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Sabbath Works

Sermon - 5/13/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 5:1-18

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 to Jerusalem.

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 that sympathy?'

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 committed? J".

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 Judeans.

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 status quo.

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 "spiritual sound".

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.


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