Sunday, 4 March 2007

Friends, Faith, Forgiveness and Freedom

MARK 2:1-12

Well known story of hole in the roof. Jesus had come home. Tom Wright points out that it is not often mentioned that the house that Jesus was in was probably his own, and that the roof that was destroyed was his.

Four words: friends, faith, forgiveness and freedom.

FRIENDS AND FAITH

We have here a group of men (notice, there were more than four) who cared about the paralysed man: they cared enough to do something. Jesus is back at home - they had heard the stories about the healings that he had done - they thought Jesus could do something for the paralysed man – and so they bring him to Jesus.

Not only that. These friends did not give up when it began to get difficult. They bring the paralysed man on his stretcher to the house, but when they get there, there is an enormous crowd. Everybody is there. They’ve come to see the local boy made good. They’ve come to see some of these wonderful things that others have spoken about. They’ve brought their sick.

And the friends could have given up. But they didn't. So they climb up onto the roof of Jesus' house, make a hole in it - and lower the paralysed man through it.

Friendship is desperately undersold in our society. But this is real friendship: one person going out of their way for another person.

A friend is someone who is prepared to sacrifice themselves for you. It doesn’t ask, ‘What can I get out of this but what can I put into this?’ The Good Samaritan was a friend to the man who was beaten up. The bloke sailing across the Indian Ocean, who turned back to rescue a competitor - who he didn't particularly like - was a friend to that competitor. And Jesus said, 'Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends'. He goes on to say: ‘I call you my friends’.


And when we sacrifice ourselves for another - maybe miss watching a programme that we had promised ourselves, or stop doing what we had planned or chosen to do for the sake of another, or give up the possibility of getting money for another, or miss out on a holiday, or go out of our way to help another - we are being a friend to the other.

And what made the friendship of these particular people so important was not just simply that they were willing to bring the paralysed man to Jesus, but that they were prepared to go to extreme lengths to do so. They were even prepared to risk the wrath of Jesus by digging through his roof.

True friendship really wishes for the best for another person. And the claim of Christianity is that Jesus is the best that any person could ever have. It is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who offers us acceptance, forgiveness, a true identity, the way to begin to discover peace, purpose, a future. Knowing him is worth more than everything else. I’ve been invited to speak to the Cathedral Education group later this month on the question, ‘Is there a place for evangelism in the 21st Century?’ But what I have said holds true not just for the 1st century when Jesus was around and Mark’s gospel was written. It holds true for today. And true friendship is about bringing people to Jesus.

And notice what the passage says: "When Jesus saw their faith" - the faith of the friends, not the faith of the paralysed man - he said ..
Friendship is about having sufficient faith in Jesus that we are prepared to bring another person to Jesus, especially when that person is crushed and paralysed and unable to have any faith for themselves.

It is often said to people who are sick: "Have faith", but it is precisely when we are sick or crushed that we find that faith has gone. And I do get angry when I hear a person saying to someone who is sick: 'You need to have more faith'. But it is precisely when we are sick or when we have been taken out of life that we find faith so difficult. It is not necessarily that we do not believe, but we simply do not have the energy to exercise faith. And that is the point when we need others to exercise faith for us. We need others to bring us to Jesus. To pray with us; to pray for us.

One of the good things about having a liturgy, set prayers, is that they give us space to both pray our own prayers, but also to pray the prayers of others - especially when we cannot do anything else. We are quite literally relying on the faith of others. The archdeacon spoke last week about being carried along on the prayers of others. That is why what you as a choir is important: it is not just about making a beautiful sound. It really is about carrying people to Jesus.

At any point in our church, at any time, there will be some people who are here who have faith - they are here because they wish to hear from Jesus and meet with him - and there will be people who really do not know whether we have faith or not. We’re like the paralysed man – we need to be carried by others.

And we can be friends to people by bringing them to Jesus: by allowing them to join in with both the prayers of the church and with our prayers.

