Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rise Up and Walk!

Every newly elected president enjoys a "honeymoon", a grace period of about 100 days during which time other politicians and the press refrain from criticizing the incoming administration. Not only is it an expression of good will, but it emphasizes the fact that, despite our different philosophies and agendas, we all share a common purpose which is to strengthen the nation. However, we can be sure that after those 100 days, the sniping and the partisan rhetoric will come back in full force to the public square.

Over the past month we have been reflecting on the first few days of Jesus' public ministry, when he emerged from his hidden years as a carpenter in Nazareth and began preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Like a newly elected president, Jesus has been enjoying a "honeymoon" of sorts. The people are fascinated by the authority of his preaching, and his power to heal has attracted the sick from the surrounding countryside. For the most part, the religious authorities are allowing him to speak in the synagogues. The whole area is gripped with excitement over the miracle worker from Galilee.

But in today's gospel, we begin to hear a hint of the controversy which will eventually lead to Jesus' crucifixion and death. When Jesus tells the paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, the Pharisees wonder to themselves, "Who does this man think he is? God alone has the power to forgive sins!" After the initial excitement and curiosity over the power Jesus shows, it is natural for the people to begin to wonder just exactly who this man is. Is he a prophet or something more? Is he the Messiah or something more? Or is he, as we have come to believe, the Son of God who has come to forgive our sins and bring us the hope of everlasting life?

The Pharisees are indeed right that God alone has the power to forgive sins. And so they sense that Jesus is making a claim that no other man has ever made before. Jesus is claiming to somehow be like God. Naturally, it would make the Pharisees uneasy about Jesus.

If Jesus' power to forgive sins was hard for them to believe and understand, certainly his power to heal was undeniable. After shocking the Pharisees by telling them what they were thinking, Jesus commands the paralytic man to stand up and walk. Jesus offers the cure as confirmation that he indeed has the power to forgive sins and that he has a special relationship to God.

Today's gospel reading is not only about the beginning of Jesus' problems with the Pharisees. It also offers us one of the most moving stories about the lengths one man and his friends were willing to go to meet Jesus. As the reading tells us, the crowd around Jesus was so large that the paralytic man and those carrying him could get nowhere near him. Rather than hang their heads in defeat and head back home, they climb up on the roof, open up a hole big enough for the man to fit through and lower him down to Jesus. Jesus, impressed by their effort and the faith it demonstrated, offered them all the forgiveness of their sins.

Though I'm sure they were thrilled to meet Jesus in person and were happy to have their sins forgiven, they probably were expecting something more from Jesus - namely, that their friend would be restored to full health. Jesus, however, sees it quite differently. For Jesus, a fully healthy body is no help if the soul is sick because of sin. As he would say in another place, "It is better to go to heaven with only one eye, then to be cast in hell with both eyes." And he says in another place, "What good would it be for a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?" Jesus came to teach us that what is wrong with the human race is not that we get sick, not that we suffer and not that we die. What is wrong with us is that we sin. What is wrong with us is that our relationship with God is broken. And that is why Jesus came - to repair our relationship with God the Father.

The men in the gospel reading went to great lengths to bring their friend to meet Jesus. But what lengths did Jesus go to grant us the forgiveness of our sins? First, he became human like us in the womb of Mary. Then he lived a fully human life, most of it as a carpenter in Nazareth. Then he was willing to suffer and die on the cross. Our sins must be an awful thing indeed if they required Jesus to suffer and die to assure us of forgiveness. And God's love must be even greater than we could ever hope for or imagine if he was willing to offer his only Son up to death to bring us into a loving friendship with him.

Each of us made some effort to be here today. There are some young families who had to prepare diaper bags and bottles of formula to be here. There are some elderly who walked up and down stairs with great discomfort and pain to hear God's word today. We each made that effort with some expectation. To all of us, no matter what effort we made or no matter what we may be seeking, God holds forth the promise of forgiveness. God wants each of us to recognize that the answer to the longing of our hearts is nothing less than to be reconciled to God. And to be reconciled to God requires no more effort than to ask for his forgiveness, to make a sincere confession of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to live with a firm purpose through God's grace to not repeat our sins. Getting right with God requires no more than that. Jesus has already taken care of the hard part by dying on the cross for us.

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