging to rise and walk and seal our lives in service to the kingdom of heaven.
Think what you will about Aimee Semple McPherson and her revivals, but I know this: at the end of her services, she led the congregation in a rousing chorus of “God be with you till we meet again,” and they rose and walked out of that place still humming along and ready to serve God. I say to you, stand up and…
Go in peace. And as you go, know this:
By the power of God, you were created and brought into this world;
By the mercy of God, you have been sustained until this very moment;
And by the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus the Christ, you are being redeemed, now and forevermore.
- Page numbers in text refer to Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993).
- See also Bill J. Leonard, Word of God Across the Ages: Using Christian History in Preaching (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1991).