The story of the paralytic is a beautiful story, one of my favourites, because it can be approached from so many angles and interpreted in so many ways the mind starts to boggle as soon as we dive a little bit deeper than the surface.
Most childrens Bibles will present it as a lovely story of four friends seeking healing for a fifth, overcoming all sorts of hurdles to attain it. As a fairy tale with the happy ending where faith and loyalty are rewarded.
But there are other ways of getting into the story. One could concentrate on the paralytic and identify with his role in the story. Or on the 4 men who carry him and the part they play. One could focus all attention on Jesus and his function in it. Or the scribes, or even the crowd. They are all part of the drama as it unfolds and each of them offers a different and distinct angle from which we could approach the story.
My imagination this time round was caught by the mat. The wholly innocent and totally passive mat. I was put on to the mat by a commentator who wondered what, if we were to identify with the paralytic, our mat would be. And I wondered.
Although we may not be physically paralysed, we all know about paralysis in our lives dont we? We all know what it feels like to not be able to move. And I think we also know that often, although it may feel like something from the outside is holding us back, it is more the inside that is really getting in the way. Fear, guilt, lack of faith, lack of trust, to name but a few things that can keep us "on our mat", limiting our freedom to move and be joyful and happy, tying us down to a spot where we would rather not be.
Such a spot can be a very safe spot. Even though it may not be a comfortable spot, we at least know where we are: Tied down, unable to move, but safe. We can imagine the paralytic saying when those four well meaning men turn up to carry him to Jesus: Dont bother, I am fine really, it is not as bad as it looks, Id rather you left me in peace. I have learned to live with my disability, with my difficulties and Id rather avoid the upheaval of hope and dreams kindled and most probably dashed. I have to live with this, thats all there is to it. So please leave me be
Do you recognise the feeling? Somebody suggests you may be able to make a major change in your life that may help you get rid of something that has been hampering and hurting you for a long time and you feel youd just like to be left alone.
In the story the mat however becomes a means of transport. Not because of the man who is on it, nor because the mat itself miraculously changes into a flying carpet, but because there are four others, of whom we dont even get to know what they were to this paralytic man, who take a corner each and decide they will move this mat and the man on it to a place where his illness can be shifted. Nothing would have happened in the story if the mat had not been moved by the four men. Everything had stayed the same.
They take a huge risk those 4 when they pick up that mat. This could all end in a huge disappointment, they could be raising false expectations, they can end up being ridiculed, there is no guarantee of success. Just blind and fairly pig headed faith that if they get this man and his mat to Jesus things will change.
And suddenly I saw the Church in that. Us. Trying to move hurt, suffering, paralysis in our world by taking one corner each of the mat of impotence and taking it to the Lord in the pigheaded belief that if we do things will change. Carrying on despite all the hurdles that are thrown up in our way. The heroic Church that will try and save the world and those who are in it discounting cost, but persevering even where prospects of actually getting the job done may look pretty bleak.
Unfortunately that is not always the part the Church will play. Sometimes we will find that the Church does not take up the mat but lies down on it and becomes paralysed, immobile, and incapable itself. It all seems to difficult and the place where we are, the place we have let ourselves be tied down to something we become quite attached to. We wait for others to pick us up and carry us to Jesus. We are all too aware of all the hurdles that are in the way. We give up.
And I wondered, where we are in Toorak. Are we energetically carrying that mat, braving whatever hurdles will be thrown up in our way to reach that place where Jesus can work his miracles? Or are we huddled up on the mat, perhaps not wholly happy or comfortable, but convinced that this is our best option, to stick it out and not move too much or expect too much.
Hopefully there is a bit of both.
In the story the mat is at the centre of the process that leads to healing. First it is the place where the paralytic lives and breathes and has his being. Its his home, its the place he is most familiar with in his life. It is clear cut and well defined. He is a paralytic and he cannot move.
Then it becomes a mode of transport through the determination and commitment of 4 others who believe they can make a difference. It is the mat that starts to move and the paralytic cant but move with it. We can do that for people, and people can do it for us: shift the boundaries of where we thought we could move, open up possibilities, take us places where we ourselves, of our own accord would not be able to go.
It is on the mat that the man is lowered down at Jesus feet. And it is there he is healed first of his inner constraints and later of the outer. There is a discussion, an altercation taking place over his head between Jesus and the scribes, with the crowd listening in breathlessly. The scribes resist the shift that is taking place. There is an aspect of paralysis to their behaviour as well: Immovable in their objection to Jesus forgiving sin. The man on the mat pulled between healing and condemnation, the crowd watching and waiting. (and there we find yet another aspect of paralysis).
Until Jesus speaks: I say to you, pick up your mat and go home. Here a new thing is done, a miracle happens. What was immobile and seemed unmovable is set free.
The mat is rolled up, the paralytic healed and free to go where he wants. No longer will his life be determined by his mat. The mat is rolled up and tucked under his arm, he can forget how things were, he now is made new, with a new future opening up before him.
Many things in our life or in the life of the Church can become a mat. A place for us to lay ourselves down and not be moved. Stuck to the spot we become incapacitated and paralysed, a dead Church that stays where it is, perhaps not happy, but nevertheless convinced that this is probably the most it can expect of life.
Communion can be a mat in more than one respect. It can be a place that is unmoving and unmoveable. Steeped in tradition it can become something that limits us in our movement, and actually keeps us away from Jesus rather than taking us close. It can also become the vehicle on which we travel to Jesus. Where we feel picked up by strong hands and transported, through the roof, to a place where heaven and earth meet and we find our healing.
It can even become a mat on which we carry others to bring them to the feet of the Lord. People that travel with us, the world we bring to this place in our prayers, we carry them, paralysed and powerless as they may be, and lay them down at the feet of our Lord expecting and believing that he can bring healing and wholeness even to the most desperate of cases.
It is also the place where the confrontation of Christ and the world will become clearer than anywhere else. Over against his healing and liberating words the other voices that are at large in the world will speak up as the scribes in the story. "Forget it, you cant do that, everybody should stay on their mat and forget about moving and shifting what we have determined to be unmovable."
Communion is the mat that lowers us at the feet of the Lord for us to hear him speak words of liberation and inspiration. Where we are sent on our way, forgiven, healed and able to walk his way out into the world. It is the mat we tuck under our arms and that will go with us wherever we care to carry it. Reminding us of the redemption and salvation that have set us free.
Faith will change our mat from a place of confinement and imprisonment to a means of transport that will take us to a place where liberation and healing can take place. The faith of others, if need be, able to carry us to where we can be made new and the things of old be forgotten.
So we can roll up our mat and walk into the world whole.