Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Paralytic

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

“Christ is risen!”

Today’s gospel lesson [John 5:1-15] centers on our Lord’s healing of the paralyzed man beside the pool at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. I’d like to take two approaches in examining this story. First we’ll consider the spiritual meaning of the Sheep Gate pool and the miracles of healing once associated with it. This pool has far more significance to us than we may realize. Secondly we’ll take a closer look at the paralyzed man himself to see if there is something in his character that we might want to emulate. Can we identify some characteristic that made him, let’s say, more “receptive” to the grace of God, and can we adopt this to our own benefit?

So let us begin with the Sheep Gate pool. This was the spot where the sheep who were bound for sacrifice in the Temple were ritualistically washed. It was a filthy and unpleasant place to be and the only reason people were found there was because of an invisible angel who would come at certain seasons to stir up the waters and infuse them with healing power. John tells us that the first person to step into the pool after the stirring of the water would be healed of whatever disease he had. For this reason, great numbers of invalids, the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed would gather at those times in hopes of winning the liquid lottery and going home healed.

The Sheep Pool was a type of the baptismal font. Even long before these miracles of healing began to take place, the washing of the sheep who were bound for sacrifice in the Temple pointed to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who one day would also pass through waters before His voluntary sacrifice upon the cross. Christ appeared and was baptized in the Jordan, this time not for His cleansing, but for ours. He hallowed the streams of the Jordan, making the waters of the baptismal font the means of our purification and cleansing from all sin.

As the time of Christ’s appearing drew near, God intensified the prophetic revelation, introducing a new element into the picture by sending divine power into the Sheep Pool, manifesting in miracles of physical healing. The intent of this action was to prepare the Jews to embrace Christian baptism as something much more than just a ritualistic cleansing, but as the mystical new birth of water and the Spirit, during which the Holy Spirit Himself descends into the font to make it the fountain of incorruption, the remedy of infirmities, the laver of regeneration, initiating the healing of soul and of body by uniting the baptismal candidate to the life-giving and glorified humanity of Christ.

We see what great mercy God showed to the Jews by patiently manifesting these signs to them, in an effort to lead them to Christ! Even the afflictions of the people beside the pool represent the many spiritual illnesses which Christian baptism heals. It heals the blind, whose spiritual eyes are darkened so that they cannot distinguish good from evil, the lame, who neither practice virtue nor make any spiritual progress, and the utterly paralyzed, who are in complete despair because of their inability to accomplish anything good.

When the fullness of time had come and the Son of God finally appeared among men, He came deliberately to the Sheep Pool and healed the man with the worst affliction present. He did this to demonstrate that He was the true Lamb of God “who taketh away the sins of the world,” bringing complete salvation to humanity. But He also picked this particular man to heal, in order to reveal the good spirit within him as an example to us.

Our Lord approached the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and had been lying beside the pool for perhaps as long a time and asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Today we would consider that to be, what we might call, a stupid question. I mean, what’s the man supposed to say: “No thank you; I’m just here working on my tan”? It might be hard for us to imagine not feeling frustrated or offended by such a question. But here we get some real insights into the character of this man.

First, we see that through his sufferings he had learned to be patient and to not lose hope. Is that even possible? To our way of thinking if a person suffers, and especially if he suffers for a very long time, he is supposed to become angry and cynical, right? And this guy had suffered terribly. Time after time the waters were stirred up by the angel, and each time some other person, less needy than he, vaulted into the pool ahead of him. No one took pity on him or would help him, but everyone shoved him back to put themselves first. Over the years he was repeatedly exposed to the selfish worst that humanity can display, but he didn’t allow it to darken his soul. He rose above it all by keeping a steadfast hope in God and remaining pure in heart and simple in thought.

When Jesus came to him and asked if he wanted to be healed, it was the man’s hope that answered, saying, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the water”. No doubt he had prayed many years for God to send someone to help him, and he thought perhaps that Jesus was the answer to his prayer. Boy, was he ever right! And what a beautiful soul this man had formed within himself by this time. He was not beaten down, discouraged, and resentful, but full of expectation to see his prayers answered and the mercy of God finally revealed.

Do we recognize that the difficulties we face in our own lives can either destroy us or turn us into beautiful souls as well? When we are faced with struggles, do we allow ourselves to become angry and resentful, to question or blame God, or complain “Why me?” as if somehow we deserved a trouble-free life? Maybe we do at first, but we can learn to adopt a better response. We can learn to accept that there is no salvation without bearing our cross, or without facing struggle of some kind and of some duration in our lives. We’d rather not suffer, but when we see that we can endure it with patience and with hope, trusting in God to use it to purify and perfect us, then our struggles and sufferings truly become the means of our salvation and lift us up rather than wear us down. This is true whether our struggles are physical, emotional, or spiritual in nature.

Struggles, difficulties, and suffering appear and will continue to appear in our lives. There’s little we can do to prevent that from happening. But we can choose whether we will allow these things to bring us to God or turn us against Him; to instill in us hope, or to crush us entirely. I’m sure we’ve known people whose problems have only made them more joyful and confident in God, and others who became grim and darkened and now want very little to do with Him. And the choice between those two states is ours as well.

May we follow the good example of the paralytic and allow a simple, pure, and steadfast trust in God to grant us beautiful souls and life eternal.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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