“Healing or Heresy?”
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When 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?” 7The 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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
An essay by C.S. Lewis begins with the question, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” In typical, provocative C.S. Lewis style, he says that people have a lot of trouble wrapping their minds around Jesus in the gospels. We often do not know what to make of Jesus.
On the one hand, you have Jesus’ moral teaching and hardly anyone can argue with the content of what Jesus said. Oh, we can quibble about loving our enemies or turning the other cheek, but even the most feverish atheist will grudgingly admit that the teachings of Jesus – those core values of love, generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace – all of that is pretty non-controversial stuff. I think most people long for the kind of peaceful, lovely world that Jesus describes as the kingdom of God, even if they don’t believe in God or Jesus. Now a lot of atheists and even some believers will say they have a lot of problems with Christ’s followers since Jesus, but hardly anyone will argue against the notion that Jesus’ basic moral message contains deep wisdom and sanity. (1)
But in addition to Jesus’ universally acceptable moral teachings, the gospel is filled with Jesus’ more questionable actions of bumping up against and frequently knocking over established religious rules. He does it all the time. And nothing about Jesus’ actions appears to be coincidental or accidental. Everything Jesus does seem calculated to elicit a response.
As Lewis observes, Jesus’ actions most often produce three responses throughout the gospels – adoration, fear or hatred. And by the end of his life on earth, the public emotions swirling around Jesus were mainly that last two. Jesus had managed to alienate pretty much everyone around him, save for the very few who stuck around long enough to see him die on the cross.
What are we to make of this Jesus who intentionally does and says things that run absolutely counter to people’s expectations of a proper Messiah? He comes from Galilee, where no prophet comes from. He talks with a Samaritan woman, which no decent male Jew would do. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and possessed by the devil. And the amazing thing is that none of the negativity buzzing around him everywhere he goes seem to deter Jesus one bit. Jesus just continues on, crossing boundaries that no self-respecting Jewish messiah should cross.
As we touched upon last week when we talked about Peter and Cornelius, first century Jewish identity defined community identity by three practices: circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance. These practices were central to life in Jesus’ religious community and in Peter’s. These were set boundaries and a challenge to any of them meant a challenge to the very core of membership in the community. Peter bumped up against the practices of circumcision and food laws when he associated with the gentile Cornelius and his household in the book of Acts. As you recall, Peter was called to account for his actions before the authorities in Jerusalem. And Peter’s testimony about the Spirit’s power begins the important process of freeing the early church to imagine that God may very well be calling people from beyond the traditional boundaries of Jewish practice.
And here we have Jesus at it again. Jesus is attending a festival in Jerusalem and goes to a pool called Bethesda and sees a man lying there who has been ill for 38 years. Actually, there are a lot of sick people lying by the pool. The belief was that every so often the pool would be stirred up by an angel, and whoever could get to the pool first would be healed of their sickness. So there are a lot of people there, staring at the pool, waiting for their opportunity to be first in the pool. But for some reason, among all of these sick people, Jesus seeks out this one particular guy, someone who has been lying there for a very long time.
Jesus sees him and asks the man if he wants to be made well. And the man doesn’t say yes or no, but just keeps looking at that bubbling pool. And the man tells Jesus that the competition for healing is fierce. Nobody offers to help the man. Every time he tries to get up, someone else gets ahead of him. The man in our text obviously has no family. No friends. This is a guy who has been waiting for something good to happen to him for 38 years.
Jesus hears and sees the man, and in that moment, Jesus has a decision to make.
Because, you see, it is the Sabbath. And this man has been ill for 38 years. It is not an emergency situation. Jesus could sit with man until the sun goes down and use that time to counsel the man about his situation at the pool. Jesus could preach to everyone around that pool and command them to do the right thing and let the man have a turn. Jesus could pray with the invalid and teach him the scriptures so he would have the faith he needs to be healed of his condition. Jesus could require that the man accept him as messiah before Jesus lifts a finger to help him.
At the very least, Jesus could WAIT to do what he’s going to do. Jesus could at least wait until the Sabbath is over, thereby setting the scene for a healing that would be seen by everyone as perfectly acceptable and unquestionably good. If Jesus waits until after sundown, this wonderful miracle would make everyone happy and support their expectations of a victorious messiah who had arrived to take on all the enemies of God’s people.
But Jesus doesn’t do any of that. Jesus doesn’t wait until the right time to heal the man. Jesus doesn’t command the attention of the crowd. Jesus simply tells the man to stand up, take up his mat, and walk. And thus a major controversy is set in motion by Jesus’ action — one that seems intentionally offensive and disruptive.
