Tuesday, May 12, 2015

When we need mercy, why does it seem to take so long?


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OVER the next two months Lutheran people tend to become completely helpless.  As we think of the budget, and of elections to our congregation's boards, of Voters' Assembly and pledge cards, we become spiritually bedridden.  In our minds we are all convinced that our congregation is a good thing, but reason can and does give in to feelings, so that our human nature lies helpless under the illness of sin; which brings us to the man in the Gospel.  He had to be brought to Jesus on a bed.  He probably wanted to be brave, magnanimous, enterprising, and wise.  Who wouldn't?  Instead we are cautious, safe, choosing comfort over the adventurous.  We don't like ourselves when we do that, so afterward we regret it.  We can always blame the people who did accept the responsibility, but the distances to involvement appear as giant steps.

The paralytic's friends brought him to Jesus.  The Lord had been across the lake, preaching in Gadara.  As He returned to His house there was a big crowd waiting.  The sick man's friends didn't want to stand in line.  We are not told what distance they traveled, but rather than stand at the door they decided to cut.  They made a hole in the roof and lowered their friend's bed into Jesus' living room.  That put Jesus on the spot.  He had some unusual options:  He could cure the sin or He could cure the disease.  Those were two separate gifts, related, but separate actions.  Just being forgiven would not cure the palsy.  Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, but did not take away the civil penalty for his deeds.  He still suffered capital punishment.  Jesus could offer the paralytic eternal life, but not necessarily health in this one.  Some of those watching were definitely unfriendly.  They had not come because they needed anything, but because they were skeptical, even suspicious.  The great irony is that their chief aim in life was to vindicate the Law.  Jesus had come to do exactly that.

What did Jesus have in His power to give?  As God Incarnate He had the stewardship of miracles.  The sick man's friends had heard about that.  All Israel was buzzing with news of the Galilean Prophet with healing power.  On the other hand, forgiveness was a more difficult matter.  It was the more important gift, but it was infinitely more costly.  By forgiving the man's sins, Jesus was making a pledge.  He was committing Himself to death.  Nevertheless, Jesus gave this gift first, before answering the request of the man's friends.  Of course the sick man was a sinner, as is every son of Adam.  Apparently his conscience was bothering him, because Jesus told him to cheer up.  Then He said five words:  thy sins be forgiven thee.  How fitting that He should say it in five words, because that was the number of His wounds.  Each of these words pierced the Lord as He spoke it, as He committed Himself to covering the debts, and even as He spoke those words, the suspicious were waiting to pounce upon them, to put Him on the cross.

Let's look at it now from the sick man's perspective.  First he heard the call to cheer up.  Life had been a bummer up to this point.  For the first time in a long time he heard good news.  Then He heard Christ's absolution.  With that came the hope that his life would have a happy ending.  We begin our service that way, confessing our sins and receiving absolution as a solid foundation for all that we shall hear that day.  It was only a few minutes after that when this man heard Jesus tell him to pick up his bed.  He had been given the stewardship of healthy legs.  In the same way He gives us opportunities to grow in holiness and to do good deeds.  The paralytic was a sign for the people of Capernaum; as we are a sign for the people of Cleveland that we are forgiven, and that the Holy Spirit lives in us.

There were those present who resented the Lord's forgiveness.  they said This man is blaspheming.  So today there are many who are impatient with the Law and the Gospel, preferring programs and self-help groups.  We need to listen carefully to Jesus' question.  Which is easier to say:  "Your sins are forgiven" or "you can overcome your social problem"?  Which is easier to say:  "Jesus can make you holy" or "Jesus can make you nice"?  It is ever so tempting to neglect the real need to deal with what is called the "felt need."  People lie bedridden with spiritual palsy.  Instead of seeking to be cured, they seek out those who will make them feel good about it.  Our fellow Christians support this congregation to assure us that we will always have the  ministry of Word and Sacrament among us.  You might say they lower us into the presence of Jesus for a new outpouring of grace.   When we heard the Gospel, not only do we hear the same five words that Jesus spoke to the paralytic, we also hear of the five wounds, and of the resurrection.  The cross stands as the permanent assurance of forgiveness.  On the third day the Lord raised Himself from the bed of death, from the total palsy of the grave.  This time as He stood up once again He held the keys of the kingdom.  Let no one question His authority again.  His authority comes from Calvary.  The one who forgives our debts is the one who paid them.

The holy ministry Jesus gives us here is the same authority to forgive sins that we saw at work in Capernaum.  In Catechism we learned to call it the Office of the Keys because of the figure Jesus used in Matthew 16, where He spoke of forgiving as freeing and retaining sins as binding.  Jesus looked ahead as He spoke absolution, but the pastor today looks backward to the sacrifice that has already been made.  As long as the earth remains, the ministers of Christ are stewards of the mysteries of God.  Through our work here forgiveness is an active force, and we have access to it.  There is nothing more valuable than this.  We know that our sins are forgiven.  We are certain that the pastor's forgiveness is the same as God's.  We can count on it.  We know it to be objectively and absolutely true.  The only reason faith has any value is because it has this to attach to: the perfect sacrifice has been offered.

Can we say anything about the second gift?  When do we rise and go home?  Only at the end of our life.  That might  mean the end of your individual life, or it might mean the end of humanity on the planet.  That is a question of timing.  Either way, the road home is the way of the cross.  Jesus made a total commitment to us, the proper gift timely given.  By His grace we follow Him.  AMEN

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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