Thursday, June 02, 2022

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 5:1-9

In the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, there is a choice of two Gospel readings, both from St John’s Gospel. The second, from chapter 5, is the one I have chosen. If we don’t read from chapter 5 of St John’s Gospel this week, it will make chapter 5 the only chapter from St John’s Gospel that we have not read from, and which I have not preached on, in the three-year cycle of readings we use for our services. I am not sure if this is the best of reasons for selecting the reading for this week, but it seemed a shame to miss out this one chapter!

There are two preliminary issues we need to deal with before looking at the chapter in detail.

The first is the order of Jesus’ movements as St John describes them in his Gospel. In chapter 3, St John has described Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in Jerusalem at the Passover festival. Then in chapter 4, he has given an account of Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:1-42) and of the healing of the official’s son at Cana in Galilee (John 4:46-54). Chapter 5 then begins with Jesus going up to Jerusalem for a ‘festival of the Jews’. Jesus’ movements so far are all straightforward and easy to follow. The next chapter, chapter 6, however, begins:

‘After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.’ (John 6:1)

Before this, at the end of chapter 5, though, Jesus is still in Jerusalem, so the opening to chapter 6 doesn’t seem to follow very smoothly from chapter 5. St John, by writing that Jesus went to the ‘other side of the Sea of Galilee’, seems to suggest that Jesus is already on one side of the sea. This has led some scholars to suggest that at some point, early in the history of the Gospel, chapters 5 and 6 have somehow got out of order when the Gospel was first copied. Chapter 6, they argue, follows more naturally from chapter 4, as, at the end of chapter 4, Jesus is in Galilee. They propose, then, reversing the order of chapters 5 and 6 to have chapter 6 after chapter 4 and chapter 5 after that. (So, on this understanding of Jesus’ movements, the order of the chapters would be chapter 4, 6, and 5!)

This reordering of the text, however, is pure speculation, as there is no manuscript evidence that the order of the passages was ever other than as it is. It is best, then, to work with the text as we have it. My own suggestion, for what it is worth, is that the phrase, ‘the other side’, was just a common way of referring to the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias and could be used to describe it no matter what the context. In any case, although it may seem awkward to us now, we still know what St John means!

Secondly, St John begins the chapter by writing that Jesus ‘went up to Jerusalem’ for a festival of the Jews. There were three festivals that Jews ‘went up to Jerusalem’ for: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These were the three pilgrimage festivals. Commentators speculate as to which of the three this one was. St John normally tells us which festival it is that Jesus is attending. The fact that he doesn’t here, then, seems quite deliberate on his part. With the other festivals that St John names and describes in the Gospel, what happens at them and what Jesus teaches during them are related. In chapter 5, the unnamed festival itself isn’t relevant as such to what St John wants us to focus on. The festival is only mentioned as an explanation as to why Jesus has gone back to Jerusalem.

So, what happens when Jesus gets there? St John writes that in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool. Interestingly, St John uses the present tense. He could just be using this for vividness in his telling of the story, but some have taken St John’s use of the present tense to mean that St John was writing before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 while there still was such a pool. After AD 70, the pool ceased to exist. I think St John was writing before AD 70, but that is not a popular opinion! This reference, however, can’t decide whether it was or not, and most commentators date the Gospel to the end of the first century.

In the various manuscripts we have of St John’s Gospel, different names are given for the pool: Beth-zatha, as in our version of the Gospel reading, but also Bethesda and Bethsaida. It is easy to see how the names could get mixed up! It used to be the case that scholars didn’t take the reference to the pool seriously and argued that St John had just imagined its existence. That has all changed now, as archaeologists have discovered a pool by St Anne’s church in the Old City of Jerusalem, which matches St John’s description.

St John describes the pool as having five porticoes. Porticoes are covered walkways or extended porches. It is likely that there were, in fact, two pools next to each other. Four of the porticoes would have been around the perimeter of the site with the fifth portico in the middle separating the two pools. It seems that at times the water would stir, and it was thought that the first to enter it when it did would be healed. The belief that this was a place of healing was clearly a popular one, and so those with sickness and disability gathered there in the shelter of the covered walkways hoping to be healed.

