Trinity XIX. S. Stephen’s, Athens, GA. 23 October 2022

St. Matthew ix, verse 2 – And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed:  and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In our gospel lesson today some people bring a sick man to Jesus for heal­ing.  This man is said in the King James’ Version to be ‘sick of the palsy’.  A modern translation would say he was paralyzed.  In this lesson our Lord does two things:  first, he forgives the man’s sins; secondly, he heals the man.  Our Lord heals both body and soul.  His first concern is with the soul.  The physical healing comes second and serves to show the reality of Christ’s power over both soul and body.  When our Lord begins with the man’s soul, by saying, ‘Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven them,’ the scribes correctly understand that he is making a divine claim.  Sin is by definition an offence against God.  Since sin offends God, only God or God’s representatives can forgive sins.  When our Lord directly and without qualification says, ‘[T]hy sins be forgiven,’ he is claiming divine authority.  This claim in turn leads into the rest of the story.

We learn four things about the paralytic:  first, he is a man; secondly, he is a sick man; thirdly, he is a sick man suffering from paralysis; and, fourthly, he is a man so incapacitated by his paralysis that he is unable to approach Christ on his own. 

An unnamed man in the gospel often stands for everyman.  The sick man is a representative of humanity in general.  What we learn about humanity from this man is that humanity is sick.  How so?  Well, we are sick of original sin, the worm in the human apple.  Many years ago I spoke with two parishioners, Kenneth Coleman and Susan Tate, about vandalism of the Tate graves in Oconee Hill Cemetery.  I said, ‘I can understand in a way why people steal.  I can’t understand why people senselessly vandalize a cemetery.’  To which Dr. Coleman said, ‘Oh, I thought it was your job to understand that sort of thing.’  And, of course, he was right.  Another story about another former parishioners.  Many, many years ago Walter Frobos restored the paintings in the Georgia capitol building.  Walter told me that every painting in the public spaces of the capitol had pen knife and pencil holes to the height of a tall man’s upstretched arm.  There’s another fruit of original sin. It is my job to understand that, and I do.  The problem is the selfishness and disobedience to God that scar our fallen nature.  We are sick of sin, just as surely as the man in the lesson was paralyzed.

We are told in fact that the man in this lesson is palsied by his sickness.  The problem with original sin is that it leaves us unable to help ourselves.  It leaves us in a kind of paralysis.  Have you ever had a dream in which you want to move, but are unable to do so?  We can’t move when we’re in deep sleep, even if in our dream we want to move.  We’re paralyzed.  The Bible nowhere says, ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ because at the most basic level in the matter of salvation we can’t help ourselves.  We’re paralyzed.  Even if we know what we ought to do, as St. Paul says, there is a war within ourselves, and we do the things that we would not.  We cannot come to God on our own, because sin has left us palsied. 

So, if we are to come to God, we have to be helped.  We cannot come to God, so God comes to us:  ‘For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.’  From the human point of view, in the first instance we have to be carried to God.  This is one of the most the basic facts about baptism.  Infants are carried to the church to be baptized:  they can’t come on their own.  Those Christians who reject infant baptism object that babies don’t have faith.  But in our lesson today there is no sign that the sick man had personal faith.  He was carried to our Lord by his friends, though he presumably didn’t resist.  Our Lord responded when he saw ‘their faith’ — that is the faith of the friends.  In the matter of baptism, even adults who are baptized and who do have personal faith in Christ, still are brought to baptism in a sense by the prayers of the Church and with the help of their sponsors.  But it is infant baptism that is the best symbol of the helplessness of mankind before God’s grace; a helplessness just like the paralysis of the sick man in today’s lesson.  In baptism we come to God with empty hands, with nothing to offer him, except our confidence that he will accept us as gladly as he did the paralytic in today’s lesson.

For our Lord, ‘seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.’  The sick man doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t earn Christ’s notice.  He doesn’t earn forgiveness.  He doesn’t perform good works. He doesn’t proclaim his faith.  He doesn’t even ask for help.  He is just brought by his friends and is then freely forgiven.

What my text today teaches us is this:  God loves us and he chooses to forgive us freely.  God’s love is not conditional.  It is like the love of parents, who love their children long before their children are able to do anything to earn that love.  God loves us because he chooses to do so.  We may reject God’s love, but it still stands on offer if we will only accept it. 

The first thing that Christ says to the sick man is, ‘Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.’  Already before the sick man can say or do anything, Christ calls him ‘Son’.  So too because of Christ’s cross, you and I are God’s children by adoption and grace.  As children of adoption, we are told to ‘Be of good cheer.’  Or to put it another way, Sursum corda, ‘Lift up your hearts.’  Why be cheerful?  Because God says, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’  We are not told to be of good cheer because we are good.  We don’t lift up our hearts because our hearts are pure and brave.  We don’t lift them up because of ourselves at all.  No, ‘We lift them up unto the Lord.’  We lift up our hearts unto the Lord because he has forgiven us our sins.  It is for this forgiveness, which is rooted in the very nature of God as love, that we give thanks unto our Lord God, as is meet and right so to do.  Indeed, it is very meet and right and our bounden duty that we should be of good cheer, at all times and in all places, not because we have weighed our own merits, but because God has pardoned our offences:  ‘[B]e of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.’  If we look upon humanity alone what we see is paralyzed dreams and vandalized beauty, and the decay of all the little fortresses of order and goodness that our civilization has erected.  But if we look at humanity washed in the blood of Christ, then we can be of good cheer, because our sins be forgiven us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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