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Sixth Sunday in Easter — May 26, 2019 – John 5:1-18
The sermon series that begins today is titled “The Visible Christian: Revealing Jesus to an Unbelieving World.” It begins with today’s text for this reason: Christians today can be a more potent, more powerful witness to the world to our foundational belief in the presence of God in the midst of the word today when we cease to fear what God is doing in our midst, when we trust that God is with us in the midst of sometimes terrifying change, and when our witness to the world is a witness that attests to God’s power manifest in God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love, and when that love is manifest in not only our relationships with one another, but in our proclamation to the world.
Before I read today’s text, I need to make something clear: one of the facets of John’s gospel is that he uses the term “the Jews” to describe the religious leaders who are in opposition to Jesus’ ministry on earth. John does not mean this as a blanket term for all Jewish people, in his day or ours. Jesus was Jewish. The man who he heals in today’s reading is Jewish. As such, today’s text is a critique of religious leadership, not a critique of Judaism.
I like to think of myself as a man who is somewhat unafraid of change, but years ago, just before Christmas, a man who was the relative of fifteen of the members of the church I was serving at the time died and was to be buried in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. When I learned the date and time of his funeral, I decided to go. I charted my course: route 460 west to Troutville, just outside of Roanoke. From there it was 81-south to Abingdon where I would turn north, and head to the little, snow-covered coal-mining town nestled in the mountains.
Traveling anywhere west of Blackstone is a trip back in time for me. Everything I see brings back forgotten memories of my late teens and early twenties when I would travel most of that route to and from college. On the way home from the funeral, I actually pulled off of the interstate and drove across the tiny campus of my alma mater Emory & Henry College for what was the first time in many years.
What I saw surprised me. There was a road that did not go where it once went. There were new buildings that had been built. There were faculty members walking around who I did not recognize. As I drove past one of the main parking lots, I could not believe what I saw. The cars were rather nice! Brand new Audis and Honda Accords and BMWs. I even saw a student driving a [gasp!] Land Rover! “What on earth is going on here?” “I thought. This is not how the campus is supposed to look! This is not what students here are supposed to drive! They are supposed to drive 1983 Civics, Subaru Brats, Ford Fairmonts, beat-up old Jeeps, and old Corollas. This is NOT how it used to be!
I noticed that the old train depot that was once a recreation center with a pool table was now an office for campus police. The old country store where we bought snacks was now the bookstore. The bookstore used to be next to the cafeteria! Where it belongs! The students apparently don’t even have to cross the tracks to go to the post office to get their mail, like we did! They can get it in the old gymnasium, which, in my day, was used as a gymnasium! There was old restaurant on an adjacent lot to the P.O., were Granny Addison would make you soup and sandwiches on those days when you were sick of cafeteria food, or homesick and you wanted someone who reminded you of your grandma to make you soup and a sandwich. That old place was now a vacant restaurant with a different name, where someone else had tried to sell fine dining and failed.
Of course, that was before the nice cars showed up; an idea ahead of its time.
For some reason this all burned me up, so badly that I had to call my wife Tracy, an alum of the same school, and complain. It only took a few minutes of my complaining about how everything was now ruined for me to realize she was pretty under-whelmed with my experience.
“It is called change, Doug. It’s normal. What exactly did you expect? It can’t stay 1993 forever.”
In this morning’s text, Jesus performs a sign, which is what his miracles are called in the Gospel of John. They are called signs because they point to Jesus’ unique relationship with God the Father. It is the time of an unspecified festival, and Jesus is in Jerusalem near a pool called Beth-zatha.
If you look at this morning’s text in your pew Bible, you will notice that this morning’s reading in chapter five has verse one, verse two, verse three, and then verse five. This is not a misprint. To read verse four, you need to look at the footnote on the bottom of the page, which is the case in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, as well as the New International Version. This is because scholars believe that verse four was a later addition, added to explain how people in Jesus’ day believed that the reason the water was stirred-up was because an angel had touched it, which also explained its healing properties for the first person in the water. Understanding this helps us make sense of verse seven, where a sick man complains that he was unable to be healed due to his ability to reach the pool on time.
Jesus arrives on the scene and is quickly able to perceive that this man has been sick for quite some time; thirty-eight years. This nameless man is so close to the healing pool that Jesus asks him “Do you want to be made well?” The man indicates that he does and explains his predicament, and only then does Jesus heal him, instructing him to “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
And this is exactly what he does.
