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Life in Christ, Sister Ann Tovar, April 23rd, 2023

Updated: May 9

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, a paralytic man is lowered into a home by four of his friends. They know Jesus is teaching inside but the crowd is too dense for them to enter through the door. Out of love and devotion for their friend, and maybe some desperation, the four men climb above and do something radical. They break a hole in the roof and lower their friend to Jesus’s feet in hopes that He will heal him. I love this story. When I think of these devoted friends carrying this man on his sickbed, about to tear a hole in the roof and make a spectacle, I wonder if they hesitated. I wonder if they thought of turning back, that it was a risky or worse, presumptuous idea. Still, I am struck by their creativity, bravery, and faith as they carry out their inspired plan. I marvel at Jesus’ reaction as the man lands right at his feet. Jesus does not question. He does not lecture them saying they should have waited their turn outside the door. He is not flustered by the unexpected interruption. Rather, he fully accepts their offering of faith and without reservation offers his grace, the good that is needed at that moment. Jesus heals the man first of his sins and then of his paralysis and the man rises, takes up his bed, and joins the others. (Holland)

I can see myself on the roof, wondering if there will ever be room for me and my family among the crowd spilling out the door. I can see myself desperately pulling back the roof thatches in search of Christ, not always coming to him through conventional or prescribed ways.

I can also see myself among the crowd. Having traveled for days and months, even years searching for Him, pressed into the tiny home anxiously anticipating my turn to see Jesus, to hear Him, to be known by Him. I wonder how did those who had waited so long respond to this band of brothers who didn’t come to Christ the same way they did? How would I have responded? Were they upset by the interruption? Annoyed that the paralytic man essentially cut in line by being lowered directly at Christ’s feet? How do I think of people who come unto Christ in ways that are different from mine? (Hoiland)

I can also see myself in the paralytic man, crippled and blinded by my own wounds, searching for healing. And then after countless attempts at saving myself, finally landing at Christ’s feet broken and bruised, unsure my offering will be enough… but hopeful.

Sacred covenants with God can figuratively lower us through a hole in the roof of our lives to Christ’s feet and bind us into a perfect grace-filled partnership with Him that has the power to transform us and offers us new beginnings.

When we are baptized, we make a covenant to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ and to follow him. We promise to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comfort. And He promises His spirit to be with us. Every week we can renew our commitment as we partake of the sacrament. If we are open to it, with each bite of bread and sip of water, we symbolically ingest His flesh and blood. We can literally invite His spirit into our bodies and be indwelt becoming one with Him. This is what Jesus prays for in the great intercessory prayer, that we will be one with Him, as He is one with the Father. This union, when honored, transforms the very experience of being alive. Adam Miller, a brilliant LDS philosopher points out: life, washed in the light of god’s love and grace brings deeper meaning and purpose to every moment and transmutes our suffering for our good. Paul teaches us that we must live in Christ. Everything we do we must do in Christ. This is the promise we make at baptism. This is the frame we pledge to keep. To always remember him…. to live in Christ. Hope in Christ, rejoice in Christ, have faith in Christ, speak truth in Christ, pray in Christ, love in Christ, triumph in Christ, sleep in Christ, trust in Christ, be one in Christ. A life in Christ, changes the way we live from the inside out. Like being in love, life in Christ changes what it means to be alive. The circumstances of our lives may not change, we might live in the same house, have the same job, eat the same food, and see the same reflection in the mirror but when done in Christ, nothing is the same. In Christ, we are awake and present. In Christ our eyes are open. I can stop fantasizing about another life, about a future free of problems and pain. I can stop ruminating in my past, about what punishments I think I do or don’t deserve. And I awake to my actual life full of God’s grace and love, given in every moment, independent of my circumstances, independent of my woundedness. Instead of waiting for Christ, I find that He is already given; that there is no scarcity of god’s love, that the heavens are not closed. This is the good news of the gospel; this is the song of redeeming love. (Miller)

God does not condemn! God's law is love, always and only love. Jesus clearly teaches us this in the sermon on the mount saying: I know this isn’t what you have heard before:

“But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)

Jesus neither taught nor practiced retribution. Our covenants are not benchmarks in our faith journey that somehow earn us God’s love and favor. Nor are they meant to be used as tools to measure our own or others worthiness. Rather the purpose of covenants is to unify us to Christ and inspire us to follow him more closely. And to follow Jesus is to practice loving. The justice Jesus describes is restorative justice rather than punitive justice. In other words, God’s justice is satisfied by offering the good that is needed for us and others to become more just, more like Him. This notion of justice peels the law and suffering apart to see the law as a response to suffering rather than a justification for suffering. That experience of justice is liberating because it is no longer about what people do or do not deserve. It is no longer about if I deserve to be loved by God, it is about how here and now I am called to act in love. Restorative justice is intertwined with grace, working together for our good rather than grace being an exception to the law. Love is what Jesus’ law of justice requires. It is not a way around the law. Love is the law; love fulfills the law. (Miller)

Jesus continues to teach his disciples in the sermon on the mount:

Our Father which is in heaven: maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:45)

God is no respecter of persons… black or white, male or female, addict or sober, paralytic or Olympic runner, all of us, every single one of us are infinitely beloved of Heavenly parents. To be completely honest, I have not always truly believed this. I am just now opening myself to the possibility that this might actually be true. For much of my life, I have felt God’s redeeming love was just beyond my reach. That I can always do better and be more. That if I could just be more patient with my children, or understand the nature of God better, or serve more diligently, or learn to love the temple, then maybe, maybe I could be loved by God. I am learning though that God’s love cannot be earned, it cannot be won. Love can only be given, and God's love has been given from the beginning. God has always loved me; God has always loved you. Not some future perfected version of me, but this me, the one who stands here flawed and vulnerable. I see powerful evidence of God’s original love and grace in creation itself. I feel closest to God in beautiful nature. I feel God’s presence when I stand in a meadow of grasses or sit in the shade of a majestic oak. I feel it when I gaze into a starry night sky, and when I watch the morning light glow on the red and yellow-breasted finches flutter around my yard. As I learn to yoke myself to Christ, I can see God’s grace all around me, his loving embrace encircling me.

