A sermon by Margaret Hall
I remember once expressing my condolences to an African friend whose wife had just died, quite suddenly in her thirties. He thanked me and then said something that was obvious, but nevertheless shocking. He said, “We Africans expect to die of an illness, for which a cure has already been found.”
How sad would that make you feel – to know you could get better, if only you lived in a place where doctors and medicines were close at hand and the government helped you pay for them? But even if you do, for some conditions there’s no known cure, and no lasting relief from pain. Chronic and debilitating illness must be very hard to bear.
Throughout the ages people have grabbed at any opportunity that came to be free of their diseases. So in Jesus’ time, once word got round the town of Capernaum that he’d healed a woman with a fever, the whole town gathered at the door of her house. They were in the right place, and he healed many who had various diseases.
When Jesus went round the regions of Galilee and Judea, and beyond them into Syria healing the sick, people reacted with amazement. “We’ve never seen anything like this!” they said. But his power to heal was merely a sign of something far greater, the benefits of which will long outlast our fleeting existence here. His greater priority was to announce that God was about to act to put right everything that’s wrong, by addressing the root cause of all disharmony – human self-centredness. Jesus called people to choose to live under God’s rule of love. He came to make possible the healing of relationships – our primary relationship with the God who gave us life, and our relationships with each other. He came to enable forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of each other.
Jesus himself made it clear that our primary need is forgiveness. One day when he was at home in the town of Capernaum, a paralysed man was brought to him. So many people were squashed in to see him, there was no room for a stretcher. But the man’s friends were so convinced Jesus could help him, they carried him up the outside stairs onto the roof, removed the roof-tiles to make what must have been a considerable hole, and lowered the stretcher through it. It landed, Luke tells us, in the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
When he saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders – the experts on God, if you like – were horrified. They were thinking, “Who is this fellow who speaks such blasphemy? Only God can forgive sins.” And as far as they were concerned, that could only happen through the system of sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why are you thinking such things? Which is easier: to say to the paralysed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Take up your mat and walk?’ But so you know I have authority on earth to forgive sins….” He said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he’d been lying on, and went home praising God. Such is the power and authority of Jesus, the man was not only free of his paralysis – he was free of the burdens that cripple the soul – the things we do and think and say that in our better moments we’re so ashamed of.
Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.” A paralysed man on his feet and walking was remarkable enough. But they’d also heard Jesus pronouncing forgiveness simply on the basis of faith in him.
Whatever physical sicknesses we might suffer, all of us are sick with the self-absorption that destroys relationships – a condition with eternal consequences. The good news is, we can be healed of the hurt our broken relationships cause – all because of who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Not long after Jesus healed the paralysed man, he encountered someone who was despised by many – Levi, the tax-collector, also known as Matthew. He was sitting in his tax-booth by the side of the road in Capernaum – the last town before the border between two regions. The two kings who ruled over them had imposed a much-resented tax for passing from one region to the other.
As people in the pay of oppressive rulers, tax collectors were not well regarded. In fact they were treated as traitors, cut off from normal society and deprived of the civil rights of other Israelites. For example, they could never be admitted as a witness in a court. You couldn’t enter their house or share a meal with them, without becoming ritually unclean.
It’s hard for us at this distance to appreciate the enormous implications of what Jesus did that day. Very publicly he broke down the walls that kept Matthew out of decent society, by calling him to come with him.
Whether right then or some days later, Matthew invited Jesus to his house, and Jesus accepted. Matthew then did what all of us should do, when we commit to following Jesus – he invited all his friends to get to know him. Both Mark and Luke tell us that at Matthew’s house that day there were many tax-collectors – and others – all part of ‘the great unwashed’ – people God’s law judged to be unclean – all eating with Jesus and his disciples. Now the walls were really down, in a way that respectable people would have found shocking.
The ultra-respectable – the teachers of the law who were also Pharisees – were watching. Perhaps confronting Jesus would have brought them too close to the unclean people surrounding him, so they made for his disciples, demanding to know why Jesus was eating with tax-collectors and sinners.
It was a fair question. Jesus was, after all, the man who was going round announcing God’s kingdom – the restoring of God’s rule over his people. Did he really believe God’s kingdom – the kingdom of righteousness – would include people who were either wilfully ignorant of God’s law, or deliberately flouting it? Did he really think people in the pay of the hated oppressors of God’s people would be welcome in that kingdom?
Jesus overheard their question and answered it himself. He said, “It’s the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy. I’ve come to call the sinful people, not the righteous.”
Of course, his answer was loaded with irony. The Pharisees were righteous only in the sense that they were self-righteous. They were keeping the letter of God’s law, but not its spirit. That law was, and is, essentially about love. The Pharisees looked down on people, even despised them. Their envy of Jesus’ popularity and power would fester until they ended up hating him so much they joined in the conspiracy to have him killed. No amount of their many good deeds could save them from those sins.
By God’s standard, and according to his word, no one is righteous – not one person. The religious leaders were as much in need of the spiritual healing Jesus came to bring as the people they looked down on. What made it worse for them was their belief that if anyone were ‘in’ with God, they were. It stopped them seeking treatment from the only one who could help them – God himself in the person of Jesus – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In our day we’re up against the influence of two world-views that deny we’re sick. One is the philosophy of humanism, which came out of the teaching of the Enlightenment. It insists that humankind has the power in itself to change the world for the better – that we can foster our innate goodness through education, through the spread of democracy, through the advances of science, through whatever we ourselves can come up with. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many people believe it.
Another influence is the eastern philosophy that there is no god, so there’s no such thing as an absolute standard of good or evil. There is simply cause and effect. Suffering is caused by desire, which we learn to rid ourselves of through meditation. But such detachment from the world and our God-given feelings is light years away from Jesus’ compassion for the world and his involvement in it. It’s also a denial of the truth he taught that we’re sick because we’re sinful.
Even if we don’t like the word ‘sin’, the fact remains that all of us recognise it, and condemn it – when we see it in others. Take the sin of pride. We’re all irritated by people who are conceited – always centred on themselves, alway promoting themselves. No one thinks that’s a good look. Yet who amongst us can honestly say we’re totally free of the urge to promote ourselves?
Along with our willingness to condemn sin in others, we play down the damage our own failings do. So it’s OK to tell necessary lies. It’s OK to borrow and ‘forget’ to return; even other forms of taking what’s not ours are OK, if need be. It’s OK to be careless in our judgements of others. At least, that’s how we might feel – until someone lies to us, or takes from us, or misjudges us. Then we begin to feel the hurt sin causes, and to admit how damaging it is.
But even if we’re really into loving people, in our thoughts and actions as well as our words – even if we are able to love those who hurt us – there’s still more to it than that. We’re designed to relate, first and foremost, to the God who made us relational.
Jesus himself reminded us that the first commandment is to love God, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. However hard we might try to be nice to others and kid ourselves that we always are, who would dare to say they’ve kept God’s first commandment?
God meets the greatest need each one of us has, the healing of our inner beings, as he forgives us and as we forgive each other. All done on the basis of our trust that Jesus died in our place.
One Sunday in New Guinea believers gathered to remember Jesus’ death by sharing in Holy Communion. At one point one young man began to shake uncontrollably. But within a minute he calmed down. The missionary sitting next to him whispered, “Is everything OK?” He said, “The man who just came in killed my father and ate his body, and now he’s here to share in Communion. But I do know it’s alright. We’re both washed in the same precious blood.”
Our gracious God and Father, we admit our souls need healing. Thank you for your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who bought us the forgiveness that heals. Thank you for the Holy Spirit, who enables us to forgive, as we have been forgiven. Amen.