Then all of the powerful religious leaders learn about this, and they all walk through the streets loudly praising God for this act of miraculous, gracious, healing power. “Hallelujah! Glory to God in the highest! Hurray for Jesus for liberating this man from his suffering! God is doing a new thing! Praise the Lord, Almighty!” they cried as they returned to their homes.
Except that is not what happened at all. Not even close.
What happened was that the religious leaders happened upon this man who was carrying his mat, and they chastise him for working on the sabbath by walking while carrying something.
And then, for Jesus, things go south. When asked what he was doing, the recently-healed man replies, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’”
And here is the first of two places where, merely five chapters into John’s gospel, Jesus gets into trouble— big trouble. Apparently the something worse than carrying a mat on the sabbath is healing on the sabbath, so sixteen verses into chapter five of John’s gospel and the persecution of Jesus begins. In the next verse, Jesus explains himself by saying “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” So in the verse after that, John tells us that the religious leaders “were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.”
Two strikes against Jesus, and it is already the beginning of the end.
It is so hard to let go of old beliefs. It is so hard to let go of old ways. God knows this. Yet when we cling to the old ways too tightly, the old ways, the old beliefs, can become substitutes for God instead of means by which we encounter God. Things like healing, the law, the Sabbath, all are supposed to be means by which God gets our attention, means by which God speaks to us, through which we encounter God, in which we are changed and transformed by God, by which we are drawn closer to the love that changes the world. First century Judaism drew community identity around three practices: circumcision, dietary laws, and keeping the sabbath. By challenging sabbath observance, Jesus was challenging the very meaning of what it meant to be a member of his own community of faith.(1)
How often does it happen to us? How often do we mistakenly believe that God is the curator and guardian of our personal museum of faith and not the one who is making all things new? How often do we allow ourselves to be offended that something precious to us is being changed that we miss God’s new thing, even God’s miraculous new thing which is occurring right before our eyes?
How often do we expect the church to be that place that keeps things as they were, that unchanging facet in our lives in the midst of all of the other changes in our lives, mine, yours, and ours? Our bodies age, loved ones die, marriages come to an end, children grow up and move away, friendships fade, vocations change, we move, we lose things that matter to us. And we pray to God Give me one thing, one thing Lord that I can count on, one thing that will never change, one thing that will never fail me, one thing that I will never have to grieve.
And most often, for those of us who believe, that thing is our church. And for what feels like good reason, church becomes a battleground where we wage war against all things new. Church becomes the place we wish to surround with trenches and barbed wire, where we plant our cannons and artillery, where we scale the ancient parapets keeping watch for anything that threatens that which matters so much to us.
Just like the religious leaders in John chapter five did.
They moved the student post office because our senior year, a classmate named Keith Tickles was crossing the railroad tracks after visiting the post office, immersed in what he was reading, immersed in his own thoughts, when he was struck by a freight train heading north, and was killed. They moved the bookstore so they could sell more merchandise and raise more money for this old Methodist church school. They closed the old road because it was narrow and on the edge of a steep, 100 foot hill and quite dangerous in the snow and ice. Granny Addison closed the store so she could retire and do something new with her life. They hire new faculty so they can have the best and brightest minds molding the minds of their students.
Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath to glorify God in this man’s life and to persuade the community to reevaluate their faith and how they practiced and lived it, so that their faith could be freed from the shackles of judgement and legalism, so that people could face a new direction, face the light of the sun, and remember that they were God’s people, surrounded by God’s love, promised God’s love and eternal presence, the love of a God who wished only the best for them.
Jesus healed this man to teach the community of faith what it means to be a community of faith, a faith which exists beyond what we know, beyond what we have always done, beyond measurable rules, beyond always knowing the score. He healed this man to teach us that our God is still a God who can do a new thing, who can lead us in a new direction, who still travels with us wherever we may go; to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the grave. He healed this man who would be called a sinner to teach us that sometimes our encounters with God make our lives harder as we seek to live as faithful people in the midst of an unbelieving world.
Jesus heals this man, not to prove that good religion is about knowing the correct answers to the questions of who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out, who is innocent and who is guilty, so that we might be able to assign blame and feel somehow in it be more assured of our own holiness. Instead, Jesus heals this man in order to show us that, in a world where we so often cannot understand why things happen as they do, one thing that we can cling to in all times, in all places, and in all situations is that our God is a God of compassion and mercy.
Scripture never ever promises us a church without change, only that the very gates of hell shall not prevail against us. What scripture does promise us in the Epistle to the Hebrews is that it is Jesus Christ and not the church who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
And for us today, that may be the best news of all.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke and John.