If we’re going to understand Jesus, we have to get to know him as a healer. The gospels are filled with stories of his healing words and touch. If we were to remove all the stories of healing from the gospels, there wouldn’t be a whole lot left. I used to have a little book I picked up in seminary called Jesus: Sketches for a Portrait. Each chapter in the book took a look at Jesus from a different angle: Jesus as Guide, as Teacher, Leader, Stranger and so on. It was an interesting book. But to me, it is the healing ministry of Jesus that is at the center of it all. If Jesus had not been a healer, we probably would never have heard of him.
This story from Luke is a good example. It comes fairly early in the gospel, but already we find it placed after several other healing stories. His reputation has already spread far and wide and he has managed to gather a large following. Luke says the crowd that gathered was from “every village of Galilee, and Judea and from Jerusalem.” That’s huge. It’s practically the whole country of Israel. Luke was probably exaggerating, but the point is that even in the early days of his ministry, Jesus was already fast becoming exactly what Andrew Lloyd Webber called him: a Superstar.
Now on this particular day, scattered among the crowd were Scribes and Pharisees. They were experts in the law and representatives of the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme Jewish council at the time. The Sanhedrin was something like our congress but with religious, as well as political authority. The Scribes and Pharisees were the defenders of orthodoxy. They were there to judge whether Jesus was a false prophet; to make sure he was staying within the lines of “the true faith.” In the timeline of this story, it’s too early to assume that they were necessarily opposed to Jesus. They had come, likely, to check out the rumors that were circulating about him; about his teachings and his healings.
The Scribes and the Pharisees often get a bad rap in the gospels. They are usually portrayed as opposing Jesus and trying to trip him up. But just maybe, on this day at least, they came prepared to be open minded. After all, they were waiting for the messiah as much as anyone else was. Maybe they began this day with a willingness to at least entertain the possibility that Jesus might just be the genuine article. But certainly, they wanted to make sure that nothing he said or did violated their understanding of holiness; their understanding of what the messiah was supposed to be.
It reminds me a little of the Soviet Union a few years back. Before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested he was widely recognized as a powerful writer and speaker, a very influential person. So naturally, the state authorities assigned men to follow him around and keep track of what he said and did. They were there to see if Solzhenitsyn was going to step over the line. Eventually he did and they sent him to prison. In much the same way, the authorities were there to keep a close eye on Jesus.
That being the case, we can assume that the atmosphere in this courtyard was highly charged. There was a big crowd, with lots of energy and tension all centered on Jesus. Suddenly, there is a commotion overhead. Some enterprising people figured out that they could get through the crowd by climbing onto the roof, removing some of the roof tiles, and lowering a stretcher at Jesus’ feet. On the stretcher lay a paralyzed man who clearly believed, or at least hoped, that Jesus had the power to heal. The crowd becomes silent, holding their breath, watching to see what Jesus will do. Jesus is deeply touched by the faith of this man and his friends. He decides to give them what they came for. He leans over and says to the man… What? … “Your sins are forgiven.”
Now, to us, this is sort of confusing. But, to those who were there that day, these words would have sent a shock wave through the entire crowd. This was blasphemy of the highest order; a slap in the very face of God. “Your sins are forgiven.” With these words, the worst fears of the Scribes and Pharisees were confirmed. This man was a dangerous false prophet and had to be dealt with. This is a little hard for us to appreciate. Today we don’t take blasphemy very seriously at all. We make jokes about people being struck down by lightening for taking God’s name in vain, but I don’t know anyone who thinks it would actually ever happen. In ancient Israel however, blasphemy was a capital offense, punishable by stoning to death.
The reason that these words of Jesus were blasphemous has to do with the ancient understanding of illness. In the Hebrew mind, all sickness was the result of sin. Everyone knew that those who were sick were being punished by God for their sins. If Jesus had simply said, “Stand Up and Walk,” the crowd would have been amazed and excited. They would have understood that the power of God was at work in Jesus for healing. That would have been fine. They would have been ecstatic! But the forgiveness of sin was altogether different. This was something only God could do. So, when Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” he was making himself equal with God. This was not something the authorities could tolerate. For this offense, as crazy as it may sound to us, they would have been completely justified in putting Jesus to death right where he stood. Of course, they would probably would have had a riot on their hands.
