Friday, July 24, 2009

Sunday of the Paralytics

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen!
Indeed, He is risen!

The whole issue, brothers and sisters, of miracles is one that is perplexing to us. It’s perplexing to us because a pure and simple miracle is an in-breaking of the divine into the natural order, defined in the prayers of vespers in this way: “When God wills, the order of nature is overturned for He does whatsoever He pleases.”

In the nineteenth century, and even back to the time of Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century, there were intellectuals who wanted to take the Bible and remove from it everything that was miraculous. Their opinion was that there must be a scientific or intellectual explanation for everything, and so they even tried to say, “Well, Jesus really did feed the crowd with the loaves and fish, because you know, those greedy Jews – stereotype, stereotype – really had food and He just got them to share it.” Or, on the other hand, some who were a little less direct said, “Well, he sped up the operation by which bread grows out of the earth and fish multiply. It was just a speeding up of time.” These are explanations which I have actually read in books written at that time. These people had their big problem with the idea of God’s in-breaking into nature, and the reason why it was so problematic to them was that God does not do it very often.

And so, we’re faced with two issues: 1) Why doesn’t God do it all the time? Why isn’t every paralytic immediately braced? Why isn’t every blind man immediately given sight? That’s one question we have. The other question is, “Well, since God created us and He doesn’t choose to instantaneously heal every infirmity we have, isn’t God really pretty mean?” Or, to put it into the terms of the agnostics I have every term in my religion class, “How can a good God allow such a thing to happen?” What we don’t understand about miracles is that miracles are not essentially magic tricks, they’re not even essentially medical cures. But miracles are signs. They are signs in the present age of the age to come. When they are performed, either by our Lord in the scriptures, or by the disciples of whom He said, “And these things which I do, ye shall do, and greater deeds than these ye shall do because I go to my Father;” when they are performed in response to the prayers of the church, they are performed in order to increase faith. They are performed in order to deepen understanding. They are performed in order to grant a deeper degree of piety. In other words, they are performed for people whose salvation is dependent upon them.

In both of the cases today, the men who were lame were told by the agent of their healing to stand up, take up their beds, and walk. In either case, the man Anneas who had been lame for eight years, or the man at the pool who had been laying their every day for thirty years, would most logically have been expected to say, “No, I can’t walk.” But that didn’t happen. Something overcame them, something about the power of our Lord working at Bethesda and also working through the holy apostle Peter, empowered them to immediately believe they could and their faith that caused them to stand upright, it was the product of their having accepted the healing. And so, in the case of these people, both our Lord and St. Peter, performed an image of resurrection. What does resurrection mean? It means to stand up again. Both of these men were unable to stand. Both of them had decided that their life was going to be one of begging for shekels, lying in the corner of the street. They had both abdicated hope. The one simply becoming a beggar, and the other lying by the water in some kind of vain expectation that perhaps the next time that the water moved, somebody would kick him into the water by accident. But neither one of them really believed, but hearing the Word they responded in their hearts and they were raised not just for their sake, they were raised for the sake of those who would see and hear it.

Nevertheless signs are two edged swords. Signs, miracles, are given on the one hand to increase the faith of those who hunger and thirst for faith, and also to try those who do not hunger and thirst for faith. So as the crowd rejoiced at the lame man taking up his bed and walking, the Pharisees immediately began to formulate a formal charge against Jesus. He was a bad rabbi. He was a false teacher. For did not the Law say, “Thou shall do no work upon the Sabbath”? And had not the rabbis said that one could not so much as carry in one’s hand a peppercorn to sweeten one’s bread – you could put it in your mouth and carry it to synagogue in your mouth, but you couldn’t carry it in your hand because that was doing labor on the Sabbath, it was carrying something. So a man carrying furniture on the Sabbath, wasn’t that a great breech of that law? And these people could not see because they had blinded their eyes and hardened their own hearts, they could not see that if a man thirty years lame rose up, took up his bed, and walked, that there was a new in-breaking of the power of God, that a new thing was at work in the world, that this was the premonition, the foretaste of the new creation, that if God had raised up this thirty-year paralyzed man, so on the last day, He would raise up all who slept in the dust of the earth.

So, you see, miracles are not unmixed blessings for all who see them. They make some people resentful; they make some people jealous. The very fact we claim that they exist makes some people more doubting than they would have been otherwise because they are not prepared in their hearts to receive good gifts. There are people who want to have a god, but they want him to be a very small god. How do you say it in Russian, “moly”? Is “moly” little? I heard once about a girl who came over and visited as an exchange student, and she had in a bag around her neck a little statue, probably something from Siberia that she called, “the little god.” She wanted a little god hanging around her neck, not a big God who saw all time and all ages, and whose purpose extended beyond our individual feelings, concerns, anxieties at this moment but who transcended them, who turned all of the dirt of our suffering and our sorrow into jewels, precious stones, by the way that we reacted to those things. They want a little god, a god who is there when they say, “Gimme, gimme gimme.” A god who never says, “Say thank you,” and a god who won’t mess with you during this life, but when you die he’ll let you go to heaven. That’s the kind of god they want, and so in-breakings grace, weeping icons, myrrh bearing icons, wonder working relics, great miraculous phenomena, to these people are a pain.

