by Reverend Fritz Ritsch
February 3, 2019
I Corinthians 13
Luke 5: 17-26
Two men love their disabled friend so much that they are willing to overcome every obstacle just so that they can get to Jesus. And the obstacles they must overcome are many. First there is a crowd, a huge crowd, so many that it is impossible for them to wend their way through it. So they find a way, while carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher, up onto the roof of the house. Once up there, they remove the next obstacle in their way: roofing tiles. These are very determined men. These men really, truly, deeply love their friend.
When they lower their disabled friend through the roof, they face their third obstacle: it is the doctrinaire obstinacy of the religious elite, who refuse to believe Jesus when he says, “Your sins are forgiven you.” They furiously shake their heads: “No one but God can forgive sins!” This stubbornness represents several obstacles at once: in the ancient way of thinking, the man’s paralysis is likely the result of his sins. If he can’t be forgiven, how can he be healed? And if he cannot be healed, he is forever unclean, an exile from society; not to mention the horror and frustration and deep emotional trauma of living life as a paralyzed person.
This comes to, let’s see, around seven obstacles so far. At least. Many of them so profound as to be insurmountable, no matter how much the disabled man’s friends love him and would do anything for him. Jesus overcomes all of these obstacles. In one sweeping statement, accompanied by the irrefutable evidence of his miraculous ability to heal, Jesus sweeps away the theological obstacle—the societal obstacle—and even the physical/medical obstacle. “Which is easier?” he asks rhetorically. “To say ‘Your sins are forgiven you’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and go to your home?” It’s important to note that this really is a rhetorical question. It is much easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven you” than it is to tell someone to ‘Rise up and walk.” Let’s be realistic: you and I forgive people of wrongs they have done us all the time. We do it for many reasons, but always, always–forgiveness, true, honest, heartfelt forgiveness–is an act of love.
But our love—as we all know, much to our sadness—doesn’t of itself heal the physical ailments of our loved ones. If only it could.
Jesus’ miraculous healing of the paralyzed man is an “in your face” to the scribes who question his authority to forgive sins. If Jesus can heal this person so completely and dramatically, then certainly to forgive sins is a piece of cake! And forgiveness has power—amazing, life-changing, even world-changing power. Forgiveness has theological power—it can blot out human sins. It has the power of new life—it can enable us to start over, to be better people, to live differently, to be a new person. It has the power to overcome social stigma—it eliminated the things that we use as an excuse to marginalize people, to make them second- or third-class citizens. And it can heal wounded souls—the soul of both the person forgiven but also the soul of the person who forgives. Because not to forgive, to hold grudges and to have suspicions and fears and distrust of others, wounds and degrades us spiritually. To place obstacles between ourselves and our neighbor hurts both our neighbor and us.
But let’s return to something early on in the story: The scripture says, “When Jesus saw THEIR faith.” Whose faith? Well, the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends—faith that drove them to come to see Jesus in the first place—faith that made them overcome the obstacle of the crowd, the roof, and the arrogance of the religious elite. Their faith is what draws Jesus’ attention; their faith is what opens the door to forgiveness; their faith is what leads to their friend’s healing and wholeness. I call attention to this because we often assume that the faith of the individual is what’s required for some kind of salvation to occur: that I must personally have faith if I am personally to be saved. But that’s not what happens here. We aren’t informed of the faith of the paralyzed man—we have no idea what he believes–but we know quite clearly the faith of his friends: the faith that won’t let a crowd stop them, or climbing onto a roof stop them, or the roof itself stop them.
But strikingly, we don’t know what their faith is! Is it faith in Jesus? Maybe. But maybe not. At this point Jesus hasn’t really shown his hand—he hasn’t claimed to be the Son of God or the Messiah. In fact, this is his first assertion that he is the Son of Man—he’d never said that of himself before. So maybe they have faith in Jesus—we aren’t sure. But here’s what we know they have: we know they have love. Not just any love: some sort of crazy, super-powered love, an incredible, deep, inspiring love of their friend.
I’d like to suggest that to Jesus, this love counts as faith. Let me say that again: To Jesus, this love counts as faith.
Paul says in our classic reading from I Corinthians 13: “Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That’s certainly what we see in these four friends—love that believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Can Jesus heal my friend? I don’t know—but I love him too much not to try! That’s hope.
Are there obstacles in our way? Yes—but I love him too much to let those obstacles stop me! That is love that “endures all things.”
“Love believes all things,” Paul says. Believes all things? That’s faith. To Jesus, love that refuses to back down—love that refuses to give up—love that overcomes every obstacle—is a type of faith, because it is faith that love itself is the defining, cosmic purpose of the universe, of life, of everything. In First John we read: “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God” (I John 4: 16). To believe in the power of love, to let it fill you, inspire you, direct your life—to believe that is to have already opened the door to who God is, to who God truly is, and that’s what Jesus is recognizing as faith. “Make love your aim,” Paul says (I Corinthians 14: 1). Because if we, as Christians, aim for anything less than love, we are not aiming for God. We are not aiming for Jesus Christ. So all of us, every day, must make love our aim.
Now then. We’ve all been told that to believe in the power of love is naïve. We’ve been told love is nice and all that, but it’s weak. We’ve been properly told by all the religious elite, and the political elite, and often even by strangers on the street, that love is all well and good, but it doesn’t have any power to change what’s wrong with the world. Loving your enemy doesn’t change your enemy. Forgiving those who’ve done you wrong just opens you up for them to walk all over you again. We know what all we’ve been told—and we also know, deep down, how disappointing it is to hear it, how being told that love has no power makes us feel like we ourselves are powerless and weak, and like there’s nothing to do to make the world a better place, or to heal our broken relationships, or to make us feel whole and complete.
It’s easy to lose faith in love.
And so Jesus directs us—faith in love is a good thing, but for it to have the ultimate, eternal power it is meant to have, we need to have faith in him, Jesus Christ. It is he who gives love its power—it is he who makes forgiveness effective—it is he who heals our wounds, as individuals and as a world, and makes us whole. It is his love that gives our love its power.
As Christians, we believe that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection a divine apocalypse happened—but it was an unexpected apocalypse, not an apocalypse of harshness and condemnation, but an apocalypse of absolute love and forgiveness that was choreographed by God in Person. Our faith is that love wins—that it has already won in Jesus Christ. And our faith is that in order for love to be effective, we are called practice it—to prove God’s love with our lives. To have faith that believes that by the grace of God, love really does win.
When we gather at this table for the Lord’s Supper, we become part of him, become part of his love; and then we go out into our everyday lives and distribute Jesus’ love around. Each of us carries the power of Christ’s love out into the world. Each of us, as part of the Body of Christ, becomes a little bit of Christ taking that love to our neighbor, to the stranger, to our enemy. Believe in Jesus and you believe in the power of love. And when in doubt, don’t put your faith in the power of love—put your faith in Jesus. If we truly have faith in Jesus, then we will always make love our aim; because the two go hand-in-hand.