Unmerited Grace and Healing

A Sermon Preached by
Rev. Osy Nuesch at
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
on October 14, 2018

John 5:1-9 and Hebrews 4:12-16

I noticed the other day that when these 3 magazines arrive in the mail (yes, I still subscribe to hard copies of journals and magazines although most of their content can be accessed on line), I always turn to the last page first. The Christian Century’s “Faith Matters” is about 10 pages from the end and serious scholars comment on always interesting issues. The New Yorker has these cartoons that people compete to put funny captions to. And Time has 7 Questions posed to famous people. Last week’s questions were posed to Khaled Hosseini, the author of the best seller Kite Runner, who has just written a book that deals with the refugee crisis. In one of his answer he said this: “When we’re faced with a story, we are wired as a species to respond. To act. We need to be invited into the lives of others…[I am] a teller of stories. Stories remain our best teachers of empathy” (Time, October 4, 2018, p. 60).

This morning’s Gospel text invites us into one of those stories about empathy. As with many incidents in the life of Jesus, it leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, I want to know why some people suffer long, while others never seem to have any problems. Or why does healing come to some and not others? While these questions are beyond the scope of the story in John’s Gospel, it does invite us to a day in the life of many people gathered around the pool of Bethsaida. Blind, lame and disabled people, all hoping and waiting for a miracle.

The editors of your pew Bibles were considerate in the footnote. You noticed how we jump from verse 3 to verse 5, because verse four seems to be a much later addition, but which likely reflected a popular tradition about the pool. The source of hope was the belief that [from time to time] “an angel of the Lord used to come down to the pool, and the water was stirred up. Accordingly, the first one to enter [after the stirring of the water] was cured of whatever sickness he had had” (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 207). That was the traditional belief; there must have been personal testimonies that supported it. But not much seemed to be happening on the day that Jesus was passing through. And of all the helpless people there, Jesus focuses on one man, whose only distinction seems to be the fact that he had been sick for 38 years. Typical of this Gospel, Jesus has a special knowledge that alerts him that indeed this man had been in this condition for a long time. (My wife and I have been married for 38 years. It is a long time. But when you’re in love it feels like one day). But for that paralytic, his condition was felt each of those 13,870 days.

Bethsaida, literally means, house of mercy. And now we’re going to see mercy in action. Nothing is told to us why Jesus was especially attracted to this person and not to others. Perhaps the mention of the 38 years is supposed to underline the hopelessness of his case. “Defeated, unable to act for himself and therefore resigned to his paralysis” (Michaela Bruzznese, “To Be Made Well” in Living the Word, in Sojourners, May 2004, p. 40). Jesus takes the initiative by entering the man’s story with a question that would require a very simple answer: “Do you wish to be cured?” A modest “yes” would have sufficed, don’t you think? Instead, Jesus receives a wide-ranging explanation of why the pool’s power/magic has not worked for this man. The paralytic seems to be suffering from a chronic inability to seize the opportunity. “Other people are faster. Other people have helpers. Other people are luckier.” It’s so easy to point out all the things that conspire against positive outcomes. The list of things that keep us from reaching the goals that we set for ourselves is always long.

– Do you want to be cured?
Obviously! I’m here, right? I’m here with all these other people, and we all want to be healed.
– But you’ve been at this for 38 years and nothing has happened!

But one keeps on hoping! I know how that feels.
– Do I want/need to loose 10 lbs? Obviously; I keep talking about it, don’t I?
– Do you want your business idea to succeed, write that book, get that degree?
Of course! I’ve been playing it out in my mind for 38 years.

This thought gave me pause this week: “We can live with illness of mind, body, spirit, or relationships so long that we cannot imagine an alternative. We are paralyzed by habitual behaviors. Our identity is so connected to a particular behavior or illness that we wonder who we would be if we allowed ourselves to be healed” (Bruce Epperly, “Pastoral Implications” in Lectionary Homiletics, p. 45). It’s interesting to me that Jesus totally ignores the paralytic’s response. I guess Jesus figured the answer was clear. So Jesus calls him to action. “Get up!” Get up! Pick up the pieces and take your first steps! Do something!

But in Jesus’ question we begin to consider the importance of motivation. Do you want it? Twelve steps programs identify the power of motivation. An alcoholic won’t stop drinking until the person decides: “I can’t go on like this.” What do they say? “You have to want it real bad.”

How committed are we to wholeness and fullness of life? Do you really want a happy and healthy marriage? Are you doing your part? Do you want positive relationships with your children, or a close friend? What can you do?

– Do you want our church to be a place for healing and renewal and love?
“Do you need to ask? I’m here today, aren’t I?”
But it takes more than that. “Get up! Pick up what’s left of the old life and take your first steps into the new!”

Well, as it happened, this was the paralytic’s lucky day! Jesus gives the now well-known instruction: “Stand up; take up your mat, and walk.” And the man did. And he could. He was cured!

The Gospel writer takes over at that point and shows us how this event will become a point of contention with the Jewish authorities over what is allowed to be done on the day of rest. Jesus slips away before the man can say even a simple thank you – although there is no indication that he even intended to- and soon he gets in trouble for carrying the simple floor-coverings referred to as a mat.

