5/13/18 “Fly: Daring New Heights
I was an adult the first time I flew in an airplane.
I had just moved to Columbus in mid May of 1985 with Kmart and the company allowed me to fly home over Memorial Day weekend that year for my anniversary and to see my five month old daughter. I had only been in Columbus for 2 weeks, my family hadn’t relocated yet, and I was staying in motel in Grove City. So getting to fly home, rather than drive 7 hours each way as a treat. I flew from Columbus to Indianapolis in a larger plane, but the flight from Indy to Evansville, the nearest airport to my home was aboard a regional carrier’s turbo prop plane that held maybe 20 people. There was one row of seats down each side of the aisle and the only thing separating the cabin from the cockpit was a curtain - an open curtain. The first part of the flight from Columbus to Indy was smooth but the flight to Evansville was turbulent. Storms brought lightning and thunder, hard rain, and strong winds that tossed the plane back and forth, seemingly bouncing it off the sides of clouds. And I remember, as we descended to land in Evansville, with that cockpit curtain open, I could see the runway lights. And I could see when we were lined up with them, and when we weren’t. I could see how much the plane was moving back and forth, up and down, twisting and turning as we got closer and closer to the ground, and then right at the last moment everything calmed and we touched down on the ground. It was frightening, but at the same time it was exhilarating! And one might think after having that as a first flight experience I would never fly again, but I love flying. I look forward to trips we take where we can fly.
Last year, Lynn and the girls, knowing how much I love flying, bought me an introductory flight lesson that I took up at Don Scott field. I have to admit I was quite nervous going into it, but once we were airborn and I had control of the plane, it was a blast. I subsequently decided against going ahead with additional flight lessons after that for one simple reason - I can play an awful lot of golf for the cost of getting a pilot’s license and renting airplanes to fly, and I couldn’t justify, or afford, both. So I find other ways to enjoy that or similar sensations. I enjoy playing flight simulation video games for one. And while it is land-locked, I really enjoy driving my convertible with the top down and the wind whistling all around me. There’s something about not having that roof over my head while driving that reminds me of flying - it’s not the same, but it kind of scratches that itch for me. Maybe it’s feeling closer to or being able to see the sky more clearly that is the fascination for me. Or perhaps it’s because a roof is designed to keep things out - like rain, snow, and hail - that at the same time it seems very constricting to me, I don’t know.
I do know that I’m not the only one who experiences these kinds of longings. The desire for openness and views of the sky are well represented in architectural design. Whether its large windows and skylights in residential architecture, or the advent of retractable roofs in sports stadiums from baseball, to football, to tennis, the desire to see and perhaps, be one with the sky is common. When the people in our story today did a DIY skylight installation in Jesus’ house though, I don’t think it was the view of the stars and the sky that motivated them. Let’s look more closely at this story.
The chapter begins with the line, “after a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home.” Jesus has returned, to Capernaum, and is “at home.” According to Mark, it was in Capernaum that Jesus made a home for himself. And in this first story that we read today, the home in which Jesus is preaching is Jesus’ own house in Capernaum; it’s Jesus’ roof that is torn off in order to lower the paralyzed man into the room. This little detail suggests to us that the house is of typical Palestinian design, where the houses had roofs made of mud and branches in which, when accessed by an outside set of stairs, a hole could be made. It also goes against the argument that some have made that Jesus was homeless. According to Mark, Jesus’ home in Capernaum was the base of operations for his ministry.
And we find Jesus leading what was basically a “house church” in his own home, with people crowded around everywhere. Four men approach, carrying a mat or stretcher on which lies a fifth man who is paralyzed. There were so many people around, Mark tells us, that the door was blocked and they were unable to get inside. So, being enterprising and creative persons, they made their way to the roof, dug through the mud, clay, and branches from which the roof would have been constructed, and lowered the mat bearing the man down to Jesus’ feet. We don’t know Jesus’ reaction to this newly hewn hole in his roof, but we do know that his reaction to this man and his friends was one of compassion.
And Mark writes that Jesus, when he saw their faith, said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
So let’s unpack this a little bit. What does Jesus say, and what doe he not say in this passage? A cursory reading would suggest that the man’s disability is linked to his sinfulness. After all, he clearly needs to be healed of his paralysis and the first thing Jesus says is “your sins are forgiven.” That was certainly the commonly held belief in that time, going back to the early books of the Bible. But remember, Jesus contradicts that thinking when, at another time outside the Temple, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he is crippled?” and Jesus responded, “neither.” That is, disability is not tied to, connected with, or the result of a disabled person’s sinfulness. We’re all sinful - if that were the connection we wouldn’t have room in here for all the wheelchairs we would need! No, Jesus denies the existence of a cause-effect connection between disability and sinfulness. The subsequent challenge from the legal experts helps us to understand better what Jesus means:
“Why does he speak this way? He’s insulting God. Only the one God can forgive sins.”
