I am about to do a new thing.
God declares this through Isaiah’s words and in Jesus’ actions in our lessons this morning.
Jesus had only been in active, public ministry for a few weeks, but word about him had spread throughout the region. Jesus was teaching all sorts of incredible new ideas about God. And not only that, Jesus was also doing incredible things. He was sending demons flying and healing little old ladies. Even though he wanted to maintain a low profile and asked those he healed not to tell others about him, those who had received his healings could not help but go on and on about Jesus to their friends and family.
When friends of a paralytic heard about Jesus, they knew their friend needed to meet him. We don’t get the whole story about this paralytic, but we do get a sense of the energy around him. His friends were so committed to having him healed, they traveled to Capernaum, to the house where Jesus was staying. Unfortunately, once they got there they could not get in the door, because so many people were crowding around Jesus, wanting healings.
The paralytic’s friends were not to be denied. They somehow climbed onto the roof, hauled the paralytic onto the roof, and began digging. Rooves in towns like Capernaum were made of slats of wood, filled in with mud, rocks, and big flat leaves. These friends tore through the outer layer, began shoveling mud and rocks out with their hands or small tools, and eventually broke through.
I wonder if the people in side the house could hear the commotion they made. Was it so crowded that Jesus could not hear what was going on? Or, was Jesus amused by their efforts and simply waiting patiently for the paralytic’s arrival.
All we know is, when the friends finally broke through the roof and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus, everything stopped. Whatever teaching or healing was going on was halted by this abrupt arrival of a man being lowered down on a pallet.
Jesus took this opportunity, the faith of this man and his friends, to teach the crowd around him something new.
The crowd had heard about Jesus’s ability to exorcise demons and to heal, but Jesus wanted to show them that he wasn’t just a miracle worker, he wasn’t just a showman, he was God.
God says, I am doing a new thing.
Little did the friends of the paralytic know that their grit, their determination would be the background God would use to announce his presence on earth, and his intention to heal humanity, not just from physical infirmity, but from sin.
Now, after two thousand years hearing about how Jesus forgives us our sins, we start to take this information for granted and forgiveness loses some of the emotional power it once had.
However, we must remember that when God came to earth in and through Jesus, the Jewish powers of the day were deeply into legalism -being a good Jew meant following all the rules, crossing all the Ts and dotting all the I’s. Though in the past, God had tried to communicate that he was less interested in ritual sacrifice and ritual prayer than authentic worship and service to the poor and needy, the message had not gotten through to the people.
The idea that a human being would claim to be able to forgive sins, was completely absurd-blasphemous even! No human being could forgive sins. Yet, here sits Jesus, calmly telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven-and, by the way, that he can walk again.
But really, when you think about it, the healing of the body and the forgiving of sin are more connected than one might think. What is sin, but a kind of brokenness? It makes perfect sense that the God who wants to heal us physically, also wants to heal our spirits. Forgiveness is not just about divine, eternal consequences for our behavior. Forgiveness is about restoring a right relationship with our creator and with our neighbor.
While humans are made in God’s image and have wonderful capacity to be creative and loving individuals, we also are fundamentally broken. None of us loves perfectly, none of us is perfectly honest or good. Despite the Jews of Jesus’ time having a list of 600 very specific rules to follow, no one seemed to be able to follow them all perfectly, no matter how hard they tried.
In our culture today, we don’t’ have 600 religious laws, but we do have an image of perfection we try to follow subconsciously. Being competent, having the appearance of being “together” is incredibly important.
But, what if God is doing a new thing?
This week, Chuck and I had the interesting experience of meeting with a local therapist who has a vision. Over the years of his ministry, he has encountered individuals and couples who can admit their brokenness to him and to each other, but these same people continue to pretend to their friends and to their churches that everything about their life is together and perfect.
This therapist believes that true healing occurs in community. Therapy is a wonderful tool that can help people deepen relationships with each other, but this therapist would love his counseling sessions to be simply a beginning for his clients. That like Henri Nouwen’s wounded healer, his clients could use their painful experiences and their experiences of forgiveness to propel them into community and into ministry. This therapist envisions a ministry in which he counsels people in their church buildings, and that the community life of church and the private work of therapy ultimately partner together.
I think the image of the paralytic’s friend’s lowering him onto the mat is a wonderful example of this kind of community. The paralytic was in a situation where his problem could not be hidden. He obviously could not walk. His friends did not hold back, ignoring his problem in order not to embarrass him. No, they were engaged with him, and committed to his healing. They were so committed they tore through a roof so he could see Jesus.
Now, I don’t know if this therapist’s ministry will be successful, but I know from personal experience that the combination of therapy and intentional community can be a powerful vehicle for the work of God.
From 1999 until 2002 I was part of a small group Bible study in Richmond. About seven of us met weekly to study the bible and pray together. In that way, we looked like any other bible study. The difference was that four of us were in therapy, two were getting degrees in counseling and one was married to one of the counselors! It was while I was in this group that I left the evangelical church to become an Episcopalian, experienced the death of my mother, and discerned a call to the priesthood. Words cannot express the powerful ways God used this group as we each faced the brokenness in our lives and came together to support, challenge and pray for each other. This community held my brokenness tenderly, protecting and loving me, so I could grow into the person God wanted me to be. We also had a ridiculous amount of fun together and became a true community, even outside of the Bible Study.
At times the intimacy we achieved felt very risky, especially as my theological ideas were changing, but despite our theological differences, or perhaps because of them, we were able to each deepen our faith and learn about God. For me, these six friends were my pallet carriers. They brought me to Jesus, reminding me of his love and forgiveness for me over and over again.
Obviously therapy and small groups are not the only ways to live in deep community with one another. However, we ARE called to be in deep community. Throughout history, God has called communities of faith, rather than individuals. We gather together as a church every Sunday, because it is impossible for us to discern God’s call as individuals. We need each other to fully realize our faith. We need each other to carry each other when we cannot walk. We need each other to express God’s forgiveness when we feel only guilt.
So, maybe it’s God who needs US to do a new thing-to trust him and trust each other to live authentic lives in community.