"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sunday Sermon: Jesus heals at the pool of Bethezda. John 5.1-9


John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethezda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.

The story unfolds and the sharp-eyed amongst us might have noticed that v4 is missing. Hold that thought. Jesus is in Jerusalem and he goes to the Pool of Bethezda. This pool was surrounded by porticoes offering shade and shelter and the area had become the gathering place for anyone with some sort of sickness, waiting and watching the surface of the water for the smallest sign of the rippling of the waves. A bubbling from the underground spring or even a breeze could cause a stampede of invalids trying to be the first into the water and then Jesus talks to one of the invalids and offers to heal him – an offer which is accepted, but not instantly.

There is a lot here that the original audience would have instinctively  understood but which could easily pass us by. Religious commentators explain that when the waters of the pool moved – that movement which triggered the rush of the hopeful to be first into the water for divine healing – the belief was that an Angel had touched the water. That was what was in the missing verse 4, but it’s been removed because people weren’t sure whether it was a later addition. Well, I have no doubts that the people of Jesus’ time had a stronger belief in Angels than we have today: or, at least a different understanding of the nature of Angels, or is it that the distance in time and knowledge and the religious landscape between then and now has left us a little more cynical about some of these more awkward elements of religious belief? I’ve heard it said that most British Christians are "functional atheists". While we believe in God, we function as if God were still resting after the creation. We don't expect God to break into our lives. Our God tends to be perceived as a very passive God and we have very low expectations of him.

I certainly grew up at a time when the trend was to demythologise much of the traditional elements of the New Testament and I suppose like many I simply decided to concentrate on what was clear to me: the person, the teaching and the sacrifice of Jesus. Some of the other stuff, I reasoned, was peripheral, a bit too fantastical or not relevant to where I was in my spiritual journey at that time.

In the end, I suspect it comes down to definitions and I’d like to illustrate that with a little scenario from my classroom because the parallel with today’s Gospel is very strong: angels and miracles.

My Yr. 8 students - aged 12/13 - have been studying Miracles and it has been a struggle from the outset, if for no other reason than spelling. You see “miracles” on the board, look down to your book and write “miricals.” How does that happen? Repeatedly?

Of course, the first issue is that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? They look blankly at me. It takes some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This is where it all started to unravel as we were taken down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels came in for some considerable forensic examination and I found myself explaining the mind-set of the medieval artist.

“O.K.” I say, “I’m a Medieval Pope.” They look less than convinced.

“Jordan, you’re Michelangelo.” Jordan looks pleased.

“Michaelangelo, Old Boy, I need a nice fresco on the ceiling of my new chapel - a Biblical story. How about the Nativity?”

“Right you are Guv.”

Later Michelangelo gets out his Bible. “What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, check. Cattle, check. Shepherds, check. Wise men, Check. Innkeeper, check. Angels, ch … Angels? Oooh, Angels.”

“What does an angel look like?” I ask.

Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.

“Musical Instrument of choice?” I venture.

“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.

“Trumpet.” Someone else offers.

(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from my lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)

I draw said angel on the board. It takes about six pen strokes but they pronounce themselves happy with the result.

So I ask them, “How did we get to this?”

“Well, it’s in pictures.”

“And adverts. Sir, Sir, Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”

And so it goes on. Having established that this image is firmly fixed in the international psyche I try to point out that medieval artists were faced with a no-win situation in attempting to represent something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.

I explain, “They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those ladies falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is an artistic compromise.”

“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”

“Well, I’m saying they might not.”

“What do they look like then?”

“O.K.” I take a deep breath.  “What does “angel” mean?”

There is no response.

I ask again.


(That’s teen-speak for “I don’t know”)

I offer them a clue, “It’s a Greek word.” Why did I tell them that? This is bottom set Yr 8. What are the chances they know New Testament Greek? What is the matter with you man?

Still no ideas.

“It means messenger of God. What does God’s messenger look like?” Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.

“Do you remember when Mrs. Wilson sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?”

“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”

I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?

“Could be anybody.”


“I don’t get it.”

I sigh. I do that a lot with Yr 8. “Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?”

“Coz it’s an angel.”

Now, you will recognise that this is a circular argument.

“And angel means messenger.” I persevere. “Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.””

“So, right? Are you saying Sir that anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger? Would they know they were an angel?”

“Maybe. Not necessarily.” (I’m thinking out loud at this point.) “Some angels appear to be spiritual beings: I’m just saying that the images of medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"”

“Yeah. Too right Sir.”

We move on from angels and go on to talk about Prophets and Saints and, of course, Jesus as agents of God. There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miricals.

“Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far?  Yes Jordan?”

“Sir, who’s Michelangelo?”

And yes, much like my lesson, we are moving on to talk about miracles. “A dramatic and unusual event that goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” The agent of the Godhead here, being Jesus the Son, and not an angel.

But this is more than just a story about a miracle.

I think it’s a shame that today’s Gospel passage ends at this point when to make full sense of it we ought to read on to verse 18. The miracle story we have here becomes a conflict story which leads to yet another failed plot to have Jesus killed: we have someone who has been infirm for many years; there are comments about the link between sin and sickness; we have a command and with obedience comes a cure; and we have a controversy - a falling out - because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath when nothing that could be understood as work might be done.

