When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hears? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
“They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” is a favorite line among clergy-types. When the pandemic came in earnest, I heard countless colleagues make that remark with regard to moving church online. It shows up turning denominational turns as we’re tasked with communicating bizarre elements of our polity with our laity. And it’s the go-to expression whenever something goes wrong with a church building and all the eyes turn the pastor for direction.
And yet, the irony is, there is no type of schooling that fully prepares someone for their vocation. Imagine how boring our lives would be if we knew everything we needed to know the day we graduated.
However, I must confess, the words “they didn’t teach me that in seminary” left my mouth the very first time I was tasked with a committal to the grave.
Grief counseling? Services of Death and Resurrection? Theological proclamation in Bible study? No problem. But then, after my first funeral service, I found myself driving to the cemetery without knowing what I was supposed to do.
When we all arrived, we stood around the casket of the recently departed, and all the eyes turned to me. And then, because God provides, a story from the scriptures appeared in my mind.
Listen: Jesus returned to Capernaum shortly after calling the disciples to follow him. It was reported among the community that he was home and crowds began to gather. Rumor had it that this particular son of a carpenter could make the impossible possible.
Soon, so many people arrived that they were spilling out onto the road, waiting for their turn.
And, it came to pass, that a group of friends caught word of the Word’s arrival and they put together a plan. Their friend was paralyzed, and so they carried him through the streets of Capernaum until they arrived at the house. Upon discovering the size of the crowd, the climbed up on top of the house, used shovels to dig through the roof, and they lowered their friend to the Lord.
When Jesus saw their faith… notice, not the faith of the paralytic… when he saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
If the story ended there, it would already be radical enough for the Gospel. It’s got all the markings of a remarkable tale: friendship, hope, overcoming adversity, and a delightful conclusion. And yet, Jesus forgives the man his sins.
Isn’t that strange?
If this were a proper story, Jesus would’ve reached out to the man, and healed his legs.
But instead, Jesus forgives his sins.
Of course, the story keeps going because some scribes were near by, the do-gooding religious types. Perhaps they couldn’t help but hope for a glimpse of heaven on earth, even if they didn’t really believe everything they heard. And they grumbled.
“Who does this guy think he is? It’s blasphemy I tell you! No one can forgive but God alone.”
And Jesus said, “Check this out: Which is easier, to tell him he’s forgiven or to tell him to walk. But so that you may know heaven is standing here right in front of you, I’m going to do both.”
He looked over at the forgiven paralytic and said, “Go home.” And the man stood up and left.
Everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
The family stood staring at me, pondering why this story, of all stories, was the one I proclaimed at the grave. And then I said, “Gathering here, we are like those friends who carry the one we love to Jesus. With our faith, we witness to the promised truth that this is not goodbye, this is, “until next time.” Until we gather together at the Supper of the Lamb that goes on without end.
And then I reached down to the dirt, laid it on the casket, and I sang: Softly and Tenderly…
It is a strange thing to be a Christian. There was a time, of course, when it was expected or assumed that Christianity was a normative experience for people. But now, today, the church is a rather radical witness to the work of God in the world. In short, we approach the throne of God with a trembling hope because we know that we cannot take any of this for granted.
To be a Christian is to know that time is now fleeting the moments are passing. It is to know that we are defined not by our mistakes but by the grace of God. It is to know the great Good News that Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Those descriptors might not sound strange to our ears, but to the world they are as confounding as can be. The world tells us that, so long as we purchase certain products, and dress a particular way, that we can hang around forever. The world hangs our mistakes around our necks and compels us to carry them everywhere. And the world forces us to believe that we are completely alone and can only ever depend on ourselves.
To be a Christian is to be different.
We worship a God who became one of us, who arrived in the muck and mire of our lives, to be the difference that makes us different! We follow the Lord Jesus who is not only capable of forgiving our sins, but also of raising the dead!
The fundamental difference between the world and the church, is that the world assumes we can earn or achieve everything we need, whereas the church reminds us that the everything we really need has already been finished for us in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the church exists to mediate Christ to us through sermon, song, and sacrament. The church teaches us who we are. The church proclaims the Good News to a world drowning in bad news.
Notice, the friends from scripture today bring their friend to Jesus and they won’t let anything stand in their way. The do something wild and reckless: They trust that this 1st century rabbi can make a way where there is no way, and they’re willing to dig through a roof to see it happen!
And then, when Jesus does his Jesus thing, the crowds glorify God and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”
When the church is at her best, we all depart with those same words, either aloud or in our hearts, and we can’t help ourselves from living differently because of the Good News.
Today we’re talking about, and thinking about, witness, the final aspect of church membership. When someone joins a United Methodist Church they make a vow to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It’s all too easy to take the theme of witness and boil it down to something like a church growth strategy.
Put another way, we often confuse witness with evangelism.
There’s a church, not too far from here, that is busting at the seams. Each week they have to pull out more and more folding chairs to make space for people. And, when the pastor was asked to what he could attribute the increase, he said, “It’s our iPad giveaway program.”
You see, at this particular church, they raffle off an iPad every single Sunday, and you receive more raffle tickets depending on the number of people you bring to church with you.
Those people are being converted to something, but I don’t think we can call it the kingdom of God.
Notably, in our denominational neck of the woods, there’s a rather sobering statistic that haunts me: Today, the average United Methodist invites someone else to worship once every 38 years.
And even so, the location of the church today is a great gift! For, it gives us the space and opportunity to rediscover how unusual it is for us, Methodists of all people, to be the church of Jesus Christ.
The early church grew, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have, not because they gave away tablets, or went door to door, or handed out tracks in downtown Corinth.
The early church grew because the witness of Christ in the world was life-changing.
Rich Mullins, who I’ve been quoting a lot recently, once said, “I am a Christian, not because someone explained the buts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.”
In other words, people carried him to Jesus.
The God we worship is a healer of broken things. And yet, the brokenness that God heals is not just our broken bodies. God heals broken hearts, broken spirits, broken promises.
In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we see how the one who said, “Your sins are forgiven,” had the power to do exactly that.
Notice, the paralytic did absolutely nothing to earn his forgiveness. Save for the fact that he had some good friends. And those good friends were already living according to the difference that Christ makes.
All of us this morning are here, whether we know it or not, because someone or some people carried us to Jesus. We are products of those who made Jesus real for us, those who were willing to be nuts and bolts.
And, in the end, that exactly what it means to witness. It’s living according to the Good News of God in the world as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends we did not know we had. Friends who are possible only because Jesus has gathered us in for God’s great parable to the world we call the church. Friends who are willing to carry us to Jesus over and over again because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. Amen.