Christ in the Shadow of Death
I recently woke to the news that one of my former teachers had recently passed away. I knew he had ALS for the past year and a half, but I was surprised to hear he had passed. He was young and gone much too soon. In the past four months, I have attended five other funerals. Several were sudden. Another was due to an accident. Most passed away much younger than expected, and they were preparing to embark on new exciting chapters in their lives, from marriage to retirement. One of the questions I have found myself asking is, how can I avoid their fates? How can I keep from dying at a younger-than-expected age? How can I retain control in the face of death? Each time, I come up empty. The obvious fact is that each of these deaths was outside of their power, just as all death is ultimately outside of our control.
The morning I heard of my teacher's passing, I skipped questioning how to control my mortality but was instantly aware of just how far outside of my control death is. Perhaps shortening that thought process indicates I'm learning something? On this same morning, fresh from recognizing my lack of control surrounding death and naming some of my fears of death, I began my customary practice of Morning Prayer using the Book of Common Prayer. I was struck by one of the Scripture passages assigned for that day, Luke 5:12-26, quoted in full from the NRSVA:
Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’
I was struck by two features of this passage.
First, the man with leprosy states, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean" (v. 12). He does not make a request but highlights what Jesus can do. Jesus' response is, "I do choose" (v. 13). Jesus reveals His desire for healing. Jesus described His Messianic calling similarly in Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." It is also the vision given to St. John of what life in the New Creation, inaugurated in Jesus, will be like: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Revelation 21:3-4). Jesus' will is to heal. In the case of this leper, He does it instantly at that moment. Yet the healing is not total. The man will one day die, nor does Jesus heal in every case in the Gospels. Luke 5:16 shows Him leaving the crowds asking for healing to pray.
Second, when faced with the paralytic presented for healing, Jesus' first response is, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you" (Luke 5:20). The religious leaders respond with a question: "Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 21). Jesus' response stands out to me: "Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you', or to say, 'Stand up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home" (vv. 23-24). Jesus' response and the questioning of the religious leaders strongly suggest that the forgiveness of sins is more difficult than the task of healing the paralyzed man. Jesus heals him to show His power to forgive sins. Disease, suffering, and death exist in the world because of the presence of sin. As St. Paul says, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
When we turn from the Creator of all, from the source of life, there is nothing for us but to return to the dust we were made from (Genesis 3:19). Suffering, disease, and death are instances of creation coming undone because we have turned from the Creator. Sin unleashes the possibility of suffering, disease, and death. That is not to say there is a one-to-one correlation between specific sinful actions and specific illnesses and deaths. The story of the book of Job forces us away from such easy formulations. But each instance of disease and death signals that the world is marred by sin and brokenness. As St. Paul writes elsewhere, "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:19-21). Jesus states that healing the man's paralysis is easier than the forgiveness of sins because symptom management is easier than curing the disease. But that is exactly what Jesus has come to do, cure the disease.
We live in a moment where sin is still present in the world. Jesus has not yet returned to bring about St. John's final vision. But His miracles and His death and resurrection were the first signs that it is coming. It is a victory that Jesus already won. We live in a moment where that reality is not fully in front of us, a world that is free and wild and in which the ugly head of sin, disease, and death still makes its appearance, but also a world in which all our decisions are not final and there is still an opportunity to respond to God's grace. Yet Jesus has come for the forgiveness of sins and to remove all sickness and death. The final healing, which we will experience at the final resurrection of the dead when our bodies are raised and perfected (see 1 Cor. 15) to live in God's presence forever, free from "its bondage to decay" (Romans 8:21), is Jesus' will for us. With that as our future, not even a temporary death during this moment in history separates us from God's healing touch.
In the comments below, what do you notice in Luke 5:12-26 that gives you comfort and hope in suffering?