Romans 12: 6-14; Matthew 9: 1-8
There are surely many people who have little interest in the Christian faith because the Christians they know do not seem different from anyone else. That can easily be used as an excuse not to believe, but it is also perfectly understandable when people are not attracted to something that does not appear to make much of a positive difference.
St. Paul made clear in today’s epistle reading that we must energetically use the gifts given us by the Lord, which is another way of saying that we must be actively faithful, regardless of what our particular abilities may be. Those who follow his advice will not simply blend in with the larger culture of any age, but will instead become vivid icons of what God’s salvation means for human beings. The Apostle calls us to be genuine in showing love, mercy, and honor to our neighbors as we cling to what is good and allow evil no place at all in our lives. He instructs us to respond to difficult challenges with hope, patience, and prayer. And just as Christ taught, St. Paul reminds us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Obedience to these teachings demands a deep commitment that extends from the depths of our souls to every thought, word, and deed. And that is not something we accomplish simply by our own power, but by responding faithfully to the merciful grace of our Savior.
Today’s gospel reading gives us a clear portrait of what it means to encounter the Lord in this way. Christ did not rest content with forgiving the paralyzed man’s sins. He also provided visible proof to the skeptics of His divine authority by enabling the man to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home. Christ’s healing of the man’s soul was not an invisible act somehow totally separate from the rest of his life. His miraculously renewed health was a visible sign of his restoration as a whole human being in God’s image and likeness. The Lord restored his freedom, his strength, and his integrity as an embodied person. And He commanded him to live accordingly by doing what he could never have done by his own power: to rise, pick up his bed, and walk home.
Whether we recognize it or not, that is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us. He comes to heal our corruption, to strengthen us so that we will not be enslaved in weakness to our sins and passions, and to enable us to share fully in His restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness as the New Adam. Even as the Savior rose bodily from the tomb and ascended to heaven, He enables us to serve Him faithfully in our own bodies in the practical challenges of the world as we know it. He did not rest content with forgiving the paralytic’s sins, but empowered and commanded him to embrace a new life. He does the same for us, calling us to pursue a life of holiness, a life that displays to the world the healing of every dimension of our humanity.
Tomorrow begins the two-week period known as the Dormition Fast, when we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos. By abstaining from the richest and most satisfying foods and devoting ourselves to prayer and repentance, we seek to follow her example of saying: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” The Theotokos said that to the Archangel Gabriel when he announced that she was to become the virgin mother of the Son of God. And she lived that way for the rest of her days, uniquely welcoming Christ into her life as His Living Temple. When she departed this life at her Dormition, the Mother of God followed her Son– as a whole, embodied person– into the heavenly kingdom. She is the first and model Christian whose example we seek to follow.
Unfortunately, most of us have many years of experience in not being very much like the Theotokos. Instead of devoting ourselves to prayer and purity, we have filled our minds and hearts with tempting attachments to all kinds of things. They may not be bad in and of themselves, but in our corrupt state we have developed unholy relationships to them. Doing so simply weakens us further and makes us paralyzed before our besetting sins. Even when we resolve not to do or say something, we often do so anyway. Even when we abhor a particular behavior, we so often lack the strength to stop doing it. When that is the case, we are just like the paralytic before he encountered Christ, lying helplessly in our bed of sin.
When the paralytic was brought to Christ, He did not tell him immediately to stand up. First, He forgave his sins. That is a key point because our salvation is not found in simply doing good deeds or obeying laws by our own power. If that were the case, we would not need the God-Man to conquer sin and death on our behalf. Even as a paralyzed person lacks the ability to rise up and walk, fallen humans lack the ability to free themselves from slavery to sin, to raise themselves from the grave, and to participate in the eternal life of God for which He made us in His image and likeness. Christ first forgave the man’s sins, which means that He healed the corruption that reached to the depth of his soul and that kept Him from personal union with God. Our salvation is an infinite journey, for to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a calling with no upward limit. Christ told the paralytic to begin that journey by standing up, carrying his bed, and walking home. By forgiving his sins, Christ graciously gave him the healing necessary for him to take a first step that would have otherwise been impossible for him. Then the man had to cooperate with the Lord, obeying His command as he moved forward in life, one step at a time.
Do you see how we are all just like that formerly paralyzed man, strengthened beyond our own power in Christ and commanded to move forward? That is not where our spiritual journey ends, but only where it begins. By virtue of our baptism and chrismation, we are all empowered to begin the pilgrimage to the Kingdom. Christ nourishes us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist and forgives us in Confession when we stumble or wander from the path. We do not take this journey alone, but as members of His Body who participate mystically in the Heavenly Banquet in every Divine Liturgy. On a daily basis, we open ourselves to further strength and healing by prayer, reading the Bible, and studying the lives and teachings of the Saints.
It was probably a struggle for a formerly paralyzed man, who had been used to lying still all his life, to start walking around. It will definitely be a struggle for us to make progress in pursuing a holy life, but that is what is necessary for us to participate in the fullness of Christ’s healing. During the Dormition Fast, let us look to the Theotokos as the greatest example of someone who has completed the journey. And let us use the disciplines of the fast to develop a greater sense of our constant dependence upon the mercy of Christ even as we step forward in faithfulness. That is how, by God’s grace, we may become vivid icons of the healing and salvation that the world so desperately needs.