[Here is a homily for the third Sunday after Easter, from 2004.]
Christ is risen!
We’ve just heard the account of the healing of the paralytic [Jn. 5:1-15]. Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with a paralytic. She’s not exactly a paralytic, but for all intents and purposes she might as well have been. She was in the hospital with a very serious and life-threatening illness and basically couldn’t move from her bed. I was reflecting upon that in light of today’s Gospel: what it means to be a paralytic and what it means to be healed.
A paralytic—or Laura, in this case—couldn’t do the most simple things for herself because she was in so much pain. The pain itself was paralyzing; it wasn’t that she couldn’t walk. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t do anything, so every little thing had to be done for her by either someone visiting her or by the nurses who came in to take care of her.
To be a paralytic is to be in a state of helplessness and infirmity and utter dependence upon someone else—upon everyone else—and that is where we find ourselves, often enough, or where we ought to find ourselves, in the sense that this is what the human condition is like. We don’t want to accept or acknowledge that fundamentally we are weak and infirm and unable to do much of anything by ourselves, and are utterly dependent upon others and things outside of ourselves. In our society we try to create an opposite illusion—that we are strong, and independent, and self-sufficient, and invulnerable—but eventually life catches up with you and teaches you the truth.
When I was at the hospital there in Seattle, in the waiting room of the surgery wing, I was surprised: it was a huge waiting room. It was full of people, waiting because one of their loved ones was being operated on at that moment—and it was like that the whole day! As soon as one operation was done, another one was beginning; more people came in, and another one was done: dozens of them, in one day—and that was just an ordinary day, in the activities of one hospital, in one city. Multiply that by all the cities and all the hospitals all over the world, and millions of people are in this condition of serious infirmity. So when I’m talking about someone I know, it’s not just an isolated case. It’s an icon of humanity, of the human condition, in its state of existential weakness and need. One of the first things that we have to do is to accept and acknowledge that, and not try to create the opposite illusion.
By contrast, I remember noticing in church one Sunday a young girl, maybe sixteen or so, all dressed up, all painted, polished and bejeweled, and that was an image of that illusion of self-sufficiency, independence, strength and the rest. I remember thinking to myself, “Which of those two is really the icon of humanity: the painted girl, or the woman in the hospital bed?” I came to the conclusion that it was the woman in the hospital bed, because that’s closer to the reality of where we stand—especially when we’re without recourse to God.
The situation of the paralytic is sometimes so difficult, as Laura told me, that the pain is so bad that you can’t even pray. It just takes up all the energy of your body and your mind, and you can think of nothing: all you can do is hang on for life—literally. At that point, you need somebody to help you, to bring you to God. That’s why, in other stories in the Gospel, the paralytic was brought by somebody to Jesus—because he couldn’t bring himself.
So we also need to support each other, to rely on others to bring us in our infirmity and need to God—to the place where healing comes from. This is the next step; it’s not that we have to say, “OK, we’re weak, sick, and helpless,” and then just wallow in that without any hope. That’s only the first part of the picture; we have to respond to it a way that opens us to the grace of God.
I also found it interesting that one of the nurses who was helping Laura was an older, Ukrainian lady. She was of the “old school” but she really knew her stuff, because in the old country she was a hospital administrator, but she could only be a nurse here, because in the U.S. they would never accept her credentials. She would come in and say, “Laura! You still lying in bed? Get up and walk! Is this what you do at home? Come on! Walk, walk, walk!” She was encouraging her to walk, because even when you’re sick like that, your body has to have a little bit of movement and activity, in order for things to start functioning well. When you’re under anesthesia for eight or ten hours, everything in your body goes to sleep—your head may wake up, but all your guts are still “sleeping” and it might take days for them to start functioning again. So you need some encouragement like that.
On the other hand, there’s something that we have to do ourselves—something that only we can do. We have to make the choice to turn to God who can heal us, who alone can heal us. We can’t heal ourselves—you have to be aware of that—and we can’t just try to make an illusion for ourselves of self-sufficiency and think that this will carry us through, because healing doesn’t come from ourselves; it has to come from God.
