I introduced a
concept a couple of weeks ago,
a different way of translating one particular word in John's
gospel. That word is Ioudaioi, which is typically
translated "the Jews". Wes Howard-Brook makes an
argument, I think a convincing argument, that it would be better
translated in most, but not all cases, as "the Judeans",
because the references in John's gospel to "the Jews" does not
mean ALL Jews, in all times and places, or even in that time and
place. But rather refers to a particular group of Jews -- those in
Jerusalem, those in control of the power structures of that time.
So I'm going to
follow that, and use that where I think it's clearly intended as such,
as I read then from the fifth chapter of John's gospel:
After this there was a
festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now 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.
10So the Jews [the Judeans]
said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath;
it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ 11But he answered them,
‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and
walk.” ’ 12They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you,
“Take it up and walk”?’ 13Now the man who had been healed did
not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was
there. 14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See,
you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse
happens to you.’ 15The man went away and told the Jews [the
Judeans] that it was
Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Jews [the
Judeans] started persecuting
Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. 17But Jesus
answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am
working.’ 18For this reason the Jews [the
Judeans] 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.
Whenever I take the time to study the
gospel of John, I'm amazed at the complexity and the depth, the power
and the relevance of this gospel for us, still today. There are
more gems of wisdom, more spiritual insights in this one passage than I
can possibly cover in one sermon, so I'll simply try to touch upon some
of the highlights.
I want to first make one note about the
chronology and location in John's gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and
Luke, as I suspect many of you know, Jesus spends the first third of his
ministry in Galilee. Wandering amongst the towns in the
countryside, not in any particular order (it appears), teaching,
healing, and the like. And then when he comes to Caesarea
Philippi, the farthest point North, and Peter makes that great
confession "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God", it
says he 'turned his face toward Jerusalem'.
And then the next third of the synoptic
gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), are all about that journey to
Jerusalem. It serves as sort of a back-drop to teach about
discipleship, about the journey with Christ, taking up the cross of
Christ and following him.
And then the last third of those three
gospels occurs in the last week, the one and only time that Jesus goes
Now, John gives an entirely different
chronology. John tells of 5 different trips to Jerusalem.
Right away in chapter 2, Jesus goes to Jerusalem to celebrate the
Passover. And then, of course, that gospel--like the synoptics--ends
in Jerusalem. And in between, Jesus makes three more trips -- the
feast of the Tabernacle occurs in the fall (recorded in the 7th and 8th
chapter of John), the feast of dedication that we know as Hanukkah (in
the 10th chapter of John), and then one unnamed feast here in this story
when Jesus goes to Jerusalem.
And so Jesus is going back and forth to
Jerusalem throughout the gospel -- you'd think there was a commuter
train rather than having to go by foot J.
Biblical scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries tried their best to
make sense of these two very different chronologies by combining them
into one consistent account. Until Albert Schweitzer demonstrated
the total futility of such efforts in his epic work "The Quest for
the Historical Jesus", published 101 years ago.
And so it has become readily apparent
in the last century of biblical scholarship that John writes not
chronology, but rather, theology. And any time Jesus appears in
Jerusalem in John's gospel, it is not a matter of itinerary coincidence
but rather literary prudence. That is to say, chronology and
location are at the service of the gospel writer. They help tell
the story of the incarnation, of how God became so powerfully visible in
Jesus. In other words, Jesus healed many people, in many different
places, at many different times. But the meaning of this
particular healing is inseparably bound with its location and its time.
Hold that thought for a moment as I
cover a few other details in the story.
How many of you have hot tubs? We
got one last year, my Dad donated his to us and we set it up. Judy
and I just love sitting in that hot tub, it's a place of healing.
It just makes you feel good. Mineral baths and hot springs have
long been places of healing. When I was in Turkey on that pilgrimage
in 2003, we visited one such place that has been in continuous use for
over 2,000 years as a place of healing. And you can see there
artifacts from the time of Paul, structures still standing, and tombs
built by those who were not healed and died at that place.
Here in this story, in Bethzatha it
says (we're more familiar with the King James pronunciation 'Bethesda'
or 'Bethsaida') there is an apparent spring that is intermittent.