If we read on, we would hear the explanation he gives, where he deflects the attention from himself and instead he points to the instruction he was given. “And who told you that you could carry your mat on the Sabbath?” He didn’t know. He was clueless about who his healer was. Didn’t even catch his name! Later on, Jesus makes a point of finding him. Now that the man knows who healed him, he wastes no time in going back to the Jewish authorities to fill them in on the rest of the story. This, of course, puts Jesus in an awkward situation, having to explain himself and defend his views and teachings. Jesus’ words incriminate him because, to his hearers, he makes himself equal with God. The authorities decide that Jesus must be eliminated.

Obviously this incident held great appeal to the Early Church for many reasons. In John’s Gospel it works at many levels reinforcing themes important to the evangelist: Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath, omniscient, powerful, compassionate, who came to give us life in all its fullness – for whom a person sick for 38 years is just plain unacceptable.

What is noteworthy for us is Jesus’ actions on someone who needed healing, hope, and salvation. Jesus invites himself into the man’s story and does not allow excuses to stand on the way of healing. “The healing by the pool is a demonstration of unprovoked grace. Nothing in the man’s conduct or disposition accounts for the cure that brought to an end nearly four decades of affliction. He becomes a passive recipient of a remarkable gift…. the old slogan that faith works miracles utterly breaks down with this story. It is God who works miracles, and not even faith is a precondition.” (Charles B. Cousar, et. al, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, p. 311).

That is as far as this text will take us. It focuses our attention on God’s power and will. But it does shine a light on the fact that Christ is sympathetic, compassionate, and willing and able to come to the rescue of the needy. That’s what the Early Church emphasized and the Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on. The word “sympathy” in Greek as in English conveys the idea of ‘feeling with’ someone. Sun=with; pathos=feeling. Another translation is simply compassion. It’s the same 2 ideas combined in the Spanish language: “compasion”. Con=with; pasion=pathos, passion.

Having experienced the full gamut of human existence, Jesus’ response is one of grace, which brings healing. The way Hebrews depicts a high priest is in a sense extraordinary.
“In the ancient world, the Jewish community had a high priest whose primary roles involved offering sacrifice within the temple precincts and presiding at other public functions. Ministering to the vulnerable was not usually listed as a primary role on the job description.

The same was true of high priests in Greek and Roman contexts. They too had priests that oversaw the offering of sacrifices, but again it was not commonly said that sympathy was a part of the role. Yet by focusing on that sympathetic aspect of Jesus’ character, the writer invites the kind of confident trust that he commends to the readers, which he understands to be truly life-giving.” (Craig R. Koester, Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16, WorkingPreacher.org for October 14, 2018.)

The Epistle to the Hebrews is a text designed to engage readers in the practices that renew faith and community. This texts is asking us: Do you want your faith community to be healthy, vibrant, relevant, transformational? If so, what are you doing about it? Maybe we are holding on to things that don’t work but we’ve been doing them for so long that nobody questions them anymore. We can live with annoying things for so long that we cannot imagine an alternative. We are paralyzed by habitual behaviors. Our identity is so connected to a particular way of doing things that we can’t imagine what life would be without it.

Let us look at this from another perspective. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their report this week. A 1,200-page report, written by 91 researchers from 44 countries synthesized the results of more than 6,000 studies and the picture it paints looks bleak.

By some indicators the earth’s temperature rise of even 2 degrees Celcius is certain to affect ecosystems covering up to a fifth of Earth’s land mass. The only path is to decarbonize economies quickly. Carbon-dioxide release needs to fall by 45% or thereabouts by the year 2030. “To have any hope of achieving this, two-thirds of coal use must be phased out in little more than a decade. By the middle of the century virtually all electricity must come from carbon-free sources (up from a quarter today), and all cars will need to run on electric motors (up from on one in 500), as will trains and most ships.” (The Economist, “The latest report on global warming makes grim reading”)
The good news is that some of the technology needed to achieve this (solar panels, nuclear-power plants, electric cars, and so on) is around. Cows with their methane production is still a challenge.

Do we want the healing of the earth? Are we willing to change to make a difference? Do we really want to be made well? is always a valid question. It’s easier to live in denial. If we’re okay then we don’t need to make any changes. Because if we are really serious, it’s not going to be easy. And we can easily give many reasons why the magic we were hoping for has not worked. “People are lazy. Wall Street has too much control. The government is inefficient. Things have been sliding for too long, can you really expect them to changed now? The problem has been with us for too long. Let’s just resign to it.”

That’s enough to paralyze anybody!

Will God look upon our hopelessness, our chronic inability to seize the opportunities that are available to us, and do for us what we seem incapable of doing ourselves? How does God invite God’s presence into our story? Pope Francis, wrote an encyclical on the environment not long ago, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home” Its Latin title is Laudato Si, which is the first line of a canticle by St. Francis praising God with all of his creation. Laudato Si means Praise be to you.The Pope’s message is addressed to all people, not just Catholics. He wrote: “In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change” (paragraph #218).

“Even now we are journeying towards the Sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: ‘I make all things new.’ In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us.” In some ways, what Pope Francis seems to suggest is that there are some things that we must leave to God. But if God want us to experience health, what are we called to do now?

Let me conclude with the Pope’s conclusion: “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.” (paragraph #205).

Get up! Pick up the pieces! Take your first steps! Start moving! Do something! When one man did, he realized that he could. And the miracle took place. Let us do our part and watch what God is able to do with that.