In the gospel, this paralytic shows us what not to do. He was certainly aware of his situation—he’d been sick for many years—but he seems to have sort of resigned himself to be a suffering grouch for the rest of his life, because even when the Healer came to him and said, “Do you want to be healed?” the first thing he started doing was complaining! “Oh, I don’t have anybody to take me into the water, and then if I try to crawl in there somebody gets in before me so I’m just stuck here; I’ll never get healed.” But the Lord didn’t ask him any of that stuff! When the Lord said, “Do you want to be healed?” He was not just asking a rhetorical question, as if “In your dream of the Good Life, would you like to have perfect health?” No. He was in a very practical situation, intervening in that man’s life at that moment: “Do you, with this particular sickness that you have had for the last 38 years, do you want to be healed—now?” And the man could not “get” it. But the Lord had mercy on him and healed him anyway.
There’s a kind of condition to that, because when we receive a healing from God, God is also asking us to take responsibility for our healing—to take responsibility for our life. When things change like that, we have to change our lives, and it’s clear in the gospel that Jesus meant that because, when He saw him a little while later, He said, “Look, now you are healed. Sin no more, lest something worse overtake you”—which, first of all, means that there is something worse than being sick with a physical illness. The Lord was warning him: “If you don’t take responsibility and respond personally in a good way to what I’ve done for you, then it’s going to be worse than it was before.” And the thing that is worse than physical illness is the hardening of the heart. Do you know why? Because that is something that God, without our cooperation, cannot heal! He cannot heal a hard heart in this sense, if our will is against Him—if we do not will Him, invite Him, choose to be healed. The one place that we can make off-limits to God—if we want to—is our own heart, our own soul and spirit, because God will not violate our freedom.
That’s something that we have to be aware of when we are seeking healing for our life. You have to start with that awareness, and accept that fact, that we are in a state of infirmity, dependence and need. But we shouldn’t rebel against that and try to be like that painted girl that I mentioned earlier, because health, success, wealth, prestige and all those kinds of things tend to breed arrogance, pride, a sense of false invulnerability, and superiority over others—whereas the experience of infirmity and need can create in a person the nobility that comes from the struggle, and the humility that comes from having to reach out to someone to help you, and also the confidence, courage and peace that come from faith and hope in God, who is the only One who can truly heal.
So we come to God when He asks us that question, and we should listen in our prayer for that question: “Do you want to be healed?” Don’t just “blow it off,” either: “Of course I want to be healed, I’m in pain!” Well, no; think about it: do you want to be healed? Do you want, really, to take responsibility for living as a healed person, as a new person? We also have to be aware that we’re never going to be totally free from all pain and suffering; we may be healed of one thing, but life will bring its own stuff with it. If you haven’t already suffered from some serious illness or injury, chances are that you probably will sometime later in your life, because that’s the human condition—that’s how life works down here.
The Lord told us that there would be suffering in this life. But He said, “Take courage, because I have overcome the world.” He has the power not only to heal bodies but to make us new inside—if we choose that, if we allow Him to do that. He has to work with our free will; we have to hand over our will and say, “Yes, I want to be healed; I want to go on living in a new way, a transformed way”—on a more profound level of existence.
Some people seem to be on a permanent search for healing. They never quite attain it, for in fact they secretly don’t want it. They would rather simply attend endless healing conferences, at which they can endlessly make their woes known. What would happen if they actually were healed? There would be no more need for healing conferences! They would actually have to get on with the business of living life, and there would be no further opportunity to seek sympathy from others. How unhappy they would be if they were thus healed! Well, in that case I suppose they would go to a healing conference to deal with their heartbreak over not needing to be healed anymore.
St. Paul tells us that the meaning of the Resurrection is to walk in newness of life, and this is what the Lord wants to give to us. He comes to us and asks not only “Do you want to be healed of this illness” but “Do you want newness of life?” Do you want to be transformed? Do you want to see things in a new way? Do you want to be raised up to a level of living in the grace of the Holy Spirit in a way that transcends the pettiness and the superficiality and shallowness of the world around us? We have to walk in the newness of life that comes only from Christ. We must embrace Him.
As you come to Holy Communion today, listen for the voice of Christ who says, “Do you want to be healed?” And then answer with your whole heart, turn over your will, your life, your resolution to be new, to be different, and say: “Yes, Lord, I want to be healed. You alone can heal me. Give me this newness of life.” And then we will hear in our own hearts what He said to the paralytic: “Rise, and walk!”