Surely healing is a necessary, compassionate act which the Sabbath law allows for? Well, yes – in an emergency but this man had been suffering for 38 years. His condition hardly constituted an emergency and his healing therefore could surely wait until the Sabbath was over.

Two conversations have been taking place simultaneously. The religious authorities have been doggedly pursuing a conversation about breaking the Sabbath while the healed man and Jesus have been discussing healing and being made well.

So what? Interesting enough – or maybe not. Why are we considering this passage?  Well, I think there are a number of possible approaches: firstly – and this is just an idea that struck me last night so I’ve not really developed it fully – but in outline isn’t this incident the Gospel in miniature? Jesus comes and sweeps away the old ways and we have the certainty of Jesus’ presence as opposed to the hope of the old ways, as represented by the angel. It’s even possible that John was flagging this idea up. Is it a coincidence that the man had been ill for 38 years, the same number of years the People of Israel had wandered in the wilderness? As in so many instances in the Gospels, Jesus is spelling out his ministry as a ministry of change. Ironically, the people who saw the implications of this most clearly were the religious authorities who are panicked by the threat.

I think the challenge for us today is to consider whether we are the implied audience for this passage. Are Jesus words as spoken to this man and the Pharisees then also words for us today? What am I going to do with this passage? What are you going to do with it?

Let’s try this approach: And Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole?”

Do we fear the cure more than the illness? When we cease being a victim – “I can’t get to the water Jesus; there’s always someone else who gets there first” – and start being responsible then our legs are strong enough for us to walk beside others who are in pain and need help. Our arms are empowered to embrace our enemies and the outcasts. We no longer make excuses; instead we walk forward to new life in Jesus and go forward to a life of service.

I sometimes wonder if one of the ways we’re stopped from being more effective disciples is by keeping busy, tired, and diverted. We become numbed to the call of Jesus to serve God and others because we don’t have time. We come home after work and collapse in front of the TV until it is time to go to bed and repeat the process all over again. Weekends are when we want to get out or do something else. So we live life to the minimum. And we say we want change when we actually want to remain the same – but we want to feel better about it.

 We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we really want, because to be whole means to be re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. To be whole means to get off of the settee and get involved. It means to work hard, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked. We know that to walk out of the door and say, “Here, am I Jesus! Send me!” is something that in our heart of hearts we really don’t want to say.

But there is another way of looking at this passage: If we are the implied audience, then are we being invited to examine when and by whom in today’s church life the knowledge of God brought by Jesus is rejected because it is too challenging to existing religious systems and structures?  Not this time too challenging to individuals. When do the structures and rules of the Church help to keep people "sick" or "stuck in their condition" rather than offering new life through the power of God? I think that was the situation in today’s Gospel: the man had the opportunity for a new life, a fresh start but the religious conventions of his day would have kept him where he was. The rejection of Jesus in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God and ordering the life of faith. Jesus could have avoided the controversy of this healing by waiting until after the Sabbath; or not commanding him to take up his mat. Jesus did both as a deliberate act. In Chapter 5, Jesus had already declared that God is working, even on the Sabbath day! And “like Father, like son” - the Son is also working.

One way of dealing with an unappetising message, is to kill the messenger. That is what the Jewish leaders had decided to do with Jesus. One way of dealing with an unappetising message today, of course, is to ignore it.

Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.

To expand on a question I raised earlier, when may our church or religious rules keep people away from the saving/healing presence of Jesus? By that I don’t mean rewriting the structures and doctrines of worldwide Anglicanism: I think we can start a bit closer to home. I remember a lady once complaining about teenagers coming to church in jeans. She was especially upset when they went up for communion in trainers: so disrespectful! Would she rather have had them in church in jeans and trainers, or have her perception of the done thing keep them away?

Many years ago I was a member of a congregation where the morning service was broadcast live on Radio 4. A few days later the vicar received a letter of complaint from a member of the public because the Lord’s Prayer, which had been set to music, had been accompanied … by a guitar!

What about lay participation in the service? I once knew a vicar who actively discouraged lay participation because it got in the way of his ministry. What about those parents who don’t take their children into Children’s church but keep them with them in the congregation? “Well, they might AT LEAST have brought quiet toys with them!” How about children at communion or experimental worship? Does obedience to these “rules” help or hinder the spread of the gospel? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: "What are we willing to give up so that more people might hear the Gospel?" I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that one of the contemporary movements in the church today is called “New Wine.” To what extent are we the old wineskins?

Now, I feel confident in saying this to you because I don’t know you and so I don’t know what your experience is and so I have no agenda and, of course, this is a universal message.

Now, one of the things I often do when I read the Gospel stories is to try to imagine that I am there and I’d like you to consider that too. Who in the story did you most identify with?

I doubt that anyone here is going to say, “The Religious Authorities” but does our behaviour give the lie to that – and I ask myself that too.

Well, there was a miracle by the pool of Bethezda. Why? Not just because Jesus performed a healing – and without an angel in sight - but because in that healing the people glimpsed new possibilities. I think that our earnest prayer should be for Jesus to touch many more in the church so that they, too, can see new possibilities.





1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. Witty, informative and challenging.