The thought was that whenever those waters began to bubble up, that was
angels stirring the water. The first one into the water could be
healed. It's very superstitious, of course, but be that as it may,
among those who are waiting for that moment to come is this man with an
undisclosed illness. Apparently something that left him lame,
because of his difficulty in making his way into that pool.
For some unknown reason, Jesus picks
him, out of all those gathered there, he picks this particular
man. The man does not ask for Jesus to heal him, he does not even
know who Jesus is. And so this question that Jesus asks 'Do you
want to be made well?' really sounds kind of silly, doesn't it?
You know, what would the guy say 'Well, no, I just like hanging out
among all these sick people, that's why I'm here!'. Of course he
wants to be made well, why else would he be there.
The truth be known, we all know people
who seem to take some sick pleasure in their illness. You know
what I mean? Have you ever been in a group of people who speak
about their infirmities like a poker game? "I'll see your
perforated colon and raise you two kidney stones!". The
question Jesus asks is really a question of good health -- 'Do you
really want to be made well? Are you ready to give up all that
attention you have been getting? Are you ready to trade in all of
For some people, being sick is the only
time they feel good. As anyone with experience with addictions
will tell you, you cannot help an addict until that person wants to be
helped, until that person wants to give up their addiction. So
healing begins with the desire to be made well.
Note the prescription that Jesus
gives: "Stand up, take up your mat, and walk".
Biblical scholars have recognized that from Mark's gospel in the 2nd
chapter, remember the story when they lowered the man through the roof,
it's the exact same thing that Jesus says to him.
Now, I don't want to make too much out
of this point because I think it's too easy to misinterpret it, but
there's truth in it: that if you act on your beliefs, they will be
realized. If you're a smoker, and you believe deep in your heart
you really can quit, and you've been telling yourself that for weeks or
years, it's not until you act upon that belief that it can be
realized. Of course, I don't know what I'm talking about because
I've never smoked, so I don't know how tough it is, but I've heard how
very difficult that is.
Now, on the other hand, we can take
that too far. If you have HIV or AIDS, and suddenly you believe
you have been healed and you act on that belief and you have unprotected
sex with your partner, you quite likely are committing murder. So
while faith can be incredibly powerful, we should never take that as an
excuse for being incredibly stupid.
Jesus doesn't tell this man
"fly". He doesn't tell this man to jump off a
cliff. No, he tells him to take up his mat, to stand up, to
walk. Something still within the realm of possibility.
Dick Hamm, last
week when he was here talking about discernment, said that one of
the obstacles to discernment is what we think is possible. You
know, "we've always done it this way" or "we've never
done it that way before". He said you have to suspend that in
order to hear what God may be saying to us, how God might be calling us.
And so this man does that, and he dares
to trust what Jesus says and then is rewarded for it.
Let me put it one other way:
wishing to be well is not enough. If you want to be healthy, you
have to act healthy, you have to live healthy. Stand, take up your
mat, and walk.
And then when Jesus sees this man later
on in the Temple, he says to him "See, you have been made well, do
not sin any more so that nothing worse happens to you". And
that raises for us all kinds of problems with the relationship between
sin and health that might be a topic for another sermon. I'll just
note that Frank, in our spiritual formation group Thursday morning, said
"This guy's been lying around for 38 years -- what could he have
possibly done during that time?! How much sin could he have
The issue here is not what he did to
deserve his condition, but now that he is physically healthy, what is he
going to do to remain spiritually healthy? One may contribute to
the other, but does not necessarily determine the other. We may be
physically healthy but spiritually a mess. Or we may be
spiritually healthy but physically a mess. We may be both.
The older I get the more difficult I discover it is to retain
both. Hopefully, at the very least, we can remain spiritually
healthy, regardless of our physical health.
The second half of the story shifts
from this unexpected healing to an unanticipated conflict. Only
after the healing we are told it happened on the Sabbath.
