Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”
Communal faith. That’s the suggestion of the language of this passage. Jesus looks at the faith of those who “brought to Him a paralytic” and says to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” On the basis of the faith of others, Jesus forgave another.
It seems to be a strong theme of Protestantism that each individual is responsible for his own faith. This goes hand in hand with an understanding that one’s moment of salvation is when he, personally, is confronted with the Lord in a powerful experience, and he must decide what course he will take. This is a very individual moment, one he must do on his own, that happens in the depths of his own soul. Afterwards, he may (and should) join others who have similarly had that personal encounter with a “personal Savior,” but in the end, the faith is a personal, almost private, affair.
Certain passages can be mustered to support this understanding, like from Ezekiel 18: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
But goodness, if this passage is taken to its logical conclusion, how can Jesus “bear the guilt” of others? Do we not share Jesus righteousness? Or is each person responsible for himself, for both his guilt and his righteousness? Doesn’t that negate Christ?
Of course it does. Christ is a communal affair, even as the Church is the body of Christ where we are in fellowship with Him. Well, this foundational reality puts faith in a new light. If in the hyper-Protestant understanding of faith, faith is something managed by any specific individual as he reacts to an “encounter” with Christ, in this communal understanding of faith, faith is more passively received, not managed by us, but by Christ through His Church. Or put simply, in the hyper-Protestant view, I do the faith; in the communal understanding of faith, the faith does me.
The danger of me managing faith is the temptation toward idolatry, which is the projection of human desire wed to things other than the Lord Jesus. How often is “faith” nothing more than that? It becomes a projection of my goals and values onto this image or phantasm of “Christ” in such a way that I can through tricks of the mind fancy I’m doing something pious? This in fact is the dynamic of the antichristian spirit.
When faith is communal, a different dynamic is going on. Keep in mind, a proper understanding of faith must include among its premises the faith of infants. That alone brings a new dynamic, and just to keep us on track, the baby stands a greater chance according to the dynamic given in the text – Jesus looks at their faith and forgives the sins of another – than according to the hyper-Protestant, “personal faith” view of faith.
What is that dynamic? A good analogy might be that of the ark. The ark saved. What does that mean? It means that there is a certain architecture conforming to the realities of the Lord’s judgment in the waters. As the eight souls stood on one side of that architecture, they – bodily even! – had to conform to that architecture. Were Japheth to say, “I think I’ll take a stroll a few feet on the other side of this ark’s walls,” he would die. He has to conform himself to the exact contours of the ark in order to secure its benefits.
So also faith, or the ark of faith. Faith saves. What does that mean? It means there is a certain architecture conforming to the realities of the Lord’s judgment of the world. As redeemed souls stand on one side of that architecture, they – bodily even! – have to conform to that architecture. Were a Christian to say, “I think I’ll baptize without water, commune without bread and wine, confess a Christ other than what Scriptures gives,” he will die. He has to conform himself to the exact contours of the faith in order to secure its benefits.
And that faith, like the ark, is not a function of my inner psychological dynamics. It’s outside of us. And as such, it’s a communal thing. Eight souls each participated fully in the ark without regard to their mental state, their sleeping, their animosity toward one another, or their doubts – it was part of the architecture of their reality. And if a baby was born among them, it would have enjoyed those benefits just as much as they did.
The analogy of the Church is slightly different because in fact there is the involvement of the Church. The Lord is enthroned in the praises of Israel. The lame man is enthroned and healed in the pallet of his friends. Jesus is the architecture made flesh, and His Church is the mysterious manifestation of Christ in time.
The human involvement, in other words, is due to the incarnation – so the Lord manages the faith in flesh. But this doesn’t set a foundation for each individual Christian to manage his own faith on his terms.
What, then, does it mean? It means, well, the liturgy. The liturgy is the faith doing us, and not us doing the faith. The liturgy is the faith of Christ spelled out in specific elements, from beginning to end. It works out in its specific elements the calling on His name, the praying for mercy, the glorifying of His name, the confession of His name, the hearing of His Word, the dining with Him, the heavenly presence surrounded by angels who behold His face (and the Father’s). All these elements are given life by Christ, and worked in us through the liturgy.
In other words, the liturgy is the bed we lie on, brought to us by “those who have faith” who come to Jesus. We join in the communal faith. We pray “Our Father,” not “My Father.” We pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Our personal involvement in that liturgy will be great, small, sleeping, skeptical, doubting, and sometimes even non-existent. But as long as we’re on the right side of the walls of that ark, we’re saved from the wrath on the outside.
Or put another way, when Jesus sees the communal faith, He says to us, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.”