Before they had a chance to react though, Jesus turned the tables on them. “Which is easier,” he asked. “To say ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’” Good question. Think about it. If Jesus was a false prophet, even though it was dangerous to talk that way, obviously, it would be far easier to say “your sins are forgiven.” If you say, “stand up and walk,” everyone’s going to notice if it doesn’t happen. But saying, “your sins are forgiven?” Who could check that out? Who could prove you were lying? But Jesus wasn’t satisfied to simply offer a vague and untestable forgiveness. He goes on to say that in order to demonstrate that he does in fact have the authority to forgive sin, he will not only heal the man’s soul, but also his body. “Stand up and walk,” he says, and when the man does, the place comes unglued.
This is a beautiful moment. It throws the Scribes and Pharisees into confusion. They were certain Jesus could not possibly have the authority to forgive sins. And yet the man could not have been healed unless his sins had in fact been forgiven. Jesus must have the authority he claimed. He must actually be the messiah. Yet they could not believe or accept it. They could not embrace Jesus as the one for whom they had been waiting. And because they couldn’t accept Jesus for who and what he was, it set them on a collision course that ultimately led to the cross, and beyond. This is a very dramatic story.
Which is easier? Imagine yourself going to a doctor. You have a broken arm, or a ruptured appendix, or whatever. You’re ushered into an examining room to wait. Eventually the doctor comes in, asks a few questions, looks in your eyes and ears, depresses your tongue, listens to your lungs. Then he places his hands on your shoulders, looks deeply into your eyes and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” How do you think you’d respond? Personally, I think I’d call a lawyer. I’d tell that doctor, “Listen, I came here so you could fix my body. My sins, whatever they may be, are none of your business.” But that’s because we don’t connect physical and spiritual healing in the same way the Hebrews did. Mostly we expect our doctors to heal our bodies and leave our souls the heck alone. Truth is, these days, we don’t even like our pastors to mess with our souls all that much.
Maybe though, that is beginning to change. There are a lot of people who are coming to understand that our souls and our bodies are deeply and intimately and irrevocably connected with one another. We’re starting to recognize that many of our illnesses and unhealthy behaviors have their roots in our psychological, emotional and spiritual disjointedness. Illness often begins in our loneliness, grief, guilt, fear, and sense of isolation. We now know that much of what goes on in our bodies has everything to do with what goes on in our souls.
William Barclay, the well-known bible commentator from the last century, once told a story about a young woman who worked as a piano player during the days of silent movies. This was back when most everyone smoked most every chance they got. Her job was to provide some background music for the silent images flickering on the screen. However, over the course of time, as she performed her job, she became increasingly tense and nervous. When the lights went out and the smoke from people’s cigarettes began to fill the dark theater, she became paralyzed and unable to play. She fought against this paralysis but eventually it got the best of her. Doctors suggested various treatments but none of them made any difference until she visited a hypnotist.
Under hypnosis it was discovered that when this woman was an infant, only a few weeks old, the curtain over her crib had caught fire when her mother carelessly dropped a cigarette she was smoking. Without knowing it, the woman had been carrying around a sub-conscious fear of dark, smoky rooms all her life. She literally became frozen in terror. The pathway to her healing required going back to face that experience and learning to forgive her mother. What goes on in our bodies has everything to do with what goes on in our souls. So, often, “stand up and walk,” does require that our sins be healed first.
Now I know what at least some of you must be thinking. What sin did this woman commit? The sin of lying in her crib and being the helpless victim of a fire she didn’t start? We think that way because we fundamentally do not understand the nature of sin. We’ve been taught to believe that sin is a moral failure. It is the bad things we do, the bad thoughts we have, the bad actions we take, that we may legitimately be held accountable for. Bad! Bad! Bad! Folks, no matter what you may have heard elsewhere, that is not actually what sin is. At least that is not the best way of understanding what it is.
Sin is separation. It is alienation. It is an illness of the soul. It is being out of touch, out of harmony, with our true selves. It is the break that exists between the partial and incomplete selves we usually are, and the whole, complete and perfect selves we were created to be, and still in fact are deep inside. From time to time I’ve heard people say, “Hey, I go to a liberal church because I don’t want to hear about sin.” In my last church, I had someone tell me he had invited a friend to come to worship with him. His invitation went something like this. “Come to our church. Our pastor never talks about sin.” Of course, that Sunday I did. Which, I admit, is a bit unusual for me, but not unheard of.