One man, St John tells us, has been there 38 years. St John is very good at dropping these sorts of details into his Gospel. He intends them to have a symbolic as well as a literal meaning. Anyone who knew Jewish history, and most of St John’s first readers would have known that history very well, would have been aware of the significance of 38 years in Israel’s past.

After the people of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, they entered the wilderness. Two years later, at a place called Kadesh-barnea, they were given the chance to enter the Promised Land, but they lacked the faith in God to do so, fearing the people who lived there (Numbers 14:1-25). God punished them for their lack of faith. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who did have faith in God, the people who lacked faith in God were all to die in the wilderness and their children would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land until their parents were all dead (see also Deuteronomy 1:35). When the time has eventually come for the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land, Moses, in recapping what has happened to them, says:

‘And the length of time we had traveled from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn concerning them.’ (Deuteronomy 2:14)

38 years, then, is the length of time the people of Israel suffered as a consequence of not believing in God. We don’t how old the man Jesus sees lying by the pool in Jerusalem was, just that he also had been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him what at first sight seems a very odd question, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ Why does Jesus think the man would be there if he didn’t want to be healed? The man explains that the reason he has been there so long is that he has no-one help him into the water when it stirs and someone else always gets there ahead of him.

You may notice that in your Bible the last part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 is missing. This is because it is no longer thought that the words in these verses are original to the Gospel. The words are interesting, though, as they supply an explanation for what the people who went there believed about the pool. Referring to the people who were at the pool, these two verses describe how the people at the pool were:

‘… waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.’ (John 5:3-4)

The man Jesus speaks to is not only unable to walk; he is utterly alone without anyone to help him. Hearing the man has no-one to help him into the pool, Jesus simply says to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ St John writes that ‘at once’ the man did so. It is a happy ending to an otherwise sad story, except that St John adds the sentence, ‘Now that day was a Sabbath.’

Those hearing this read for the first time would have got the significance of this sentence right away. Some may even have gasped in horror. Healing someone who had been both ill and alone for so many years was something all good Jews would have approved of. But healing on a Sabbath was something else, not only that, by telling the man to take up his mat, Jesus was telling the man to break one of God’s most important commandments.

There were Ten Commandments, and not working on the Sabbath was one of them. Carrying your mat on the Sabbath was definitely classed as work. St John writes that people tell the man who has been healed that it is not lawful for him to carry his mat on the Sabbath. The man replies that the man who healed him told him to. After all, if you have been unable to walk for 38 years and someone heals you, you are probably going to do whatever else they tell you to do.

Later, Jesus finds the man in the Temple and says to him:

‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ (John 5:14)

The man goes straight to the authorities and tells them that it is Jesus who has made him well. It seems a little strange that the man should do this knowing, as he must, that it would cause trouble for Jesus with the authorities.

This has led commentators to see an implied criticism of the man in what St John writes. They compare this man’s reaction in chapter 5 with that of the man born blind, who we read about in chapter 9, who Jesus also heals on the Sabbath. When questioned by the authorities, St John describes how the man born blind voices his support for Jesus and believes in him. St John doesn’t, though, tell us anything about what the man who was lame thinks of Jesus.

In the same way, however, that St John in chapter 5 is not concerned as to which festival it is, the man’s faith is not what St John wants us to focus on here either. St John describes Jesus’ miracles as signs. They point to something else. Jesus healing the lame man is an act of compassion, but it is more. It is revealing something we should know about Jesus himself. It is Jesus’ act of healing on the Sabbath and what we learn from what Jesus has to teach about himself in the light of it that is St John’s main interest in his account of this sign.

We today have little patience with those who criticize the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. We have no sympathy whatsoever with them when they begin persecuting Jesus after finding out that Jesus is the one who is responsible for the man doing so. We are dismissive of their concerns, seeing them as legalistic, petty, and lacking in compassion. Of course it is alright to heal on the Sabbath, we think, and who cares about someone carrying a mat whatever day of the week it is? But the Jews then did care what happened on the Sabbath, as many still do today. Not only was keeping the Sabbath one of the Ten Commandments, God had repeatedly told his people that they must observe the Sabbath. In the book of Numbers, for example, we read how God orders that a man who has been gathering sticks on the Sabbath should be stoned to death for doing so (Numbers 15:32-36).

