With a Little Help from My Friends

      Comments Off on With a Little Help from My Friends

To listen to today’s reflection as a podcastclick here

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

A number of years ago I invited five couples at the church I was leading to join me in a small group experiment.

We would get together every week for one year.  During our gatherings we would study the Bible, talk about things happening in our lives, and support each other in prayer.

It turned out to be quite a year.

One of the husbands died of a heart attack while playing racquetball. 
My five-year-old daughter had emergency surgery to remove a mass in her abdomen.
One of the couples entered marriage counseling to try to resolve some serious relationship issues.
Several members of the group revealed they had major doubts about the reality of their spiritual lives.
All of us struggled as parents.

The following year I launched a second group with five new couples.

The same thing happened again.  Those twelve months were marked by marital squabbles, addictions, clinical depression, a lost job, and various medical crises.  What was going on here?

Around the church people began to say, “If you join one of Glenn’s groups, you’ll have one of the worst years of your life!”

The truth actually turned out to be much more fascinating.  Those groups were experiencing the kinds of things that happen to a dozen people during the course of any given year.  The only difference is that we were talking about them.  We were bringing them out into the light and experiencing them together.

Our church would unquestionably have rallied around the woman who lost her husband.  And Mary Sue and I know that people would have supported us, no matter what, during our daughter’s scary time in the hospital. 

But virtually everything else that happened might have been concealed – unless we had chosen to be part of a group that was trying, haltingly, to walk with each other through life’s most difficult realities.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we encounter a group of friends who are doing just that.  And they’re not merely walking with each other metaphorically.  They’re literally doing all of the walking for one of their number, a man who is paralyzed.  Here’s Mark’s version of events:

When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door, and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:1-5).

We aren’t told how this man lost the use of his legs.  Nor do we know how long he’s been in this condition.  But we can try to imagine his circumstances.

He is entirely dependent on others.  He cannot eat or drink or move from one place to another or even relieve himself unless others help. 

Even worse, he lives under the shadow of theological suspicion.  It was widely assumed that a crippling injury was a sign of God’s disfavor.  So he must have done something seriously wrong.  Or maybe his parents had grievously sinned.  No matter what, somebody had done something awful.  Somebody had caused this disaster. 

In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, pastor John Ortberg observes, “He has no money, no job, no influence, no family, and seemingly not much of a future… What’s he got going for him?  He has friends.  He has amazing friends.  He’s in one of the killer small groups of all time.”

And because of that, he’s on the receiving end of incredible grace. 

His friends choose to bear, as Ortberg puts it, the “social stigma, inconvenience, financial pressure, [and] high cost of time and energy” that are wrapped up in being his companions.  They know they are incapable of providing him with the gift of a brighter future, at least in physical terms.

But maybe they can bring him to Jesus.  Maybe that will make a difference.

From the start, their eagerness and good intentions are thwarted.  Jesus is teaching inside a house, presumably one of the multitudes of small dwellings that dotted the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He is engulfed by his listeners.  There’s no obvious path from the fringes of that crowd to a spot where their friend can be noticed.

Challenging circumstances call for innovative solutions. 

They head for the roof.  Palestinian houses typically have exterior stairways leading to a flat roof, where residents might recline under a canopy and enjoy a cool breeze on a sweltering day. 

Setting their friend aside for a moment, they begin to create a skylight by digging right through the roof.  In our own time it might be best to turn over such a project to Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper – “It’s demolition day, so let’s start with the roof!” But first century rooves aren’t particularly daunting.  They’re a combination of wooden beams, matting, straw, and dried mud – chunks of which begin to rain down upon Jesus and his audience.

The homeowner must be thinking this is not what he imagined when he volunteered to host that day’s Bible study.  It’s time to call Jake from State Farm.  “Since Jesus is in my family room, does this count as an act of God?” 

There’s an unusually compelling word found in verse five of Mark’s account: “When Jesus saw their faith…”  Whose faith?  We presume the paralytic has brought some degree of hopeful trust to this moment.  Then there’s the faith of his friends. 

This is vicarious trust.  Here is a small group exerting faith on behalf of one of its members.

It’s still happening today – every time friends come together to rejoice over victories, weep over sins, cry out to God for mercy, and carry, literally or figuratively, a broken person to the feet of Jesus.

Their faith is the chief feature of part one of this drama. 

Part two – the conversation that follows – is just as dramatic.

That’s where we’ll go tomorrow.