Throughout the remainder of the story, the sole focus of this healed man
is the fact that he has been made well. Whereas the sole focus of
the Judeans is the fact that he is violating the Sabbath. And so
this man witnesses to the power of Jesus to heal while the Judeans
witness to the power of the law to condemn. As the story unfolds,
the conflict shifts from the healed man and the Judeans to Jesus and the
Jesus is criticized for working on the
Sabbath, because healing is also a form of work. The Sabbath does
allow healing in order to save a life, but that's the extent of
it. Jesus responds "My father is still working, therefore I
am still working". Talk about your ultimate Protestant work
ethic! It's why we Ministers don't like being compared to Jesus --
you know, we want our day off J.
Another reason why you shouldn't take scripture literally.
The issue, though, is not really about
keeping the Sabbath, the real issue is about power, authority, and how
God's will is made known. The Judeans represent the status quo --
they are those vested in the way things are. They have all of the
rules and regulations figured out. They know how the system works
and how to make the best out of it. Along comes Jesus, with this
fresh new way of making God's presence known and God's healing available
to all -- not through human authority and existing power structures, but
by the unmediated access and Temple-free connection to God.
Available to all -- to all of us.
And thus the conflict here between
Jesus and the religious authorities is not about the 'right' way of
Christianity vs the 'wrong' way of Judaism or any other tradition, but
rather this new way of knowing God directly vs the old way of
controlling access to God through the established institutions.
And as soon as the church became
established, you can bet, it did the same thing. Controlling that
access. Determining who was "in" and who was
"out". Who is saved and who is not. Who has the
spirit and who doesn't.
And so their basis of power is
threatened. The Judeans set out to eliminate Jesus to protect the
status quo. And in that they will of course fail. As do all
who try to use human power and authority to keep things as they are and
thereby stifle the transforming presence of God that never accepts the
So what began as a healing story of one
man, ends as the transforming story of all of humanity. And that
is why John takes us to Jerusalem to tell us this story. For only
there could he tell it. The place where divine power and human
authority meet in the Biblical world, and where they would eventually
clash on a cross, the symbol of the ultimate human authority -- the
power of the state to take a life, transformed on Easter to become the
ultimate symbol of divine power.
I'd like to take you now not to
Jerusalem, but to Salem, where divine power and human authority
sometimes still clash. And where, on occasion, they even work
together, as I think was the case on Wednesday morning. In the
pine-paneled conference room on the second floor of the Capital, former
Governor Betty Roberts sat on one end of the table, and current Governor
Ted Kulongoski sat on that other. In between were the 11 of us
that served on the Equality Taskforce, and about a half-dozen of the
Governor's staff. And the Governor was giddy. He was
absolutely giddy. He shared with us that 99% of the business he
conducts is 'transactional' -- just merely keeping the state
going. But he said once in awhile, maybe once in 10 years, you get
an opportunity to participate in something that is
transformational. He said this was one of those moments.
32 years ago, he told us, the then
Freshman legislator from the Multnomah area, representing the
Kulongoski's, introduced legislation that would make it illegal in the
state of Oregon to discriminate against any person on the basis of
sexual orientation. Of course, it didn't pass. Governor
Roberts tried to do the same thing. Over 30 years they worked,
along with others, to try and make that a reality. And now,
Wednesday morning, he had the chance to put his name to the bill (two
bills, including domestic partnerships) that would make that a
reality. It was a transformational moment.
And he did something quite un-Governor
like: he began to sing. Fortunately, it's not something he
does in public J.
He's a Rolling Stones fan, and he said the song that kept going through
his mind that morning was "You Can't Always Get What You
Want". You can't always get what you want, but if you try
sometimes, you just may find, you get what you need. Those who
have heard the song, Stones fans everywhere, there's a version of it
with a boys choir. In their high soprano voices, singing that
refrain, with the Stones. And the Governor said it has a
And this was a spiritual moment for
those of us gathered there, and the some 500 that gathered later that
morning to witness the signing of these bills:
Governor Ted Kulongoski
signing the non-discrimination bills. Pastor Dan Bryant stands in
the background within the window frame (photo credit: Tara Wilkins).
When we align ourselves with that
spirit, the power of God, the transforming power of God that heals souls
and transforms the world, is with us. We may not get what we want,
but the gospel says we will always get what we need.
Such is God's work. The
transforming work of the Sabbath.