You know how he must have felt. Hoping against hope, yet fearing the endless struggle that was his life would never end, his trust for other people gone, he’s a wrecked shell of man: paralyzed, he can’t even raise a beggar’s cup to compete with the rest of the social outcasts at the city gate. But then, some friends from his old walking days tell him about the prophet who’s making the rounds in Galilee, the prophet who casts out demons, who heals epileptics, who talks about the coming of God’s reign in words so real as to make a man almost believe again.
‘So, how I am supposed to see this healer? I’m stuck here, lying on my cot, dependent on you to feed me, to change my rags like I’m a baby, he’ll never come into this place.”
His friends smile. “We’ve got a plan,” they say, “we’ll carry you there.”
And struggling with his weight, they set off down the dirt streets towards the house of Jonah the fisherman, stumbling occasionally on the rocky path. For the first time since his accident, he begins to believe that something good just might happen for him again. He feels every wagon rut in the road, every tip of the cot jars him to his bones, and the pain makes him cry. But what if he can see the prophet? What if he does get healed? It would be worth every soul-jarring jolt of agony to be able to walk again.
He can hear the crowds on the road, but all he can see is the empty blue sky, and his friends? laughing faces. They begin singing an old tavern song, from the days when they all raised silver cups in unison. One of them reaches down and pats him gently. “There are a lot of people here, but don’t worry, we’ll get in.” But he’s not so sure.
The crowd has gathered all around the house, and spilled out into Capernaum’s street. He friends try push their way through, but the crowd is not moving. They have their own pains in need of healing, their own demons to be cast out. “Please,” say his friends, “please let us through. It will only take a moment. Can’t you see that this man is paralyzed?”
If anyone takes notice of them at all, it is with a brusque, “No. Get out of here. This is for the religious people, not for the likes of you.”
They are stuck in the street. The sun beats down on him and he closes his eyes. It’s better this way. He deserves all the pain. His life hasn’t exactly been faithful. God did this to him, the Rabbi has told him shortly after the accident, because of the way he had lived. Things like this don’t happen to people who are faithful. He never goes back to the Synagogue.
His friends set down the cot. “We’ll be back in a minute.” And so he stares into the empty sky, imagining there is no heaven, at least not for him, and the despair clings to him like the dust from the road.
His friends try the back door, but the crowd is even thicker there. “So now what?” they say to each other. “How do we get in?” Then one of them spies the ladder, leading up to the flat roof. “Look, we take him up to the roof and let him in through the ceiling.”
“You cannot possibly be serious. Even if we can get him up the ladder, how do we get through the roof?” The one who saw the ladder has an idea. “Let’s tie a rope around him, dig through the sod, and pry the roof panel off.”
“Right, that’ll work. The police will be here before we even get started.”
“And since when are you afraid of the police”? The friends chuckle. “Besides, everybody in town is so busy trying to get in through the doors, they’ll never notice us. You get a rope, I’ll get a knife.”
And so they begin to wrap the rope around him. “What are you doing to me”? He squirms inside his motionless body.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got a plan.” Somehow that doesn’t sound so comforting. Their plans so far haven’t worked too well. But, trussed up like a goat bound for the altar, they hoist him again, two at the top, and two below. They nearly drop him twice. And then he’s lying on the roof top and he begins to hear them cutting something.
“What now? What are you doing”?
“Making our own door.”
“You are tearing up Jonah’s house? We are going to get arrested and executed.”
His friends are too busy to answer. They move him again, and now he’s being lowered into the room. The cot swings crazily from side to side, and there’s a shout. It’s Jonah’s son, Simon Peter. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing? You cut a hole in our roof!”
There are a hundred gasps from the crowd, as he lands unceremoniously atop three people who pushing to get to the prophet. There is a man standing over him, his eyes alight with the strangest fire, but he is laughing, not angry. “That’s quite a feat of determination that you pulled, my child.” He can see his friends, peering down through the hole in the roof. They are laughing too.
The prophet’s voice is gentle, like a cool breeze off Lake Galilee. “Son,” he says, untying the rope, “your sins are forgiven.”
There are a hundred simultaneous gasps of shock, a hundred shaking heads, a hundred murmurs in the crowd. “I knew it,” whispers one of the scribes, “I knew he was a fake.”
“Yes,” says another smugly, “This is blasphemy. And not two hundred feet from the Synagogue.”
“No one,” says another, shaking his head, “no one can forgive sins, but God.”
The prophet stands up. “So which would be easier? To say, “Your sins are forgiven”? Or “Stand up, pick up you cot and walk”“?
The Rabbis are silent, seething. This guy was going to be trouble, they had all known it. Now they have proof.
The prophet turns back to look at him. “Just so you know that I have the power to heal, spiritually as well as physically,” and he takes the man’s useless hand, “Take up your cot, my son, and walk out of here. You are healed.”
And just like that, a lifetime of no’s became a yes. His fingers work. His toes wiggle. He jumps to his feet, for the first time in a long time. He looks at the prophet, struggling to understand. The crowd breaks out in cheers. “It’s okay,” says the prophet, “you can go.” And before anyone can say anything, he grabs the cot and runs toward the door. The crowd parts, like the Red Sea before Moses, and he’s off to start living again.
You know he felt, don’t you? All the dreams that you had for your child or your marriage or your career have come to an end. There is nothing in front of you but closed doors, each marked with large red No. You are at the end. There is nothing left. The cancer has spread, your wife is drinking again, your boss handed you the envelope with the pink sheet folded neatly inside. It’s all No.
Until you see Jesus standing over you. Jesus who is God’s Yes for all God’s promises to you. Jesus who can heal with a word, Jesus who can take away your emptiness, Jesus who tells you to start again, to live again, to run and jump and dance again.
That’s what forgiveness means: the end of life on a stretcher, the end of being paralyzed. The end of being caught in the web of self-recrimination and self-hatred and what-if’s and I-wish-I-hads. The beginning of life again.
We all get to the paralyzed places, where we can’t move any more, where we’ve run out of options. Even churches get there: the place where growth stops and hope stops and the music is hollow and the liturgy is stale and even the wine tastes sour on your tongue. You can give in to it, or you can get up on the roof, cut a hole to where Jesus is and get healed of your paralysis.
Jesus is God’s Yes, because Jesus has revealed that we are forgiven. Not because we deserve it, not because we’ve done something good. We may even have done things that are as destructive as cutting holes in somebody’s ceiling. We are forgiven because God wants it that way. God has always wanted that for us.
But we forget. We try to bribe God with our religious devotion, our holiness, our own silly, sorry righteousness that’s as meaningless as the empty sky over our heads. But God doesn’t want any of that. That’s all stuff that always ends at the No door. God simply wants us to know that we are healed, take up our cots and walk out of here. To go and spread the good news that you don’t have to do anything to be saved, because you already have been saved, you already have been forgiven, you already are healed. You’ve never seen anything like this—but only because you haven’t looked.
There is no Old Testament God of Wrath who got upstaged by a New Testament God of Love. It’s always been the same God, trying to get through our religious ceiling, to get us into the presence of grace. We are the ones who are paralyzed, but our sins our forgiven. We are the ones who hold the brushes, dripping with red, who have painted all the doors No colored. We are the ones who have decided who gets in to see the Savior, thinking that its blasphemy when God reaches down and anoints somebody who’s gay or somebody who’s got an addiction, or somebody who’s got AIDS or somebody whose skin is a different color than ours. We are shocked, but God isn’t. Because God has been saying Yes for a very long time.
Just so know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins: stand up, take up your cot and walk. Yes, you. Yes, me. Yes, all of us. Yes. Amen.