While Christians nowadays tend to be very indifferent to the Sabbath commandment, it has not always been the case. When I was growing up in the UK, Sunday, because of the UK’s Christian past, was still regarded as the ‘Christian Sabbath’. Today, of course, you can do just about anything you like on a Sunday, and churchgoers behave no differently on a Sunday to anyone else. Indeed, it is hard to get even church members to go to church on a Sunday, if there is something else they find more interesting happening at the same time. It never used to be like that, however. Shops and most places of work were all shut, and there was very little that you were allowed to do on a Sunday. It was a dreadful, boring day, and I used to hate it. When I went to Bible College, ‘Sabbath observance’ was taken so seriously that we weren’t even allowed to read a newspaper in college on a Sunday.

The Jews in Jesus’ day, however, don’t seem to have found the Sabbath boring, but, in any case, they certainly took it seriously, in the way Christians once took Sunday seriously. Even outside of the Holyland throughout the Roman Empire, the Jews still observed the Sabbath. The Romans found Jewish observance of the Sabbath strange, and some pagan writers criticized them for it, but generally the Romans tolerated it. Josephus, the Jewish historian, quotes several Roman laws permitting the Jews to observe the Sabbath.

Jesus was himself a good Jew. He attended the synagogue and knew the Scriptures well. His attitude to the Sabbath, however, got him into a lot of trouble. What people found hard was not simply that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, but that he did so when he didn’t have to and when there was no immediate risk to life. The man who Jesus healed at the pool had been unable to walk for 38 years. What difference would having to wait one more day make to him? The man wasn’t going anywhere in the meantime. Jesus doesn’t just heal the man, however; Jesus commands the man to carry his mat. It is as if Jesus is deliberately wanting to make a point.

Elsewhere in the Gospels (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus teaches that the Sabbath is a particularly suitable day to heal someone. Rather than breaking the Law, Jesus believes that healing someone on the Sabbath is completely compatible with the Law. Later, in chapter 7, St John writes that Jesus is again in Jerusalem for a festival. This time St John tell us which festival it is. It is the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath at the festival in our Gospel reading from chapter 5 is still causing trouble for Jesus. They will not let it rest! Jesus asks them a question:

‘If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?’ (John 7:23)

How can it be against God’s Law to make someone whole on the Sabbath? They, however, don’t see it like that. After they discover it is Jesus who has healed the man at the pool on the Sabbath, St John writes:

‘Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.’ (John 5:16)

The word ‘persecution’ has quasi-legal overtones. St John frames his account as if Jesus being on trial. While Jesus believes it is entirely appropriate to heal on the Sabbath, here he answers their accusations against him by saying:

‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ (John 5:17)

The Sabbath was given to Israel to mark the day when God rested from his work of creation (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11). The Jews, though, didn’t think that God actually stopped working altogether; he still continued to work in his world, sustaining it and keeping it in being. Jesus links himself to the Father and argues that if the Father is working, he as God’s Son can work too.

Jesus working on the Sabbath, as the Jewish authorities saw it, was bad enough, but Jesus’ claim of such a close relationship with God that he can claim prerogatives that were believed to belong to God alone is too much for them and they now seek to kill Jesus for blasphemy (John 5:18). Jesus’ life is now permanently under threat making Jerusalem a dangerous place for him to be (John 7:1, 19, 25).

Jesus, however, will not be silenced, and in chapter 5, and again later at the Feast of Tabernacles in chapter 7 onwards, Jesus continues to elaborate on his relationship with the Father. Here in chapter 5, the Jewish authorities assume that Jesus is answerable to them and that they are in a position to judge him. They are in for a shock. The Father, says Jesus, has entrusted all judgement to him. All who hear Jesus’ word and believe in the One who sent him will have eternal life and not come into judgement (John 5:24). The prospect for those who do not believe in him, however, is a bleak one, and the judgement they face is near at hand and not in the distant future. Whether people hear Jesus’ words and believe in him or not will determine their future.

Jesus answers the accusations against him by appealing to four witnesses who can testify on his behalf: John the Baptist (John 5:33); the works the Father has given him to complete (John 5:36); the Father himself (John 5:37); and the Scriptures (John 5:39). Jesus tells his accusers that he will not accuse them before the Father, but there is someone who will (John 5:45). Their accuser, ironically, will be Moses whom they think they are being obedient to. As they accuse Jesus of breaking the Law given through Moses, Moses himself accuses them. Moses had written about Jesus, and if they do not believe Moses, how are they to believe Jesus (John 5:46-47)? If they do not believe Jesus, they will not escape condemnation.

