“More than the Sabbath”
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
St. John 5:1-9
John wants his readers to be acutely aware of the sign and symbols that are scattered about in his Gospel. They are not placed there by him as a literary or mythogenic device, but rather they are perceived by him and he asks us to be aware of them as well. There are seven signs of particular note, the changing of water into wine at Cana, the healing of the officials son, the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and today’s Gospel about the paralytic at Bethesda. Sometimes these events are placed within the embrace of important liturgical festivals in the Jewish Year, and so it is today, where the story takes place on the most common of them – the Sabbath. In these settings John wants us to understand the depth of Jesus’ ministry and meaning, and intends that these days, symbols, and events give comment not only on who Jesus us, but what Jesus wishes to teach us as well. The days themselves point to Jesus and his presence in the everyday nature of things. In this case, the Sabbath becomes more than anyone really understood.
This particular healing takes place at Beth-zatha with its pool that was occasionally stirred up. Already John is getting us ready to understand something significant about Jesus by pointing out these details of the setting: the gathering of invalids (in themselves a sign of messianic potentiality) and the waters of the pool (which minds us of Creation where God orders the chaos and divides water from land), and finally the stirring up (an implicit reference to the Holy Spirit who hovers over the face of the deep. Thus we are led to the first lesson.
Lesson One: God’s continuing creative activity
It is particularly easy for us, living when we do, to understand the on-going nature of Creation. If there is one thing that the Hubble Spacecraft has made evident to us it is that creation is being renewed every nanosecond at an astounding rate. All about us is change and decay and recreation. This is not just a scientific observation but a theological one as well. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will teach the disciples “My Father is still working.” This challenges our sometimes rather static view of God as Creator. It is more than function, or a description of what once was. It is a declaration about the present and the future. God is yet about the business of making us and the cosmos we live in. Hold on to that thought, because it will become important in the third and final lesson this morning.
Lesson Two: Jesus and Creation
In the story the man is waiting for the water to be stirred up, and is frustrated in his attempts to get to the water to receive the cure. Jesus, as we shall soon see, virtually ignores the water, and asks the man to do something entirely different. The water didn’t matter to Jesus, or to the man seeking it, for that matter. What did matter was what was working with the water. Let me complete the verse that Jesus spoke to the disciples, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” This whole sequence and passage reminds me of Martin Luther’s commentary on Baptism (Oh, and by the way, the ewer is there filled and ready should anyone want to be washed in Baptism.) Luther said, “It is not the water that does these great things,” and then goes on to connect the water with the Word and Spirit, or in this case with himself. Creation is being actively renewed through the activity of Jesus as well. We see that when he feeds us in the Eucharist, or forgives us in the words of others, or teaches us with sacred words. But there is more – and this finally lesson is intimately related to us and to our living.
Lesson Three: Creation within
“Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” It is almost rude in its abrupt nature, but here Jesus points to the simplicity of all that has been done on this day. The man was expecting something from outside of himself to save him. He expected that he needed to touch or move to that thing in order to be healed. It was the same impulse that led the woman with the issue of blood to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. But, as Jesus points out, it was her faith, and the man’s self action time after time (perhaps this is faith) Jesus teaches the man that he already has the power of creation within him to take action, to “get up, and to walk.”
Are we waiting by the pool of Beth-zatha here? Are we waiting for someone or something outside of ourselves to move us on in our ministry? Do we think of ourselves as flawed in some way because we have been usable to get to the water (or whatever the resource is) soon enough? Please don’t hear this as a scolding, but rather as a lesson in practical theology, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
If we believe what we confess about the power that Christ gives us, and the partnership that we have in the Holy Spirit – if we believe these things, then there ought to be a thoroughly invigorating conversation going on around here. Jesus points to the innate gifts that the man already has – living in creation, under the care of a creating God, and invited by the incarnate One. Such gifts could be used for great purpose. For the man, they were enough to get him out the gate and back on the street of life. He simply got up – and that was the gift of that Sabbath, and Jesus’ understanding.
I wonder what would happen around here in terms of ministry to ourselves, to one another, and to the community that surrounds us if we all had the simple understanding that “I have to get up – and move!” The directions that we might go, and the streets that we might return to will lead us in a thousand directions – each of them a moment for recreation, for seeing God active in the world through us. So, “get up”!