by Robert Brow
Our topic today is paralysis. The man in our Gospel reading was paralyzed. In modern language we would say he had a stroke. Some people have mini strokes, some are paralyzed down one side, and their speech is difficult. This man was totally paralyzed, and he could not even speak.
Most of the time when we are sick our bodies heal themselves. Doctors don't heal us. They merely free the body to do its work. Jesus did not use surgery, nor did he prescribe drugs. All he did was by the power of the Holy Spirit. And in this case it was the power of the Holy Spirit that freed this man's body to heal itself. So it is good to remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is the life giver and the freedom giver. Which is why there is nothing more healing than being filled with the Holy Spirit.
In our day modern medicine is constantly learning new ways to free our bodies to heal themselves. Last week we saw how there is now medication to free the body of a leper to recover from leprosy. There are drugs that help the body to defeat T.B. If a stroke victim can get to hospital quick enough, there is an injection which frees the body to recover much more quickly. Doctors can also provide some relief for people with psychiatric problems. What doctors are less able to do is to free our minds to be like little children again. Little children are enthusiastic, they are warm and loving, they love to play and they love to learn new things, and they quickly forget a quarrel.
But our adult minds are easily paralyzed. We talk about being "paralyzed with fear." We can be paralyzed with anxiety. People say "I can't put my mind to do anything." Writers who have been writing thousands of words a day suddenly get writer's block. Artists find they lack inspiration, and only looking to the Holy Spirit will free them to create again. So let me pick out three kinds of paralysis of the mind for which doctors can do very little, but the Holy Spirit can work wonders.
1. Paralysis of the Will This is described exactly by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:18,19). Martin Luther called this "the bondage of the will." When Paul became a Christian he soon discovered that he was not free to adopt most of the attitudes he now longed to live by. Loving enemies was hard enough, but loving God was not part of his normal agenda. As he wrote to the Galatians, love and joy and peace and self-control were beautiful fruits that he could not grow by trying a bit harder. He could only be freed to produce them by the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
This is why it is no use trying to lecture those addicted to gambling, alcoholism, drugs, or sexual promiscuity. Young people have tended to view churches as places where they will be disapproved of, told off about their bad habits, and made to feel thoroughly guilty. But where there are congregations which offer the power of the Holy Spirit to free them to be beautiful people they will come in gladly.
Sin is not doing this or that bad thing, but a total inability to produce spiritual fruits. As Paul explained, it is easy enough to produce what he called works done by one's own willpower. "The works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing (Galatians 5:19-20). Anyone can decide by an act of will to be sexually immoral, make an idol, make an enemy, cause dissension, get drunk. But beautiful fruit comes from the sap in our branch. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
That is why, as Paul tried to change, he said "If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me" (Romans 7:20). And he goes on to thank God for the amazing power of the Spirit to help him be what he really longed to be (Romans 8:4-5).
2. Paralysis of Tradition Tradition is defined as "a custom, opinion, or belief handed down to posterity." Often the tradition began harmlessly enough as a helpful way to order our lives. But in the case of the Pharisees of Jesus' day tradition had totally destroyed people's joy and creativity. The result was that "You abandon the commandment of God to keep your tradition" (Mark 7:9). God had lovingly ordered one day in seven for rest and recreation. It was meant to be a joyful happy day. The Pharisees had made it into a miserable sabbath for obeying 39 rules of what could be done and not done. Jesus told them the sabbath was made for human beings not for humans to be paralyzed by meaningless rules (Mark 2:27).
The Jewish people had food laws which had been sensible for the heat of the wilderness wanderings in the Sinai desert, but now made it impossible for Christians to eat together. Jesus swept them aside to the horror of the Pharisee traditionalists. " Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" And Mark adds the comment "Thus he declared all foods clean."
Similarly in the Anglican Church we have inherited all sorts of English Victorian traditions, which may have been useful in their day, but which have no relevance in the modern world. Men had to wear suits on Sunday, people made remarks if a woman wore a pant suit. Nor could women serve as wardens, take up the offering, or help with the bread and wine at communion. A service was judged by how many rules were kept exactly, not by how people were freed by the Spirit to love and be creative.
But young people also have their traditions. Their traditions change much more rapidly, but they really take away the freedom of those who are hooked into them. "If you want to be cool with us, this is the way you must dress, and talk, listen to music, use drugs, start having sex by the time you are twelve." Instead of moralizing, we need to let them know that there is the mighty power of the Holy Spirit which can free them from such terrible bondage
The most severe traditions are self-imposed. Anorexia requires a girl to starve herself till she is waifer thin, and within an inch of death. Some have obsessive compulsions to keep washing their hands, not to cross bridges, do everything three times over. Others were trained to be private, and never to let anyone too close into their lives. We should not imagine that the paralysis of tradition can be cured in a day, but looking to the Holy Spirit to free us is always a very good start.
3. Paralysis of Guilt Notice that the first thing Jesus did when the paralyzed man was lowered through the verandah tiles. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." There is obviously a very close connection between our mind and our body. And in this case it seems it had been an experience of terrible guilt that had given this man the stroke which had totally paralyzed his body. Every Sunday we declare that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. The problem is that many of us imagine that our own particular sin, failure, habit, or denial of faith excludes us for ever. We assume that God will never forgive us, or use us in effective service. That is a lie. There is no one Jesus will not welcome. And as we come to him and accept his words, "Your sins are forgiven," the paralyzing power of guilt is broken.
Jesus not only had the power to free the man who was totally paralyzed
in his body. But he has the power to free us from every kind of paralysis
of the mind that binds us.