7th Sunday after Epiphany

February 23, 2003
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:18-25
Reading 2: 
Psalm 41
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Reading 4: 
Mark 2:1-12
By Barry A. Woodbridge

The gospel lection continues the theme of epiphany through God's power manifest in healing for the third week - this week the healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof. Mark uses the dramatic structure to introduce debate over Jesus' authority to forgive sins. Certainly, verse 5 drives at that point when the narrative breaks away from more usual structure of the healing miracle with the somewhat unexpected word, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Naturally, the concept of congenital defects being inherited through the sin of the parents or family was well known in antiquity. But the man was lowered into a healing chamber, not a confessional! Mark has Jesus cure through forgiveness of sins more to set up the controversy with Jesus' opponents. His question of the easier method-- to say your sins are forgiven or to say to the paralytic "Get up, take up your mat, and walk" (v.9) - both imply a divine power and authority. The former without the proof of the latter would not be convincing. Both focus the issue of whether Jesus can function as a conduit for God's authority sufficient for the extremes of the human condition.

Paul, in the epistle lection from 2 Cor. 1 also is engaged in controversy. He has previously pledged to visit the Corinthian church again, but instead has sent an epistle. Both his previous visit and his epistle, he acknowledges, have been very painful to him and the Corinthian church. Now, they must wonder what to expect from him when they get Timothy and a second epistle but no Paul. He said Yes but then his failure to appear again amounted to a No to them.

It is in this context of justifying what the NRSV translates as Paul's presumed "vacillating," (v. 17) that Paul claims his itinerary and plans are not guided by his own whims but by divine plan, in which there is no double-sidedness of Yes and No but only Yes (v. 19). In Christ Jesus every one of God's promises is a Yes (v. 20).

These Yes's and No's have been the subject of great theologies from Kierkegaard to and beyond Karl Barth. On the logical and metaphysical plane, it makes sense to claim that complete affirmation and complete denial coexist with the divine life and mind. God by definition affirms all the value that can be elicited from God's creation, both human and non-human, just as God stands radically opposed to all demonic and destructive forces that devalue God's creation. In that sense, may affirm that God entertains both Yes and No in their fullness and in ways our finite knowledge may not fully comprehend. We get more rigidified in Yes and then in our No; God most fully experiences both of them simultaneously.

The discipline of discernment is the increasing ability to detect God's Yes as well as God's No to our choices, both societal, interpersonal, and personal. Many would suggest that the ability to discern God's No against our human tendency to hear only the Yes we want to hear, is the beginning of spiritual clarity and wisdom.

Paul, however, was not engaging in the metaphysical or logical structure of divine affirmation and negation. Paul wants to underscore something similar to what Mark intends: in Christ there is no filtering of God's intention to fulfill God's promises to forgive and make us new.

That issue is what ties the Hebrew Bible lection from Isa. 43. Much has been said of the exodus tradition as the "former things" of God in this text. Now, Yahweh promises a new thing, a new way through a new wilderness, that will resolve the "burdening of God with human sin." God's power will be sufficient to blot out transgression, to make an end to trauma that sin continues in our experience. The passage ends with the strong Yes that God names a power capable of removing the terrible ingrained responses to our own sin. This is the very power which becomes the subject of the gospel lesson, where Mark identifies Jesus as the conduit for that same power to transform lives.