Monday, July 05, 2010

Good Friends

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

From today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 9:1-8] we heard the story of a paralytic who was brought to Christ by his very good friends. Carrying the paralyzed man on a pallet, they arrived only to find that their effort seemed wasted. The crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus speak was so immense it spilled out of the house to fill the whole surrounding area, making it impossible to draw near to the Merciful Healer of souls and bodies.

Most people would have felt defeated at this point and given up any hope of bringing their friend to Jesus that day. Perhaps they even heard a little voice in their heads that told them, “Come back tomorrow, or some other time. There will always be another day to bring your friend to Christ”. Sadly, we know that voice very well, for it whispers suggestions in our heads daily: “Are you really going to pray right now? Don’t you have other things to do first? You can come back later to pray. Are you seriously driving to vespers tonight through all that traffic? Wouldn’t your time be better spent if you stayed home to catch up on your work? There will always be another vespers.” Yes, that little voice in our heads assures us there will always be another time to pray, another service to attend, another opportunity to come to Christ some day. It is of course a demonic voice, but one we are so accustomed to hearing that we follow it almost before it speaks, making the demons’ job at times too easy.

Fortunately for the paralytic, these men were long on determination and short on discouragement. Forgetting the obstacles to focus on the goal, they soon hit upon the solution of making their way, perhaps from housetop to housetop from somewhere down the street, to the roof of the very house where Jesus was. Upon reaching that roof, they tore a gaping hole in it to gently lower their friend on his pallet to a spot right beside the Lord.

Now if that wasn’t unusual enough, what happened next was the kicker. Normally Jesus would engage in a bit of conversation with those who came to Him for healing, but that didn’t happen here at all. Without a single word from anyone, Jesus immediately turned to the paralytic and said to him, “My son, your sins are forgiven”. The scribes who saw this thought Jesus was blaspheming, since no one can forgive sins but God alone. No one can heal paralytics but God alone either, and so Jesus raised the man up as a testimony to all. But let’s not miss the point of why Jesus healed the man so quickly.

What two things always moved Jesus to quick action? One is good faith, and especially good faith on behalf of others. Remember how Jesus praised the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant? Remember how He celebrated the faith of the Canaanite woman who sought the healing of her demon-possessed daughter? Jesus was always moved by strong and persistent faith on behalf of others. The other thing that always moved Him was human helplessness. Though He is the King of Glory, Jesus identifies with the weak and the helpless of this world and always sees Himself in them. He looked down at the paralytic and saw His own image reflected back in a mirror, not of polished metal, but of broken flesh.

Perhaps more than anything, Jesus wants us to gain this same mindset. He wants us to see ourselves and indeed Himself in one another and in all men. This mindset can transform all of our actions in life from being essentially self-centered to being Christ-centered and humanity-centered.

What does it really matter if you are too busy to pray most days? Do you have an idea that it only affects you; that maybe you won’t be as “spiritual” as some others but you’re OK with that? What about the people that you’re not praying for in that case? What about the sick who are lying alone and troubled in their beds? Who will pray for their recovery or that they might not be overcome by fear? What about those who are struggling with temptation and whose very souls may be in the clutches of the devil? Who will deliver them in their hour of need? What about your neighbors’ or co-workers’ well-being or salvation? Who prays for them? What about each other and the families and faithful in this holy community? Shouldn’t we all be committed to praying for one another and for our mutual growth in love, faith, and spiritual understanding?

There are so many people both living and departed who could benefit from our faithful prayers and who indeed do benefit when we remember to pray for them. My point here is not to make us feel guilty, but to raise our understanding concerning our spiritual efforts. These efforts are never just for us, or for our individual, private benefit alone. Whenever we pray for someone else, even with whatever weak and miserable little prayers we offer, we are bringing that person before the throne of the living God, whose power and mercy is infinite. Through our prayers we are literally carrying people to Christ like the good friends carried the paralytic.

This pattern of serving others through our own spiritual efforts is also manifested when we make a habit of being good church-goers. Do you think that coming to church or not only affects yourself? What about the faith and hope you impart to others when they see that being a faithful and supportive member of this holy community and coming together to worship God is important to you? Should you decide to sleep in on Sunday and come to liturgy at your convenience, you’re doing that for yourself. If we skip the weeknight services, don’t support parish activities, and leave financial stewardship to others, we’re acting as if there was not another person in the world who mattered. But when you make the effort to arise early and come to matins like it was important, attend all the services faithfully, and engage yourself in supporting this parish at every level, you’re not just doing this for yourself, but for the faith and encouragement of your brothers and sisters as well.

This is exactly what the scriptures repeatedly command us to do, to be faithful and build one another up in the parish family. And remember that those were written at a time when coming to church ran the risk of arrest and martyrdom. In an age in which heavy traffic or busy schedules or a good ballgame can be enough to keep many Christians from church, a different level of martyrdom is required. In this case, not a martyrdom of blood--which we would never have the faith or courage to offer anyway--but a martyrdom of simply putting the needs of others ahead of our own, of loving people more than we love ourselves.

The next time you hear that little voice suggest to you that you’re too busy to pray, ask yourself, “Does that mean I am too busy to love those who need my prayers?” When you once again hit that snooze alarm on Sunday morning, ask, “Shall I not arise and support my brethren who are faithfully making their way to church right now?” From little self-sacrifices like these--which really don’t cost us all that much though they often are difficult to do because of our self-love--we can grow steadily toward the Christian mindset found in Jesus of identifying with all men and serving all men.

This is what makes all the difference in our spiritual efforts: seeing that we must do them not just for ourselves alone, but for others. Guided by this, even our simplest efforts can become a means of bringing others to Christ. We must never do things only for ourselves, but always with others in mind. This is what can make us good friends to one another and to all mankind, like the good men in our gospel lesson today.

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

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