Mark 2:1-12 (Back to Church Sunday 2011)

This story of Jesus healing the paralysed man is one of the most familiar stories from the bible. I remember it from Sunday School, where we made a model of the house out of polystyrene with little people made out of pipe-cleaners. It is one of my abiding memories of childhood. And, as we've just demonstrated, it's still a great story for the kids.
But that can rather obscure the impact of the story (which was, after all, told for the benefit of adults, not children). So if we dig deeper (as it were, through the roof!) what do we find this passage telling us?
Well, most obviously, it is telling us that Jesus isn't just a man. He's also God. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" the super-religious know-it-alls ask. And in reply Jesus seems to be saying "is that so? Well watch this then - 'son, your sins are forgiven, get up and walk' - okay, now who do you say I am?" Only one conclusion is possible and it's a pretty staggering one. From the dawn of time, human beings have speculated about who or what God might be. And here he is, standing right in front us speaking in our own language, revealing himself to us completely. The search for God ends here.
What else is it telling us? Well, like all these gospel accounts, it's not just telling us who Jesus is. It's also telling us who we are. They're like a series of paintings in an art gallery. In order to understand a painting, one of the key questions you ask is "where am I in the painting"? Sometimes you're in the painting symbolically, sometimes the painting seems to reach out and grab you right where you are, and sometimes you discover that the main person in the painting is actually you - sharing your experience and your fate.
And so it is here. Because the second thing this account tells us is that sins paralyse us, but forgiveness heals and sets us back on our feet. It's not immediately obvious is it? The man on the stretcher must have felt like most of us when he comes to Jesus looking for a solution to a practical problem (his illness) only to find Jesus telling him his sins were forgiven. "Just a typical Holy Man dishing out phoney spiritual remedies while they leave you lying helpless on the bed." Only later in the story does he realise that the forgiveness of his sins is what cures his paralysis.
Now, the word "sin" is a much misunderstood word. We usually say it means the bad things we do. But they're actually just symptoms of sin in the same way that coughing and spluttering are symptoms of a cold. Sin is actually a state of being - the predicament you find yourself in when you live your life detached from the God who is the source of your life. The actual word "sin" comes from an old Greek term for an arrow falling short of its target. So when we Christians talk about us all being sinners, what we really mean is that we've all lived lives detached from God and consequently fall short of the target. And that is paralysing.
It works in different ways for different people, but the same dynamic is at the heart of it. We have freewill choices and instead of following God's advice we follow our hearts. And unfortunately our hearts are a bit of a mixed bag. So sometimes it produces good choices and sometimes very bad ones. And those bad choices back us into a corner and suddenly we're not free any more, we're trapped. Paralysed in fact.
Now, I know I can point to many such instances in my life, but there is one instance in particular when I know that was true in a very powerful way. I know people often think that vicars are chosen because they're terribly good people. But actually most of the time they're chosen because, like me, they've experienced at first hand the healing that comes from Jesus after your own very bad choices had paralysed you. And that's me. I am the man on the stretcher.
In my case, my very bad choice (and I'm going to let your imaginations run riot over what it was!) did indeed paralyse me in a manner of speaking. It shut down so many avenues of choice for me and it prevented me from functioning - as a father, as a husband, in my work, in the community. And it began to affect every aspect of my life - I lost interest in all my hobbies. I hated going out for fear of who I might meet. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning or to sleep at night. It was paralysing me more and more, until I reversed my choice and came to Jesus for forgiveness. And then I began to walk again. Of course, it took time to get fully back on my feet, but long as it appeared at the time, in reality it was remarkable how quickly his healing took effect.
And forgiveness - that knowledge that God has taken your sin out of your life, wiped the slate clean and assured you that, in his eyes (and they after all are the eyes that really matter) - in his eyes, you're a good bloke and he trusts you, that knowledge really does liberate you and allow you to walk again. And that's why I come walking back to Jesus, week after week, to get the same medicine, because once you've received it, you realise you can't really live with out it.
So in this story, I am the man on the mat. Actually, we all are. Whether you too have made a bad choice and now find yourself paralysed, or whether you just experience it as a kind of emptiness, a vague feeling that life isn't as meaningful as it should be, the same problem is at the root of it. We're all paralysed, one way or another, by our sins.
And the only criteria for coming to church is not that you're a good person (Jesus was never interested in "good" people), but that you recognise yourself in the man on the mat and find the courage to get up on the roof and ask for Jesus' forgiveness. And if you do that, you'll walk. And you'll want to come back again and again for the same medicine. Because with that medicine you can really live. It's like the difference between seeing life in black and white and then suddenly it all bursts into glorious colour, showing up details and beauty you'd never noticed before.
"Child, your sins are forgiven. Stand up and take your mat and walk".
Now, we can't quite finish there, much as I'd like to, because there is another important thing this story is telling us. Sometimes, much as you might be tempted to come to Jesus for healing, Jesus' fans get in the way. In the story, they crowd the house out and even spill out into the street, so you can't get to the door. In real life, sometimes we can be so focussed on Jesus that we ignore the poor fellow on the mat who wants to come for healing. Christians can and do the same today and I'm sorry. In our defence, I can only say that if you become a fan of Jesus, you'll also find him so compelling that you'll find yourself doing the same some time. But it's not right and I'm sorry for it.
But this story is still saying "don't let that put you off. You take responsibility - regardless of what everyone else is doing, there is always a way to Jesus, so get up on the roof, tear it off if you have to, and come to Jesus."
Because the third and final thing this story is telling us is that, whatever his fans might be doing, Jesus is waiting for you. One of the little details that's easy to overlook in this story is that this is Jesus' own house. We think of him as a peripatetic teacher and forget that at the start of his ministry there is this tiny little one-and-only-mention of the fact that he began at home, living in a small Galilean town of Capernaum, where he was probably the local carpenter.

Now, the tearing off of Jesus' roof must have been pretty inconvenient, because they desperately need roofs, not to keep the rain out, but to keep the sun off. But Jesus is not remotely worried about the roof. Practical inconveniences and social niceties and material possessions matter nothing compared to the chance to set you and me back on our feet and bring us back to God so that we can, once more, walk freely.
Jesus wants you and me to come to him, to recognise what it is that paralyses us and to set us free from it. Never mind the fact that Jesus' fans sometimes seem to miss the point and get in the way (don't we all if we're honest?), never mind about the roof in the way, get up there, dig down through the roof and come to Jesus. Receive his forgiveness and stand up, take up your mat and walk.
Preached: Cilburn, Great Strickland, Morland 25.09.2011