The Paralytic: The Hopeless, Helpless Victim

Sermon notes from the Sunday of the Paralytic     15 May 2011

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.   (John 5:1-15) 

The Gospel Lessons on the Sundays following Pascha are related to the themes of who Jesus is, of salvation, and baptism.  This is most probably because in the early Church, the catechism which took place during Great Lent preparing candidates for baptism focused on scripture lessons from Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah which focused on the nature of sin and how to live a godly life, but the Mystery of Baptism was explained to the new initiates into Christianity only AFTER they had been baptized.   This seems a bit counterintuitive to the modern Christian, but in the ancient world the Christians took the notion of Mystery seriously and felt no one could fully understand the Sacramental Mysteries until after they had experienced them.   One experiences salvation first, then only later does one come to the understanding of what one has experienced and what it means.   This was the experience of the Jews in the Exodus/Passover story – first they experienced God’s saving power and only later does God give them the Torah which gives them the explanation of how to live now that they have been saved.   So in the early Church the catechumens were taught Genesis during Lent as a preparation for Holy Week in which they learned the book of Exodus which led to Baptism on Holy Saturday and then an explication of the salvation they had experienced in the weeks following Pascha.  Thus the Acts of the Apostles and John’s Gospel were the didactic Scripture used to teach the new Christians about their new life in Christ.

The Matins and Vespers hymns related to this Gospel Lesson of the paralytic contrast the single healing which took place at the pool of Bethzatha with the limitless numbers of people who receive healing and salvation through Baptism in Jesus Christ.  In a sense these hymns “allegorize” the Gospel lesson, moving it away from just a story about physical healing, to an understanding of the spiritual healing that is given to all through baptism in Jesus Christ.

Interestingly we find in this Gospel lesson a description of the Baptismal mystery which is also paralleled in the thinking of Alcoholics Anonymous.  We can see the parallel in the first three steps of AA:

1)     Admit powerlessness over alcohol- our lives have become unmanageable.

2)     Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3)    Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

The paralytic in the Gospel lesson portrays himself to Christ as a helpless victim of circumstances – “there is no one to help me.”  He cannot imagine any way out of his paralysis.  He is paralyzed not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.

I want to point out that many of experience this same kind of emotional and spiritual paralysis in our own lives.  We experience life as being out of control and feel ourselves a helpless, hopeless victim of circumstances.

1)     Of course there are those who suffer from addictions – not only to alcohol, but to other drugs, pain killers, as well as sex, food, shopping, pornography.  We become trapped in our addictions and thus paralyzed by them.

2)     There are many other ways in which we experience a similar powerlessness.  Certainly some forms of mental illness do this to us.  But also more commonly things like depression can make us to feel ourselves to be helpless and hopeless victims.  We can find no way out of the depression.  But even without mental illness and depression, many who are introverts suffer a similar kind of problem  –  so over relying on themselves and their own ability to solve all of their problems internally, many introverts think themselves into a box and convince themselves that there is no way out of their problems.  They have become just as paralyzed as the man at the poor of Bethzatha in today’s Gospel.

To this paralysis we encounter Christ, just like the paralytic did.  And Christ says there is a way out of our depression and anxiety and the box which traps us and the mental/spiritual paralysis which makes us feel helpless and hopeless.  Christ says to us, “Get up and walk.”  He says there is a way out of our depression and introversion.  There is hope.  There is a reality beyond the reality created by our brains.

There is the reality of the Kingdom of God and of the God incarnate.    Our lives and reality are not limited by our brains, our minds, our bodies, this world.

We Christians are also supposed to be part of the Body of Christ, and so we are to be the presence of Christ to others who are equally trapped, paralyzed, helpless and hopeless.   We are to be the bearers of the message, “Get up and walk.”  We are to help open hearts and minds and souls to that greater reality of the Kingdom of God which is greater than all helplessness and hopelessness.

The alcoholic, and really all of us who are trapped in that helpless, hopeless victimhood, suffer from what is described as “terminal uniqueness.”   We paralyze our selves by believing that my case is so unique and special that no one can possibly understand me or my problems.   We paralyze ourselves by thinking if anyone experienced what I experienced they too would become trapped by addictions and depression.  My case is so horrible that no one can understand.  I’m a victim of circumstances, not of choice.  There is nothing anyone can do to help me.

Christ and Christianity offer hope of getting out of the trap and paralysis of oneself and the limits of one’s self.  Christ and Christianity offer the hope of learning how to participate in the reality of God, in the reality beyond oneself.  They expose the truth that the reality which our minds created that trap us and paralyze us are tiny and self created but hardly the reality of the universe.  Christ and Christianity heal us by bringing us into the reality of the universe and making us part of something greater and more powerful than ourselves.