Overcoming the Paralysis of our Passions: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

During the season of Pascha, the Church calls our attention to how particular people responded to our Lord, Who rose from the dead on the third day. Thomas did not believe until he saw and touched the wounds of the Risen Savior.  Joseph of Arimathea took Christ’s body down from the Cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him.  The Myrrh-Bearing women went to the tomb very early in the morning in order to anoint their dead Lord as a final sign of love for Him.   That is how they became the first witnesses to His resurrection.

On this Sunday of the Paralytic, the Church calls us to enter personally into the joy of the resurrection by directing us to see ourselves in light of the Savior’s healing of a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years.  The man, whose name we do not know, was in the tragic situation of being right by a pool of water where he could be healed, but due to his paralysis he was unable to enter it before someone else received the miracle.  At first glance, we may wonder what his situation has to do with celebrating Pascha.

If we view our Lord’s Passion in legalistic terms about satisfying justice or paying a debt, we will miss the point entirely of why we are focusing today on His healing of the paralyzed man. Through His victory over death, Christ heals us from the corruption, weakness, and despair of being enslaved to death, which is the wages of sin. Before His resurrection, we lacked the strength to fulfill our calling to become like God in holiness, and obviously could not overcome the ultimate paralysis of the grave.  We need One Who brings life to the dead, not merely a teacher of legal, moral, or religious truth.

The paralyzed man was near the Temple in Jerusalem, right by the pool that provided water for washing lambs before they were slaughtered. The scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which had been given by angels. The Old Testament Law and the sacrificial worship of the Temple foreshadowed the coming of Christ, but they could not heal anyone from the degrading ravages of sin, including bondage to the grave.   The Savior fulfilled both as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.  Our Great High Priest offered Himself on the Cross as He entered fully into death itself, from which He liberated us by His resurrection to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  He did so in order to restore and fulfill us in God’s image and likeness as He set us free from the paralysis of sin and death.  We were radically sick and needed the care of the Great Physician.

The plight of the paralyzed man shows us the common condition of fallen humanity left to our own devices. We did not take the initiative in bringing salvation to the world and this fellow did not ask Christ to help him or even know His name.  Instead, the Lord graciously reached out to him, asking the seemingly obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?”  The Savior’s words challenge us because of the tendency to define ourselves in terms of our distorted desires and habitual sins to the point that we often equate being true to ourselves with denying that we need healing at all.  People on all sides of our society’s debates and divisions often do precisely that and encourage us to follow their bad example.  Regardless of what we think about anything, our opinions will not heal our souls.  Far from it, serving our passions in the name of freedom, justice, or anything else will only make us spiritually weaker.  Doing so will only make us impotent before temptations that we refuse to recognize as such, perhaps even as we congratulate ourselves on our authenticity and virtue.

The uncomfortable truth is that we all lack the ability to bring healing to our souls every bit as much as the paralyzed man who could not move himself into the water of the pool.  The only solution to our problem is to receive healing and strength that we cannot give ourselves and do not deserve. In order to accept the Lord’s mercy, we must recognize the truth about ourselves as we struggle to obey the Lord’s command: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  No matter how great the struggle, we must rise up in obedience in order to participate personally in His victory over the paralysis of sin and death.  We must also remember that embracing His healing will never be as easy as resting content with whatever forms of corruption we have allowed to dominate our hearts.

After a lifetime of not moving, the paralyzed man could not have found it easy to obey Christ’s command to stand, pick up his bed, and walk.  He had learned how to survive as an invalid, but the Savior called him to a very different life, the challenges of which he could not know or predict.  At some level, he must have been afraid about what would lie ahead. We feel the same way whenever we gain the clarity to see our spiritual infirmities more clearly.  The more we embrace Christ’s healing, the more we will be aware of the ongoing paralysis of our own souls.  The Lord does not say to us only once to rise up from sin and move forward in a life of holiness.  He commands us to do so every day of our lives, calling us to enter evermore fully into the infinite joy of the heavenly kingdom opened to us through His glorious resurrection.

The man in today’s gospel reading would never have been able to walk had he insisted on remaining as he had been for thirty-eight years. Lying still for a long time makes people weak and unable to move.  The same will remain true of us spiritually if we do not undertake the struggle to receive the healing of the Lord by serving Him as faithfully as we presently have the strength to do. The more accustomed we become to any sin, and especially the more we accept the lie that embracing that sin is somehow part of freely becoming our true selves or serving some greater good in the world, the weaker we will become before it.  The longer we insist on remaining enslaved to our passions, the less inclination we will have to receive personally the liberation that the Savior died and rose again to share with us.

As the God-Man, Christ Himself is the healing, restoration, and fulfillment of the human person. Entrusting ourselves to the Savior requires that we refuse to remain paralyzed before our sins and instead take the faltering steps that we can to open ourselves to the holy strength that has overcome even death itself.  Instead of obsessing about how well we are doing, we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of the One Who is healing and strengthening us in ways we cannot know as we reorient our lives to Him, even in small ways.  We must also take to heart the Lord’s words to the man after his healing: “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befalls you.” Obeying that command requires remaining vigilant as we mindfully turn away from the familiar passions and subtle temptations that so easily ensnare us.  Entering into the holy joy of Pascha is truly an eternal journey of sharing ever more fully in the healing mercy of Christ as we become more like Him in holiness.  The only way to do that is to rise, take up our beds, and walk each day of our lives in obedience as best we can.  That is His command to us all and the only way to know the joy of His victory over sin and death, for “Christ is Risen!”

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