It is Jesus’ accusers who are on trial, not Jesus, and Jesus is the judge!

In asking what this says to us today, I want to highlight three phrases from our Gospel reading.

1. ‘Do you want to be made well?’

This is the question that Jesus asks the man who cannot walk. As I have said it sounds at first a strange question. Whatever Jesus’ actual reason for asking it, it is good psychology. People who have been unwell or have lived with a disability can let their illness or disability become a part of their identity. Their life has been lived in the light of its reality to such an extent that it can be hard to imagine life without it.

It is also true that people can become defined by their illness or disability rather than by who they are as a person. The English translation of the Bible that we use at Christ Church is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Recently, this has been ‘updated’. It has been lightly revised in the light of advances in scholarship and our understanding of the manuscripts and original languages used by the Biblical writers. The English used to translate the Biblical languages has also been revised to make it more contemporary. The translators have also tried to avoid translating using language that labels a person by their condition. So, for example, in Matthew 4 verse 24 the NRSV originally has:

‘So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.’ (Matthew 4:24 NRSV)

The updated version translates it as:

‘So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.’ (Matthew 4:24 NRSVue)

This can seem like a form of political correctness, but it makes an important point. People are more than their illness and disability.

Whatever the reason for Jesus asking the man whether he wanted to be made well, Jesus will go on to speak of true wellness. The Son, Jesus says, gives life to whomever he wishes (John 5:21). Wellness is a big thing nowadays, and it has become a major industry. Many of us are very much concerned about such things as healthy eating, going to the gym and exercising, taking vitamin and mineral supplements, and we will talk of having a good work-life balance.

I find it interesting to see how religious language has been taken over and applied to physical and mental health and well-being, while ignoring how it was originally used, which was to do with spiritual well-being. Marks and Spencer, for example, advertise their home fragrances by urging people to make them an essential part of their self-care ‘rituals’. Dieticians will speak of the benefits of intermittent ‘fasting’. And various types of therapists advocate ‘meditation’ in the way priests once suggested prayer.

If it is true, as popular sayings have it, that ‘you only live once’ and ‘once you are dead you are dead’, we want to make sure that the one life we have before we die is both long and fulfilling.

In chapter 3 of St John’s Gospel, Jesus has told Nicodemus that he needs to be born again spiritually from above (John 3:3, 7), and in chapter 4, Jesus tells the woman at the well in Samaria:

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (John 4:13-14)

We find the question, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ odd when asked of a man who is physically lame. He, at least, knew how to answer. When it is asked of us who are unwell spiritually, we are not so sure. But Jesus does ask it of us. Do we want to be made well? Or do we prefer to continue to lie in sin, spiritually dead, and without the life Jesus offers to give to those who believe in him?

Society defines us in many ways. It identifies us by our race, sexuality, gender, perceived ability or disability, even by our outward appearance and how we dress. Jesus invites us to be defined by our faith in him. He is the One in whom we find our true identity.
2. ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’

Jesus warns the man that, while he has been made well, he is not out of the water yet! The man has been paralyzed for 38 years. He has been so alone that he has not in all that time been able to find anyone to help him into the water. What worse that could happen to him?

Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ (John 5:25)

The worse thing that could happen to anyone is that they are not among those who hear the voice of the Son of God and receive the life that Jesus is able to give. Jesus promises that anyone who hears his word and believes the One who sent him has eternal life (John 5:24). They do not come under judgment but have passed from death to life. Jesus also makes clear that there will be some who will come under judgement and will miss out on the life that he offers. There will be a resurrection to life, but there will also be a resurrection to condemnation (John 5:29).

Jesus tells the man to sin no more. In saying this, Jesus is talking to us as well as to the man who is lame. We inevitably think of sin in terms of the Ten Commandments or the ethical teaching of the Scriptures, but sin in St John’s Gospel is not to believe in Jesus. It is this sin that we will be condemned for. The Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin because they have not believed in him, Jesus tells the disciples in the Upper Room (John 16:9). As St John writes of Jesus:

‘Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’ (John 3:18)

We struggle with this idea of judgement, and will not accept that God could condemn anyone, even less that he could reject them completely. The default position of most churches now is that of ‘universalism’, the belief that somehow regardless of what a person may have done in this life and irrespective of whether they believe or not, all will be alright in the end: all will be saved.

