Lenten Evangelism #6: St. Gregory Palamas and the Paralytic

Christ and the Paralytic
Christ and the Paralytic

Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, March 8, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

On this second Sunday of the Great Fast, we celebrate St. Gregory Palamas, that 14th century ascetic and archbishop whose contributions to Orthodox theology and life were so profound that he not only is remembered in November on the date of his repose but gets his own Sunday in Lent, as well.

And we also meditate today upon the paralytic healed by Jesus, whose four friends brought him to the Lord to be healed but had to lower him down through the roof in order to reach the Great Physician.

Today we will contemplate these two themes together in terms of our ongoing discussion of evangelism during this holy season. So let us begin.

First we should say something about St. Gregory Palamas. The theological controversy he helped the Church through has many complex elements to it which would be too difficult to cover in a sermon, but I want to focus in on what is probably the most immediate and accessible part of it, the central point of what he was saying. Gregory was debating a heretic named Barlaam along with some other heretics, whose assertion was that the highest form of knowledge of God was intellectual—the philosophers, they said, had greater knowledge than the prophets.

Gregory’s response was made in defense of his fellow monks on the holy mountain of Athos, who practiced something they called hesychasm, a form of stillness which is characteristic of the Orthodox tradition and which, in some cases, became the gateway for some of them to have a direct experience of God, particularly the experience of the Uncreated Light. These ascetics would actually see God with their physical eyes, manifested to them as a light, a light which is called “uncreated” because only God is uncreated. So the light was God. And they said that this experience of light went beyond anything that the rational mind could comprehend.

In the debate between these two positions, the Church vindicated the theology of Gregory and denied the claims of Barlaam and his fellows. He is called one of the Pillars of Orthodoxy because of this.

We also consider today this passage from the beginning of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus was at Capernaum, teaching in a house which was said to be His home. The Gospel says He is “at home.” So many people were there listening to Him that there was not even room at the door for people to look in and see Him. It was that crowded.

But there was this man, a man who was paralyzed. This man wanted to be healed, wanted to encounter this Healer Whose fame was already beginning to spread. And here is the scene as described in the Scriptures:

“…and He was preaching the Word to them. And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

He saw their faith. He saw not just the faith of the paralytic but the faith of his friends. And when He saw that, He forgave the man his sins.

Consider here what this means for our evangelism. We bring people to Jesus, we bring them with our own faith. Sometimes that means that we can actually bring them physically here with our faith, but sometimes we can only bring them to Jesus in prayer with our faith. But we bring them with our faith. And when Jesus sees our faith, He acts with forgiveness.

The Scriptures go on to tell us that some who were there protested in their hearts at what Jesus said. “You cannot forgive sins,” they thought to themselves. “Only God can do that!” Of course, He is God. But they do not know that. They cannot see that. Because they do not look with the eyes of faith.

But Jesus looks with the eyes of His faith into their hearts, sees their thoughts, and calls them out, saying to them: “Why do you reason thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic – “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And so when Jesus exercises His own faith, the faith of God Himself, then the man’s sins are not only forgiven, but his body is also made whole. And they were amazed.

So how do we draw all this together? What does this mean for us as we dedicate ourselves to the good news of Jesus Christ? In both of these themes—the raising of the paralytic and the theological debates of Gregory Palamas—we should see both what is good and also what is better.

In the case of the heretics who opposed Gregory, they were affirming something that is very good—knowing God with the reasoning mind. There is not only nothing wrong with that, but it is actually very good. We should be using our reason, using all our rational faculties to apprehend as much as we can the truth of Jesus Christ, the knowledge of our God. But we cannot leave it there. Learning and reason are not the purpose of Christian life, and they are not the highest form of Christian knowledge. We also have to see that it is possible to experience God in a way that is above rationality.

And mind you, we are saying “above” here, not “instead of.” The problem with what the heretics were saying is that they weren’t going far enough. They were content to leave knowledge of God only with what is possible through reason. But they needed to use both their reason and also their inner hearts to see God. And by “inner hearts,” I do not mean their emotions, but rather the innermost element of what it means to be human, the very eyes of our souls. Most people do not realize that we have such a thing, but we do. Our souls themselves can see, but we mostly do not let them. We have to open and cleanse those eyes with prayer and fasting and all the other actions of the spiritual life.

And that leads us to the account of the paralytic. When Jesus saw the faith of those who brought him, He reached out with healing for this man’s sins. He gave him forgiveness. He gave him what is very good. But then he also gave what is better.

Now, you may ask: Is the healing of the paralytic’s body what is better than the forgiveness of his sins? No, it is not. His body would someday die, and that healing would turn out to be temporary. What Jesus gave that is better is an open encounter with Him as God. When Jesus healed the man’s soul, they were skeptical, but when He healed his body, they began to glorify God and say, “We never saw anything like this!” So He moved them from what is good—forgiveness—to what is better, which is action in glorification of God in that encounter with Him.

As we preach the Gospel, we need to follow the same patterns. We cannot be content only with what is good—pursuing our own spiritual life in the context of the Church. We must also add to that what is better. To our education in the faith with reason and learning we must add experience of God. To our forgiveness of sins by God, we must add glorification in encounter with the God-man Jesus.

It is not enough to leave our Christianity only in our heads or only in the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. We have to move forward with those things to add encounter with Jesus, the real experience of God. If we do that, then our faith will indeed bring healing to those around us. When Jesus sees our faith—which has to be expressed in action or it is actually dead and useless—then He will reach forth with forgiveness and healing to those in our lives who need it.

Will we do it? Will we begin with education and reason and take it forward to experience by means of prayer, fasting, and frequent participation in the sacraments? Will we begin with forgiveness and take it forward by action in glorification of God in the true encounter with Jesus Christ?

It’s not enough just to say that we are Christian. It’s not enough just to learn about God. It’s not enough just to be forgiven of our sins. Orthodoxy is the faith of action, the faith of moving forward in struggle and in faith and in power so that we might take what is good and gain what is better, and in so doing, our faith will also bring healing to our brothers and sisters.

To God therefore, be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.