The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” Not long after writing these words, he was arrested by the Nazi Gestapo and discovered amidst great personal trial and trauma how true those words became for his own life. Likewise, the apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy amidst his imprisonment, “I thank God . . . when I remember you constantly in my prayers. As I remember your tears, I long day and night to see you.” (2 Timothy 1: 3-4) Both men’s testimonies speak to the nurture and the blessing of spiritual nourishment that other Christian friends provided them in times of need.
Yet it is also true that many of us are wired in such a way that we instinctively close ourselves off to the encouragement of others. We don’t always welcome our friends’ intercession on our behalf, often regarding their interest in our lives as unwanted meddling. I remember back when I was single, I had friends who wanted to fix me up with a young woman they assured me looked like Loni Anderson on WKRP. I refused their offer. I figured one of two things had to be true: either she didn’t look like Loni Anderson on WKRP, or she was meaner than one of those women on roller derby. Either way, while I appreciated my friends’ altruistic interest in my welfare, I didn’t trust their instincts.
I suspect that the paralytic in this passage didn’t trust the altruistic instincts of his friends. I suspect he didn’t hatch this plan to be delivered to the Messiah. Indeed, I believe that when his friends asked him for permission to ferry him to Jesus, he responded with a polite but firm No Thank You. He may have had his fill of faith-healers and their miracle cures. He may have been tired of getting his hopes up, only to have them dashed. He may have doubted that his well-intentioned friends knew what they were talking about. At a more profound level, this man may have become so weighed down by disappointment that he had lost his trust in the goodness of the world and in the capacity for transformation. He may have become so resigned to his condition, so wounded with despair, that he had lost the ability to hope. That can happen to us, too. We can become so saturated with sadness and despair that we lose our ability to hope or believe in the possibility of transformation. It was just this man’s good fortune that he had friends who wouldn’t take No for an answer! They were taking him to Jesus!
Think about these friends’ determination to bring the paralytic to Jesus. They knew that a man reputed to have great powers of healing was on one side of town, while their friend the paralytic was marooned on the other. They regarded that situation as intolerable. They took responsibility for lifting their friend up and carrying him nigh to the power of healing. Are we those kind of friends? Are we the kind of friends who burn with the desire to bring our friends nigh to the power of healing? Could it be that we know that this community of faith offers resources of redemption, healing, guidance and encouragement, yet we allow friends in need to stay walled off from them? Could it be that we are enthusiastic about sharing all the wrong things? We feel compelled to share with our friends the name of a great restaurant or an excellent pizzeria. We immediately tell our friends about a wonderful movie – or a really bad one. But are we as willing to share with our friends information about spiritual good news? Do we live among friends who are bereft of any sense of community, who need grace, strength, direction and encouragement? Yet even as we see the emotional and spiritual paralysis that they suffer, we remain silent! Could it be that we share with our friends news about the appetizers of life, but are reticent to share with them news of the main course of spiritual food that Jesus offers, the power that nurtures, sustains and redeems? Not so, the paralytic’s buddies! These friends are fixated on the paralytic’s need. They say, we are not going to send you to this holy man. We are going to take you to this man of healing. The paralytic yields to their entreaties because they won’t take No for an answer. How many of us are that kind of a friend? Are we really determined to bring our friends in contact with spiritual power that brings them healing and wholeness?
Hidden in this text is a valuable spiritual truth. These four friends are seized with a great idea. They think, ‘Here is our friend who is paralyzed; here, across town, is a man who can heal him. Let us just take our buddy to the healer and voila! the situation will be solved.’ But these friends learn the hard way that accomplishing good for God’s Kingdom is almost never easy. Trying to do something positive and meaningful for God’s kingdom seldom finds a smooth path. Our nurturing efforts seldom go exactly as planned. That is why superficial do-gooders seldom accomplish anything that matters. Superficial do-gooders find too many roadblocks and hurdles in the pursuit of their ambition – and they give up. If you want to accomplish meaningful good for God’s Kingdom, you must risk sustained commitment, steadfast persistence, flexible creativity and often painful sacrifice. These friends thought, hey, we will just take our buddy to this Jesus guy and healing will instantly happen. That’s not the way it turned out. Things rarely turn out so easily. If we want to accomplish good for God’s kingdom we must enter our quest determined to surmount whatever hurdles are in our way.
So, our friends ferry their buddy on a pallet to Jesus, only to find that the crowd is so large they cannot get near him. They cannot even attract Jesus’ attention. Plan A was not tenable. Some friends might have said to their buddy. ‘Let’s forget it. It’s too crowded today. We’ll come back later.’ But these four friends wouldn’t take No for an answer. They were Hebrew Boy Scouts. They came prepared. The Scriptures make no mention of them having to go find rope, yet a few verses later we find them on the roof, devising a hoist to lift their friend. They will not be denied. They were creative. They were persistent. They were determined. They were going to bring their friend in contact with the man who represented the possibility of healing and hope.
