In today’s gospel, Jesus told the paralyzed man two things. “Yours sins are forgiven.” And, “Rise and walk.” The man was brought to Jesus by friends. Without them, he would not have been experienced forgiveness or healing.
The encounter between Jesus and the paralyzed man is a model for our own encounter with Jesus. Sin paralyzes us. It forces us to live with guilt, shame and fear and aim at unworthy goals. Sin binds us up in self-centeredness and hinders us from being able to love. Jesus says to each of us, “Your sins and forgiven…Rise and walk.”
The Bible uses the word “walk” to describe how we live. The epistle exhorts us “not to walk as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind.” The unbelieving world, handicapped by sin, is unable to enjoy the fullness of life as God intended. Because our sins are forgiven, we are able to rise and walk in a new way. We are able to put away “all lying, and all bitterness and wrath and anger.” We are able to do good work to the glory of God and for the good of others. We are able to forgive as we have been forgiven.
In order to “rise and walk,” we have to experience forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness is understood in merely legal terms: God has released us from a debt, which gives us the hope that he won’t punish us for our sin in eternity. However, the essence of forgiveness is a restored relationship with God. The proper image is the family, not the courtroom. When God forgives us, he accepts us as we are and welcomes us back into the family of God.
This highlights the importance of the Christian community in the experience of forgiveness. The experience of forgiveness is mediated, in part, by our interaction with people in the Body of Christ. The priest, with the authority given by Christ, proclaims, “Your sins are forgiven.” But all the people of God mediate Christ’s presence through their various gifts. All the people of God minister to the penitent the reality of forgiveness through actual restored relationships in the church. It will be very hard to experience the truth that Jesus forgives all of our sins and accepts us as we are unless the members of the Body of Christ, the people who represent Christ to the world, also forgive us and accept us.
This is why a non-communal Christianity doesn’t “work” in the sense that it doesn’t create new people. If my forgiveness is only between myself and God, then I will be free to rise and walk only when I am alone with God. But if the forgiveness I receive from God is also experienced in new relationships with others in the Body of Christ, my attitude and behavior towards others will also begin to change.
This is all the more true because our inability to experience forgiveness often results from relationships in which we were not loved, forgiven and accepted. One does not need a degree in psychology to understand that if we were manipulated or abused by those who were supposed to love us, we may harbor anger deep within ourselves, and we may have difficulty trusting people—and God. If those who were supposed to love us motivated us by making us feel guilty, we may have learned to feel guilty even when we haven’t done anything wrong. This will have an impact on how we experience forgiveness from God.
Of particular importance are issues with our fathers. It is not too much to say that most of our social ills result from fatherlessness. Father issues are a major barrier to a restored relationship with our heavenly Father.
The point here is in the other direction. If bad relationships are part of the problem, then good relationships must be part of the solution. If bad relationships handicapped us so that we are not able to fully live; then good relationships will be a necessary part of being able to rise and walk. Forgiveness restores us to relationship with God so that we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The experience of forgiveness will require new kinds of relationships with people in the family of God who will reflect the love of the Father in tangible ways, who will love us as God the Father loves us.
This experience of forgiveness through relationships in the church takes place over time. It requires two things from each of us. First, we have to commit ourselves to the community over time. One sad fact of ministry is that the people who most need the healing power of community are often the most reluctant to stay around and experience it. The more wounded and fearful we are, the more we will be tempted to flee when people get too close. But genuine intimacy is what we really need and we will not be fully healed until we experience it. We call this “The Communion of the Saints.”
Second, we have to commit ourselves to loving others in the church in a way that reflects the love of God. We have to learn not to take slights personally and not to be easily offended. We have to learn to forgive, longsuffer and forebear one another in love. We have to learn to think the best and not the worst of others. We have to learn to be honest with each other. We have to learn to give people the room they need to work out their problems in the church with a balance of acceptance and accountability.
The man in the gospel would not have been healed without the presence and labor of his friends. We will not fully experience forgiveness from God unless we also experience it in relationship with other people. The Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins. The church is called to be a new community of restored relationships in which people can experience that power and learn to “Rise and walk.”