From Catatonic To Catalytic

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Writer Gabriel Hingley

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 paralysed 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 paralysed—“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.”

(Luke 5: 17-26, NRSV)

The word catatonic is defined as "immobile or unresponsive stupor". While we might describe the physical state of the paralytic man in that way, Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ dramatic healing draws more attention to the ‘catatonic’ nature of the Pharisee’s spiritual state. Unwilling to budge from their doctrinaire position, the Pharisees remain the most unchanged and unmoved by what God is up to in their neighbourhood.

In stark contrast, the friends of the paralysed man were galvanized into action. Hearing that this much-spoken-about rabbi was in town, they seized the opportunity to help their friend in need. Bearing him on a stretcher, many might have turned away when they saw the impassable crowds. But no, these faithful few broke with convention… by breaking a few roof tiles!

In scientific terms the word catalyst refers to a chemical substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction. But it is also used metaphorically to refer to “a person or thing that precipitates an event” (Oxford Dictionary).

Who is the catalyst in this story? Could it be the “power of the Lord”, that is, the Holy Spirit, which was with Jesus to heal? Was it Jesus himself, who had the gumption to proclaim forgiveness of sins upon a man deemed unclean by the religious authorities? Was it the hyped-up crowd, who eagerly strained their necks to see what this rabbi was up to? Or could it be the faithful friends, who seized the day and took a risk, bringing the paralysed man into Jesus’ line of vision, precipitating the event of his receiving forgiveness and healing?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above. And is this not what ministry in our neighbourhoods is like? An event happens—it might be the arrival of refugees into a suburb, a homeless man turning up to a church service, or a single mum sharing her sense of loneliness with an elderly lady who attends the local church. Our response as Christians will determine where the next chain of events leads. If we remain as the Pharisees did—unmoved, hard-hearted—then the story of God’s people intersecting with the world ends there. But if we listen to the still, small voice of the Spirit, we might hear his prompting to respond with compassion, conviction and courage. We might be willing to go so far as to break down some of the barriers that conventionally held ‘the world’ at a distance, and actually descend into the messiness of life, willing to make change happen and be changed in the process.

In the midst of a broken world in need of forgiveness and healing, God calls his people to be catalytic, not catatonic.

An excellent question that author and speaker Michael Frost has asked of his church community is: “Would this neighbourhood be any different if we packed our bags and left?” I challenge you to consider this question in your own context. Is your presence in the neighbourhood like a substance in a chemical reaction, which cannot help but change the other substances around it? What aspects of your church community might be inert and inactive, and need stirring up?

One of my first experiences of church was in fact not in a church building, but in a bush regeneration group. The local Uniting Church had decided that instead of meeting in their normal building, they would conduct a worship service in a neighbouring pocket of bushland. But the bushland had become overgrown with weeds, so the first hour was spent attending to this bit of land and making it a beautiful place.

It is my fervent hope that those of us in the Churches of Christ movement would spend more time attending to both the Spirit and our local neighbourhoods, to such an extent that strange and beautiful things begin to happen.


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