Now let me answer the question, “Why doesn’t God just heal everyone?” The answer is, “He has. He will, but not now.” This is only preschool. We’re awaiting our eternal university education in the kingdom of heaven, where we won’t have to worry about grade cards, and we won’t have bad dreams that we never finished high school – how many have had that dream? You had to go back and take the last test. And we won’t hear any bells. We will go from strength to strength and from knowledge to knowledge and rejoice in the deep understanding of the mind of God that He gives us in each eternal instant. God has raised us up.

And now, why does God allow suffering and sorrow in the world? God didn’t create the world with suffering and sorrow. He said on the seventh day, “It is very good.” It is human sin, human sin sometimes directed toward individuals, individuals who murder, and molest, and rob, and injure, by actions, by words. It is sometimes the phenomenon of nature gone crazy because of human rebellion against it, and we now realize how many of the natural phenomena are the consequence of our misuse of what God’s given us. But there are also things that lawyers used to call “acts of God” because they had to blame someone, that are just nature gone crazy. Things like a cancer. Cancer cell is the antichrist – antichrist means that which stands in the place of Christ, it doesn’t mean against Christ. A cancer cell has everlasting life. It’s a cell that instead of replicating itself six or seven times and then dying like it’s supposed to, keeps going and going and going like that little bunny on the battery ads, and so it just keeps multiplying. It doesn’t stop when it’s supposed to. It doesn’t want to die, and it doesn’t unless we kill it. But if God were to intervene now, instantly – as He will intervene when He makes everything right, and everything straight, and everything holy, and everything sweet, as He will do in that day – if He intervened now, then there would be no faith on earth. Then there would only be the divine insurance policy: everyone would be willing whatever it took to get what they wanted as long as they got it right now with no price and no penalty. God does not break into the order of nature often, and only for our good and out of necessity, because it is necessary that we believe because we know God and love Him, and wish to be with Him, and not because He is the big sugar daddy in the sky who gives us all the prizes as soon as we ask for them, who gave us a cosmic credit card. It’s not, as some of our Pentecostal friends say, “Name it and claim it,” gang. That’s not the way it is. We Orthodox know that. Most of our people have suffered for most of our history. We’ve never had much time being on time. Not much time being on top. We were always under somebody’s heal. But it was for the perfection of souls, for the grinding out of salvation, for the production of martyrs and saints whose prayers drag the rest of us into heaven.

So today we see the two miracles of these men being healed. And we see that in both cases, there was an example given. It doesn’t say, “And the next day St. Peter set up a corner stand and said, ‘Come see me if you’re lame, and I’ll heal you.’” No he didn’t. God told Peter, “Heal this man.” Peter had said, “In the name of Christ, stand up,” and the man did. If Peter had tired to turn it into, “In the name of Peter, stand up,” he would have been a big flop, a big failure, and even it did work it would have been magic. It would not have been faith. And now we come to poor Tabatha. This is an example of a miracle that benefited others and not the recipient of it. Tabatha was already clearly a saint. She was heaven-bound. She was a deaconess – one of those women who took communion of shut in women because men weren’t allowed to go into the houses of women in those days unless their husband was there. She was one of those women who assisted the apostles in the baptism of women. That was her ministry, but she went beyond that. She also was, like I said about deacons last week, someone who took care of the poor. She made shirts, she made tunics, for the naked and those whose clothing was worn thin. She dressed a multitude of people with her own hands, out of her own pocket. And people loved her so much that when she died, and her soul was about to go into the hands of God, they begged Peter to bring her back. Now she was still right there, remember it is three days before the soul departs, so it was a near death experience. So when Peter called Tabatha and said, “Tabatha, arise,” it wasn’t for Tabatha’s sake. Everyone I have known who was a good person who has experienced a near death experience has said, “You know, I guess I’m glad to be back, but it was really great being there, being drawn by the light.” And we don’t know what that light is, but it’s an icon of the uncreated light that’s drawing them towards it. Now this woman’s miracle was not because people needed her, not because she needed to be alive or even wanted to be, it was because the church there, in Lydia, needed to be built up by having her take care of people who couldn’t take care of themselves.

So when old people say to me, and sometimes young people with great pain and great sickness, say to me, “Why am I alive? Why doesn’t God just take me?” my answer is, ‘He’s got something for you to do and you don’t get to go till you do it. And it may be that it will be in your old age when all you can do is sit like Archbishop John in his rocking chair and open your prayer book and pray for the whole world. And maybe those prayers are the prayers that tip the balance of souls, the balance of nations, the balance of eternity. Maybe through your prayers, the question that our Lord asks, ‘The Son of Man,’ He said, ‘will come, but will He find faith on His coming? Faith among the living on earth?’ Maybe that will be answered in the positive and not in the negative because you, in your pain, transcended your pain; in your sorrow, overcame your sorrow; in your suffering, allowed Christ’s suffering to trample it down, and through persistence in prayer, you did as St. Seraphim said: you saved your own soul and you brought salvation to ten thousand who you never knew.

To the God who works miracles at all times and in all things, and whose will is done; to the God who asks of us only to surrender our own will to His and all will be well, be glory unto ages of ages. Christ is risen!

Indeed, He is risen!

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