Sunday of the Paralytic, April 29, 2018
Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!
Something happened in my life this past week that for years I wasn’t sure would ever happen. And it’s something that hadn’t happened in my life for almost 20 years. On Friday, I finally beat my previous lifetime record for how long I had lived in one home—5 ½ years.
Now, this might sound not very impressive, but the context for that is that I have lived in 23 homes in my 42 years of life—an average of not even 2 years per home. So my previous record was 5 ½ years, which was set in December of 1998 when at the age of 23 I finally moved out from my parents’ home after living there for a few years during college. Since then, my housing tenure had come close, when I lived for 4 ½ years in an apartment, but it wasn’t until 2 days ago that I finally passed that 5 ½ year mark.
And all that got me thinking about today’s Gospel of the paralytic healed by Jesus. But maybe not in the way you think. And definitely not in the way I used to think.
You see, for a lot of my life, I saw my itinerant status as a kind of advantage—every few years, we would pick up and move. There would be a new life, new friends, new school, new job, new whatever. Whatever difficulties or entanglements there were with previous places, previous relationships, previous friendships, etc., would basically fade away in the face of what was new. So, for me, staying in one place for too long felt like paralysis. I needed to be on the go, on the move, seeking new adventures—this was the key to life. This was the key to happiness.
And in this, I basically thought as much of our society thinks. We’re a society centered around what is called “creative destruction” in economic terms. This means that we gladly tear down the old in order to make way for the new, because newer is better. This is why we not only easily rearrange whole city blocks and landscapes but also rearrange our lives, being happy to relocate for school, for work, for whatever—for happiness.
Newer is better. Change is better. Frequent rearrangement produces the best results. If we’re not always innovating, then we’re stagnating. If we’re not always making changes, we’re paralyzed and headed for death.
But the thing that it took me many years to realize is that constant rearrangement is not the opposite of paralysis. In fact, constant rearrangement and motion sometimes is the paralysis.
Let’s speculate for a moment about the paralytic sitting by the pool of Bethesda whom Jesus approaches in our Gospel today. This paralytic had a goal, and that was to get into the pool that healed people every so often. But he had a problem—no one would help him into the pool. Someone always went in ahead of him when the time came, so he didn’t get healed.
We might imagine that he probably thought of many ways to try to get people to help him. Do you think he must have asked other people to get him into the pool? He knew what he wanted, but he couldn’t figure out how to get it. So he just lay there.
Our cultural dedication to creative destruction also often works this same way. We’re all supposedly in pursuit of happiness. So we will try a million things to get it. And we figure that as long as we’re still aimed at that goal, eventually it will come. We’ll figure something out. Someone will get us down into that pool!
But then Jesus approaches this paralytic at the pool. And He saw that the man had been there for 38 years. He says to him, “Do you want to be healed?” And then the man responds not to his question, “Do you want to be healed?” but rather to the question Jesus did not ask: “Do you want to get into the pool?” So he complains that there is no one to help him into the pool. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that his goal of getting into the pool is the wrong goal.
In my own life, what took me years to realize is that my goal of pursuing happiness through constant change, constant rearrangement of life was actually the wrong goal. And of course it was also the wrong approach to get to that goal. And I didn’t really know how to do things another way—I had been raised with this kind of life. I had been raised with moving every few years and starting over. So even though it looked like I was on the move, I was actually paralyzed.
Likewise, I think that our culture is also paralyzed in this way. It is focused on creative destruction in the name of happiness and progress. It doesn’t really know any better, either, because this is how it has functioned for so long. This is in the very air that we breathe. It has a lot of motion, a lot of busy-ness, and yet it is still paralyzed.
What’s the solution here? The solution is found in the Gospel we read today.
In this Gospel, the paralytic was focused on getting into the pool. This was his plan. But of course his plan was terrible, because it was missing a key piece that he couldn’t provide—someone to get him into the pool first. And it was also terrible because it had the wrong goal.
His spiritual paralysis was revealed when Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” He didn’t respond that he wanted to be healed, but that he wanted to get into the pool. He was always chasing after that pool. And then when the great Healer Himself stood before him, he still just wanted to get into that pool. He couldn’t see that healing was standing before him.
This is the problem with us, as well, if we are living in the pursuit of happiness. We have so many plans, so many plots, so many procedures to get it. And yet it’s always somehow out of reach. We reach for it but are paralyzed and can’t quite reach it.
And then we might find ourselves here in church, being offered Jesus Christ. But still we check our watches during the service, avoid coming more than once a week or once a month or once a year—why? It’s because we don’t believe that Jesus Christ will actually give us the happiness that we seek. Like the paralytic, we think it’s about the pool—that’s the thing that will give us what we need. Like the paralytic, we miss the Healer standing in front of us.
The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in American culture, and it’s taken on a kind of religious quality for us. In terms of how we actually live, it is one of the highest dogmas in our culture—a teaching that defines us, that inspires us, that is the shape for our devotion, for how we order our lives. But for Christians it is the wrong dogma.
Likewise, the paralytic was fixated on that pool. It shaped all his thoughts, all his plans, all his desires, because it was all he could see. But the pool was the wrong thing to focus on.
The focus has to be Jesus. Jesus is the Healer and source of joy, which is something deeper and greater than happiness. And if we truly do focus on Jesus, we discover that He is not only the One Who gives healing and joy, but He is Himself the healing and the joy.
When the paralytic was healed by Jesus, he immediately went out and told everyone that Jesus was the One Who had healed him. He was freed from his paralysis. He no longer needed plans to get into the pool. He just needed Jesus.
Whether God gives us lives that are on the move or fixed in one place, we still have to rest spiritually in Him. And that rest in Jesus turns out not to be paralysis but true freedom. And what is that freedom? It is the freedom not to be spiritually always on the move, but rather the freedom to grow. An endlessly uprooted soul will never be able to grow. It will always remain contained—paralyzed. But a soul rooted in Christ is set free to grow and flourish.
To the risen Jesus Christ, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!