8 Jesus immediately recognized what they were discussing, and he said to them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? 9 Which is easier—to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’? 10 But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed, 11 “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”
The issue in this story isn’t about a link between sinfulness and disability, the issue is the nature of who Jesus is and what he can do. The legal experts think him a blashphemer for declaring the forgiveness of sins - never mind that this paralyzed man can now walk - something they also believed only God can do. Jesus, on the other hand is saying that the Human One, the Son of Man, fully human yet fully empowered by God, is capable of those very things that they think only possible with God, both forgive sins and make a lame man walk.
And so, assuming a somewhat snarky tone with them, Jesus asks “which is easier, to say this or to say that? But just so you’ll know upon whose authority I work, get up, take your bed, and go!”
And with that, Jesus blew the roof off everything they thought they knew about the law and faith and sin and health and God. This man who had been carried in by friends and lowered through a hole in the roof, rose up to his full height, picked up the bed upon which he had lived, and walked out the door. You can imagine how the crowd of people must have parted like the Red Sea to let him pass through. It’s an amazing story!
Today, besides being the Seventh Sunday after Easter in the liturgical calendar, is also what is known as Ascension Sunday - the Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ ascension before Pentecost, which is next Sunday.
And that reading from the lectionary imagines Jesus rising up above us and, as the Apostles Creed says, “ascending into heaven.”
But even as that story often makes us think of Jesus as “up there,” Theologian Peter Woods offers a different perspective that is also worth considering.
Talking about how the paralytic man’s friends had to lower the man down to Jesus, he notes “sometimes Jesus is not above us, but below,” and suggests that sometimes it is we who are ascendent when we have an encounter with Jesus down here.
And he says, “As the bed hit the dirt floor in front of Jesus and I heard him say, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”, I suddenly remembered that [the great theologian] Paul Tillich had the insight that in that moment Jesus wasn’t forgiving the sins of the paralyzed one, he was proclaiming that in the sight of God the man was sinless.”
And he goes on to say, as I suggested earlier,
“In Jesus day, (and more subtly in ours), religion proclaimed that human suffering was the consequence of human failure. Sufferers had done something very wrong to slight God or at least upset the balance of the rules of prosperity. To be sick or invalid was to have broken the rules. This gospel story underlines that Jesus didn’t have to forgive sins. He simply had to point out that God wasn’t offended by humanity. (Another way of understanding “Your sins are forgiven“) Grasping that - I am not an offense to God neither am I an offender - was such a liberation that often the perceived penalty would disappear as the perceived offense was annulled. Healing happened.”
And I think that’s what this passage is about.
The idea that the God who is love and who invites us to consider God as a loving parent would inflict disease, or disability, or death on someone because they have somehow offended God, is the really offensive notion that, as Woods says, “has held the Church, and Christians, captive and paralyzed for millennia.
Isn’t it time we blew the roof off that lie and walked out of the prisons of our fearful dogma?”
Jesus raised up this man who had been held down by society as much as by his disease. And this man, flat on his back for who knows how long, not only rose up and walked, but his spirit took wing and flew. While Jesus did tell the man that his sins are forgiven, he never implies that he is sick because he sinned. Culture, society, and religion read that into the story. No, as Donald Gowan reminds us, “Sin and sickness do come together in Jesus’ work; not because one is necessarily the cause of the other, but because he came to save us from both. Each involves a different kind of alienation.”
Jesus doesn’t ask about where the illness comes from or who or what has caused it. It’s not about sin or guilt or an explanation of any kind. What is crucial in this story is that in the presence and action of Jesus, sin, illness, even death, lose their power. Jesus brings forgiveness and healing, not one after the other, not one because of the other, he brings them together in order to restore the man to wholeness and to lift him up in his humanity and belovedness.
So what are we to take from this story?
What questions might we ask ourselves as a result of hearing this passage? Perhaps we should ask, what are we doing, either intentionally or unintentionally, as a congregation or as individuals, that is blocking the access of others to the worship and service of God, especially those who are somehow disabled or who have been marginalized by society or the church? Are we, as one pastor cleverly suggested, a church where the paralyzed man cannot be carried through the front door “because all the church people are in the way, and they are refusing to move from their seats?” Or, are we a church that, like the friends of the paralytic, will go to any length, will find creative and innovative solutions, will blow the roof off of whatever holds us back, from being faithful as Jesus is faithful, to those in our community who need us to be stretcher-bearers for them? Are we willing to be tenacious, imaginative, and bold in our efforts to to make sure those we’re called to share Christ’s love and compassion with have full access to the life of our faith community?
Christ invites us to blast through those roofs, those ceilings, glass or otherwise, that hold us back from living fully into, and inviting others to live fully into, that way of life that is being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
If we will dismiss that debilitating dogma and embrace the love and compassion that is faith in Jesus Christ, then he will enable us to fly, daring new heights, for the kingdom of God. Amen.