What are we to make of Jesus Christ?
The other people at the pool don’t know what to make of Jesus. In fact, they don’t say a thing. Not one of them looks up from the water. There is no mass conversion or praise. Nothing at all has changed as a result of this miraculous healing taking place right in front of their faces.
The man who has been healed doesn’t know what to make of Jesus. The man is not made well because he first knows who Jesus is and believes. From the text, it is not even clear that the man wanted to be made well! He doesn’t say thank you. He doesn’t experience a sudden faith in Jesus after his dealing. The man doesn’t praise God or become a follower. Later on, when the Judean leaders ask the man why he is breaking Sabbath law by carrying a mat around, the man blames it on someone else. “Not my fault. Some guy I don’t know told me to do it. Don’t blame me, blame him.”
What are we to make of Jesus Christ?
The Judean leaders do not know what to make of Jesus. Well, they think they know what Jesus doing. We need to remember that these religious leaders are not heartless as we might imagine. The Judeans are reasonable people. If the man by the pool had been trapped in a burning house or drowning in the pool, the religious leaders would have allowed an exception to the law. Even on a Sabbath, it would be okay to pull someone out of a burning building.
But that’s not what Jesus did. The man by the pool in Bethesda was in no immediate danger. The leaders probably knew that man and how long he’d been lying with the other beggars.
The Judean leaders do not know what to make of Jesus, but one thing they do know is that Jesus deliberately crossed an uncrossable boundary when he healed the man on the Sabbath. The Judeans are not unreasonable and they aren’t stupid. They can see exactly what Jesus is up to.
Or can they? What are we to make of Jesus Christ?
We know how the religious and civil authorities interpreted Jesus’ actions. They saw Jesus’ healing as a heresy. We know what happens to Jesus as a result of this and other things he did that crossed the sacred line of the law. Things didn’t look so good for Jesus from there on. We know exactly where this defiant behavior got him
So here we are, many years later, and we find ourselves as Christians in a tricky position. Yes, our life together needs to be orderly. We are people who live by the rule of law. And we are also Presbyterians, which means we also deal with a Book of Order and a Book of Confessions that regulate our life as a church. And we need rules and boundaries to keep our community healthy and functioning well. No one, least of all me, is calling for anarchy.
But Jesus embodied a radical – yes, radical — kingdom where God is always calling us to a higher place. Given what happens to Jesus, and what has happened to so many other saints who have dared to step outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the sake of the gospel, we should step carefully every time we go to church or admit we are Christians and have the audacity to act like it. Living as a Christian is tricky business, but no more tricky than it has been since the beginning with Peter and the apostles. Our ways of being in the world are always subject to second-guessing by those who have an interest in keeping status quo protected.
When Jesus is rejected by the authorities, it is a rejection of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God. And we are invited in this text to examine when it is that we reject the Jesus because he is too challenging to our systems and structures. When do our structures and rules in the church help to keep people “sick” or “stuck in their condition” rather than offering transformation like that experienced by the man at the pool?
Our gospel reading today has been called “the strangest miracle” and it is really is very strange. The man at the pool wasn’t much interested in Jesus or what Jesus had to offer. But Jesus went ahead and healed him anyway.
What this strange miracle tells us is that God’s healing power isn’t contingent on our goodness or worthiness. God’s love transforms us whether we ask for it or not. And God’s transformation will come in God’s time, which is always the right time whether we realize it or not.
There’s a lot of good news for us in this story of this unworthy man lying helplessly by the pool in Bethesda. It’s not comforting news, because what it tells is that only Jesus is the source of our healing, and we cannot do it for ourselves. It’s not easy news, because it shows us that Jesus heals in a way that is often not convenient or proper or conventional.
But this story is good news for us because it demonstrates, yet again, who God is in Jesus. A God who will heal when we ask, and even when we don’t. A God who reaches out to those who are worthy, and even to those who are not. A God who will respond when we are bubbling over with hope, and even when 38 long painful years have passed and we are so blinded by our hopelessness that we cannot see Jesus standing right there in front of us. A God who loves across conventions, across boundaries, across our own stubborn resistance have things our way.
Sometimes, I just don’t know what to make of Jesus Christ. But I invite you to live with me in breathless anticipation of what Jesus will make of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Lewis, C.S. The Joyful Christian. Macmillian Publishing Company: New York, 1977. 72-73.