Some of you might want to dispute that we are a liberal church. But honestly, in the two years I’ve been here I can’t say I’ve heard a single one of you clamoring for me to talk about sin. And that’s fine with me. We don’t talk about it … much. But on those few occasions when we do talk about it, please understand. Sin is not primarily about immoral behavior. Sin is about reconciliation with God. Sin is about our need for healing. Sin is just a name we give to whatever it is in our lives that needs to be dealt with so that healing can take place. Some of those things may in fact be moral failures, but some of them may not be. If the word bothers you by all means don’t use it. But the bible does use it, a lot. So, it’s probably just as well for us to know what it means.
The “sin” of a child in the crib was not anything she did wrong. It was simply the paralyzing and legitimate fear of dying in a smoke-filled crib. A fear which grew in her and ultimately alienated her from her own joy and freedom. Her sin was a sub-conscious terror that came to so dominate her life that she literally could not move. It was a sickness in her soul that was getting in the way of her being the person that God created her to be. And the message she needed to hear was, “Your sins are forgiven, whether you caused them or not. So, stand up and walk.”
We need forgiveness so much, in more ways than we imagine. There is so much baggage that we carry through our lives. Things we feel we have to drag around with us because we believe that’s simply the way it is. We may never even know, on a deep level, that as far as God is concerned it is perfectly all right to put them down, to let them go. We need to forgive ourselves, and accept forgiveness, not only for the things we have done and/or left undone, but even for things we haven’t done, but have somehow gotten ourselves trapped in.
You know, during last year’s campaign, our president made a big deal out of the fact that he has never asked God for forgiveness. I think that’s a shame. What it says to me, is that he doesn’t understand, or at least he is not willing to admit, how much he needs it, how much we all need it. I say that, not as a democrat, this is not about politics. I say that as a pastor. The idea that we should never seek forgiveness lines up perfectly with the notion that we should never apologize for anything. We should never admit that we’ve made mistakes or done anything wrong because it makes us look weak.
This is a very common belief right now. Needing forgiveness is for losers. But, can you see the connection between this kind of belief and the fact that our churches are having so much trouble attracting members? If you don’t believe you need forgiveness, why would you go to a place that says you do? Forgiveness, is the business we are in. But it’s not selling well these days. Truly taking to heart the message of our faith requires a level of humility that is not very popular lately.
The traditional language of our theology says that this is sin, and the pathway to overcome it is forgiveness: not just giving, but also receiving. When we don’t seek forgiveness, the sickness of our souls often manifests itself as illness in our bodies. When it does that, what we need to know, before we can stand up and walk, is that we are forgiven.
Calvin and Hobbes is that wonderful old cartoon strip drawn by Bill Watterson, in which a six-year-old boy, Calvin, exercises his vivid imagination to recreate the world around him. His constant companion is his toy tiger doll, Hobbes, who becomes a full-sized friend when grown-ups aren’t around. In one particular series, the two of them have fled in panic up a tree to hide because they pushed the family car down the driveway and lost control of it. His mother spots Calvin in the tree. “There you are,” she says. “Come down so I can talk to you.” “No,” Calvin says. “You’ll kill us. We’re running away.” “I’m not going to kill you,” his mom reassures him. “I just want to find out what happened. Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” “No,” Calvin replies. “No one was hurt. We were pushing the car into the drive and it kept rolling.” “The car didn’t hit anything?” “It just went across the road and into the ditch. That’s when we took off.” “Well, the tow truck pulled it out, and there’s no damage.” And holding out her arms she continues, “So you can come home now.” “First,” Calvin says, peeking his head around the tree trunk, “Let’s hear you say you love me.
That’s what we need … love and forgiveness. That’s why the church is still here after all these years. In spite of all our failings, this is still the best place to find the love and forgiveness for which our souls long. And so, whatever they may be in your life, however they may be affecting the person you are, whether or not you were responsible for them to begin with, please allow me to say to you right now, in the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Stand up and walk.