It is here that we come to the key point of the passage. The prospect of cutting through the roof was not these friends’ real impediment. Jesus’ inaccessibility and their friend’s reluctance to be healed were not their thorniest problems. They were really not overly concerned with the mess they were about to make for the people below. No, their great concern was, “Are we willing to take the heat that comes with doing the right thing?” That’s a hard question to ask – and harder to answer. Many years ago I invited a man infected with the HIV virus to come address my congregation one Sunday morning about the need for Christians to be a ministering presence unto those with AIDS. I knew that was a roof that needed to be cut open. I knew he had a message my people needed to hear. But before issuing that invitation I had to ask myself, ‘Are you willing to take the heat that will inevitably come with doing the right thing?’ The four friends had to ask themselves the same question. To nourish is our nature. But sometimes the act of choosing to embody love in action means challenging conventional ways of thinking. Those four friends knew that many of the people gathered around Jesus weren’t there for healing. They weren’t there to hear God’s Good News. Many of those present were religious authorities there to make sure that the religious herd wasn’t disturbed! They were there to enforce conventionality and tradition! When those four friends agreed that it was time to start cutting through the roof, they knew they were opting for an act of radical faith. Those friends knew that when they dropped their friend into the presence of Jesus they were also dropping themselves into the middle of an intense religious controversy. Were they willing to take that heat? Yes, they thought, doing the right thing is worth risking the consequences. They weren’t taking No for an answer.
There is no greater lie than the idea that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something.
Those Islamic terrorists who commandeered passenger jets and smashed them into the World Trade Towers on 9/11 believed something strong enough to die for it. Their theology convinced them that the people they were murdering were God’s enemies. That is not the God we worship and service. Our God has created us in our very nature to be nurturers. We are designed to nurture rather than negate, to dignify rather than demonize. Christ calls us to understand that no one advances the cause of the Kingdom of God by arguing Christ. We only make the Kingdom of God convincingly real when we embody Chris’s agape, self-giving love. Our Lord calls us to practice a faith that heals and nourishes the wounded. The thing is, in the eyes of the religious authorities, the paralytic would have been considered as cursed by God, as outside the circle of divine inclusion and acceptance. Cursed by God! But these four friends loved him too much to believe that! They were willing to have their righteousness attacked, their integrity questioned, their motives impugned, but they were going to bring their friend to Jesus! And it made the heart of God glad when these friends opened that roof and dropped the paralytic down into the presence of Jesus. For God had designed them to act in behalf of nurture.
Now there is no elegant way to cut a hole in a roof made of mud, packed dirt and branches. It was a dirty, messy job, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Jesus and the audience backing away as considerable debris fell to the ground. But when these four friends lower their buddy into Jesus presence, their action is followed by one of the most electric verses in all of the Bible. It ought to send a chill up our spines. Mark records, “When Jesus saw their faith – when Jesus saw their faith! – he said to the man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ ” When Jesus saw their faith, the faith of these four friends who wouldn’t take No for answer, he was he was moved to engage in an act of healing. When Jesus saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.”
What does that electric verse really mean? It means this: each of us has “our” faith. But “our faith” is not merely “our faith.” “Our faith” reflects the influences of a host of other people. “Our faith” reflects the possible positive influences of our parents, grandparents, ministers, mentors, and friends. “Our faith” is not just “our faith,” but is a constellation of influences exerted by a community of believers. “Our faith” always reflects, to some degree “their faith.” “Our faith always carries with it a “their faith” dimension. We are called as the people of God to understand the importance of our nurture. When someone comes down this aisle to profess their faith, they reflect the cumulative impact of a host of positive influences that have helped nurture and shape their relationship with God. Any single person’s faith reflects a communal dimension of a community that has been called as a collective body to nurture and nourish others. When Jesus saw the “their faith” of this paralytic’s friends, he was moved to heal the stricken man. Communal nurture is a powerfully redemptive force.
Even so, Jesus offers the paralytic a chance to claim his faith for himself. He does so by saying, “Your sins are forgiven you.” What does Jesus mean by that? Was he telling this man, ‘The reason you are a paralytic is because you are a sinner?’ No, Jesus was giving this man to claim his faith for himself. He was giving this man the opportunity to acknowledge Jesus’ right to bring not only healing to his body but cleansing to his soul. And so he says, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” giving this man the opportunity to accept Jesus’ Lordship to bring wholeness and healing to the totality of his being. When we give our lives to our Christ, we hold nothing back of ourselves. Rather we say to our Savior, “Cleanse us in the totality of our being.” We are required through faith to give ourselves to our Lord without reservation and to acknowledge Christ’s authority over all of our lives. Only when this man has claimed Christ’s Lordship over all of his being can Christ truly say to him, “Rise, take up your pallet and go home.”
To nurture is our nature. During this pandemic, we know that we face great obstacles in trying to nurture each other, but we cannot let this pandemic prevent our efforts to strengthen each other. We cannot take No for an answer. In whatever committed, creative, passionate way we can, we must find ways to nurture each other, because to nurture each other is the only way we can be true to our nature as God’s has created us and to our calling as disciples of Christ. God created us to be friends to each other, to be the kind of friends who won’t take No for an answer, the kind of friends who do for others what these friends did for the paralytic – lift them up and carry them into the presence of the Savior. For Jesus still says to those in need, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.”