This is delusional. We may choose to believe that there are no consequences to what we think or do, but that is not the teaching of the Bible or of the Church’s tradition. We can take the risk and go on as if there is nothing to worry about, but Jesus warns us against it. If we persist in the sin of unbelief, something worse will indeed happen to us, and when it does it will be too late for us to do anything about it.

It sounds very encouraging and reassuring to hear sermons from church pulpits assuring us that God loves us and not only wants all people to be saved but will also make sure that all are saved and that none are lost. We are inevitably attracted to a message that tells us that we are unconditionally loved by God no matter what. But aren’t we being more than a little hypocritical in all this?

Some of the people I know who are strong advocates of universalism are also very active in speaking out against injustice and the wrongs that have been done to people in the past. They call for justice now, for past wrongs to be acknowledged, for present wrongs to be put right, for the guilty to be punished, and for reparations to be made.

But if we believe in justice and that wrong should be punished, don’t we condemn ourselves? Isn’t this St Paul’s point in his letter to the Church at Rome. St Paul writes:

‘Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.’ (Romans 2:1)

We are judged and condemned by our own words. We need someone to save us if we are to be made well and for nothing worse to happen to us. We need hear the voice of the Son of God and to believe in the One who sent him.

3. ‘The man went away and told the Jews it was Jesus who had made him well.’

As I have said, many are not worried about future judgement because they have decided that this life is all that there is. There is nothing beyond the grave and nothing to worry about after we die. This means, therefore, that we need to make the most of this life now. Nevertheless, we find the idea that we will cease to be hard to come to terms with. It is this that makes us want to prolong our lives for as long as possible and why scientists are working so hard to find ways to extend the human life span.

Length of days is one thing, but what about what we do with the time that we have? We instinctively search for meaning, but often despair of finding any. Life for many can be hard. There are, of course, those who are happy with their life and who enjoy what they consider to be a fulfilling existence, but there are many who do not. For many, life is desperate, demanding, and depressing. It is one thing to talk about the 100 things you are going to do before you die when you are in a position to be able to do them. But for many, just making ends meet and ensuring there is enough food on the table for their family is difficult enough. Even those who are materially rich and who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle are often left wondering if this is all there is.

It is no wonder that, almost despite ourselves, we hope for life beyond death. I take and have taken quite a lot of funerals in my ministry. The majority have been of people who have not been religious during their life and whose family are themselves not religious. Very few people at a funeral, however, are prepared to see the person’s death as the end of that person’s existence. Most hang on to the idea that their loved one lives on in a different place. We even tell ourselves ‘death is nothing at all’! We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person who has died is now free from pain and suffering, living a better life, having been made well beyond death.

St John, however, is very clear that if we want to be made well in this life and if we want that wellness to last beyond death into the next life, we need Jesus. St John stresses that it is in Jesus and only in Jesus that we can find abundant life (John 10:10). St John writes that Jesus uses a series of seven metaphors to convey this message. Jesus says he is the bread of life (John 6:35, 48, 51); the light of the world (John 8:12); the gate (John 10:7, 9); the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); the way the truth, and the life (John 14:6); and the true vine (15:1, 5).

St John records seven metaphors in total. Seven, of course, is the number of wholeness. St John is saying that if we want to be made well, it is in Jesus that we will become fully well. It is by believing in Jesus that we receive eternal life and are made whole.

The phrase ‘eternal life’ does not refer primarily to length of life. It refers to a quality of life found only in Jesus, the Word made flesh and the source of all life (John 1:3-4, 14). The life Jesus gives is not simply life that lasts, but abundant life (John 10:10). It is life that begins now, and which continues after this life with God and in God forever.

It is so that we might have this abundant life that Jesus came, and it is so we might find it that St John says he wrote his Gospel (John 20:31). Those of us who believe in Jesus are to hold fast to the word of life that we have received (Philippians 2:16), but more than that we are to hold out the word of life to all those who have not received it and who are perishing without it.

Today, Jesus asks us, ‘Do you want to be made well?’

May we hear Jesus’ word, believe in the One who sent him, and receive eternal life for ourselves.


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