It seems to me our moral obligation to God’s law and our covenants is always and only love, to practice giving the good that is needed here and now in every moment. The only judgment we are called to use is the discernment of what good is needed that we can give, which is a disciplined practice of compassion for self and others to help restore wholeness. If we must liken this life to a test, I do not believe it is a test of whether or not I can be good enough to somehow earn god’s love and favor, that has already been given. Rather it is a test of my willingness to receive the grace He offers me and to practice loving myself and others, to practice remembering in every moment and with everyone I encounter, that because of God’s infinite love and through the atonement of Jesus Christ we are never outside of His reach.

To me, this is the divine supreme power of the atonement. Christ suffered to close the gap between us and God. We cannot close the gap alone, the chasm is too large, the landscape too treacherous. But He never intended for us to do it alone, God loves us so much that He sent His son as far as we are from God and one step further so we are always within His reach. Always within the reach of His loving embrace.

Christ refuses to let us be alone. He says “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” (John 14:8) He assures us, “No matter where you are, that is where I will go because my infinite love for you is greater than the space between us and I will never leave you alone.”

In partnership with Christ, His resurrection can be our story also. Living in Christ, we can find new life, new beginnings even in the wake of irreparable harm done to us or caused by us. In Christ, our suffering is gathered into His purpose for our good.

Joseph Smith teaches us that in Carthage when in his suffering he cries out, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1) and in response the Lord tenderly answers, “My son, peace be unto thy soul…..thy God shall stand by thee forever and ever….. all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 121-122)

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets and his poem The Sycamore speaks this truth in a beautiful and inspiring way.

In the place that is my own place, whose earth

I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,

a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.

Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,

Hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.

There is no year it has flourished in

that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it

that is its death, though its living brims whitely

at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.

Over all its scars has come the seamless white

of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history

healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection

in the warp and bending of its long growth.

It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.

It has become the intention and radiance of its dark face.

It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.

In all the country there is no other like it.

I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling

the same as itself, and greater….

I love those words “gathering all accidents into its purpose" and "a principle, an indwelling.” When we are partnered with Christ, He in us, we in Him. We are indwelt and all things can be gathered for our good. Yet new beginnings necessitate the end of something else. Loss is unavoidable. But new life in partnership with Christ accommodates loss, transforms loss, repurposes loss for our good.

I believe repentance is real, I believe new life is possible. For me, new life has not necessarily erased the pain of my past life or reversed the harm that has been done. My wounds are still tender, my scars as gnarled as the sycamores. I still weep over the continued painful consequences of past choices, but I believe Jesus is saying “Yes Ann, these facts of the past are done and cannot be undone but don’t stop there because my love will always go one step further than your suffering, my grace will wash your wounds in love”. In partnership with Christ, I can begin again, and as I learn to fully trust Him, new ways of living my ordinary life are revealed; ones I could never have imagined on my own. For me, healing is not necessarily about erasing pain. It is about trusting that through Christ’s atonement, I can allow that pain to pass through me like a storm when it comes. I can intentionally stay rooted in His love. Through Christ’s atonement, I am finding transformation and deeper communion with God. I am learning how to stop ruminating in my pain and how to use all of my experiences to better answer Jesus’s call to love my neighbor.

I would like to think the crowd was kind and patient and felt a deep communion with Christ the day the paralytic man was lowered from the roof, and they witnessed the miracle of his healing. I’d like to think maybe they even took part in the miracle by exercising their own faith on behalf of the man’s healing. In my mind, that little house with a hole in the roof and four friends peering in, with the cramped and probably smelly crowd was a holy place of acceptance, kindness, and healing. I think about those friends on the roof and take comfort in knowing that Christ does not for even a moment distrust their intuition or intention. In fact, he receives them openly and tenderly encircles them in love; he does exactly what they want most, he heals them; blesses them. (Hoiland) I have felt this tender acceptance and love in my own life when I have been brave enough to tear off the roof of my own story and receive the love and grace He offers me.

I join with the father of the sick child in saying “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”. I believe sacred covenants can bind us to Christ in a holy partnership that helps us find our loving Heavenly Parents. I believe our Savior suffered for our sins and seeks us out wherever we are on our journey. He reaches our reachings and through Him, we can be embraced in God’s infinite love now, today. I believe when I am brave, creative, and put my trust in God, I am offered opportunities for new beginnings and that a life in Christ has the power to transform my heart and soul and gather all my experiences for my good.

I am grateful for true friends and a wonderful family that carried me on my sickbed at different times in my life and helped point me toward Christ.

Jesus is real, the battle is won, God’s love and grace are original.

Miller, Adam. An Early Resurrection.

Miller, Adam. Original Grace.

Hoiland, Ashley Mae. One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly: The Art of Seeking God.

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