And if you are not sure whether you have faith, remember this paralysed man who was brought into the presence of Jesus by friends who did have faith - and that was enough for him.

Second set of two words are:

FORGIVENESS AND FREEDOM

The hole is in the roof and the man is lying at Jesus feet.

Everyone is expecting that Jesus will heal him. That is what Jesus has been doing in Mark 1: 'The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases'. And we can guess that is what the paralysed man was expecting.

And maybe, when we do not have faith, and we rely on the faith of others, we are looking for a miracle, for healing. 'God, I'm not sure I believe, but answer the prayers of these Christians and heal me or heal the person I'm worried about'. I know that people, and particularly non-believers, often say to me how grateful they are when Christians have been praying for them.

But the point about coming to Jesus is that you need to let him do what he would choose to do. And Jesus did not first of all come to bring physical healing, not at this point. If he had, he would have abolished death once and for all. Jesus came to point forward to the time when there would be no more death or pain or sickness. But for the time being, Jesus has come to bring FREEDOM.

Jesus came to bring freedom from sin, freedom from the condemnation that sin brings, freedom from false identity – whereby we define ourselves by things and not by God’s love for us, freedom to become a human being made in the image of God.

And that freedom comes through forgiveness and divine acceptance.

And so Jesus looks at the man on the ground and says: "Son, your sins are forgiven".

Sin effects us whether we are physically paralysed or not. Sin gets a grip on us: We do things that we really wish we did not do. We do things that make us secretly ashamed. We think things and we do things that, if others knew, would make us die. One Christian speaker, who was introduced to an audience in glowing terms said, 'Thank you for that very warm welcome; but I assure you that if you could look into my heart you would spit in my face'. And sin gets a grip on us. Our fears control and paralyse us. Destructive habits become ingrained. We become crushed by the judgements that we pass on others. It is actually sin and not sickness that prevents us from living an authentically human life.

And Jesus cuts to the bone by speaking four words: 'Your sins are forgiven'.

In the background of Mark's gospel is the theme of opposition that Jesus faced - an opposition that led to his death on the cross.

And it is now, for the first time, that we are introduced to the opposition. They are led by the religious leaders of the time. And they are horrified that Jesus is declaring the forgiveness of sins. 'Only God’, they say, ‘can forgive sins'. And for God to forgive sins, it has to happen at the temple after a sacrifice has been made. You cannot simply go around telling people, 'Your sins are forgiven'. For a start it strips them of power. Why do people need to go to the temple and pay for the sacrifices if all they need to do is come to Jesus. It was the same at the time of the reformation. The church had hit on the wheeze of saying to people, we will declare your sins forgiven, but only after you pay us some money. And the reformers came along and said, 'It doesn't actually say that in the bible. It says that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and cleanse us - nothing there about paying money'.

But the religious leaders of the time are horrified. 'What authority has Jesus to say that?' But Jesus answers, 'So that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ .... 'So that you know that my words have authority to change lives’, .. He turns to the paralysed man and says .. ‘Get up, take your mat, and go home.'

Up to now the man has been purely a passive agent. He has had nothing to do. We don’t even know what he has been thinking. Up to now he has simply been lying there. But now he becomes an agent. Now he has to do something. He has to hear Jesus’ words and receive them.

And up to now I’ve talked about friendship in terms of what we do for others. But friendship is also about receiving: receiving the sacrifice of another for me. And we find that incredibly hard.

But the paralysed man has to receive the gift of his friends and the gift of Jesus: the gift of forgiveness and freedom.

So today we may be like the friends, bringing the paralysed man to Jesus: praying for others, inviting others to join with our prayers. Or maybe today we are the paralysed man. We're here, but we have needed to have been carried. And now, as we lie at Jesus feet, not quite sure who he is or what he is going to do, I do hope that we are prepared to hear those words again: 'Your sins are forgiven', and to receive. God knows what is going on in your heart and mind. God knows where you are and what you are doing. God knows how crushed you might be feeling. And God offers forgiveness and freedom.

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