“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
Another day, another healing… another way in which the writer of the Fourth Gospel demonstrates to his readers the awesomeness of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. For some months now, Jesus has been shuttling back and forth between Galilee, Samaria and Judea performing signs and miracles… healing the sick and infirm… teaching people about the nature of God… and of himself. On this particular day, Jesus is just outside the “Sheep Gate” of Jerusalem at the pool of Beth-zatha.
The gate itself is thought to have been located in the eastern wall of the City, across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives… and the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus probably used it often. It was the first gate to be rebuilt after the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity, and it is believed that this was the gate by which the offerings or sacrifices were brought into the Temple. The name of the pool is likely derived from the Hebrew and/or Aramaic language “beth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא),” meaning either house of mercy or house of grace. So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that in 1938, the National Naval Medical Center was sited in a city in Maryland bearing that name. Perhaps some of you have heard of Bethesda Naval Hospital. But there’s a twist: in both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean “shame or disgrace.” Isn’t it interesting how both of these meanings might have resonated with believers of the time. Since illness and infirmity were often thought to be punishments sent from God in retribution for sinful behavior, the location may have been seen, on one hand, as a place of disgrace… but also as a place of grace and healing for penitents.
Our NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of the Bible leaves out about a verse and a half of text you may remember from the old King James Version. After covering the bit about all of the invalids: blind, lame and paralyzed, laying within the porticoes, King James adds that they were all “waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had” (NKJV vv. 3b-4). For me, at least, that provides a little context. The man who had been lying on his mat for thirty-eight years wasn’t just hanging out in the shade! He was putting himself in the way of a miracle. And he got one… finally!
There are a couple of “rabbit holes” we might explore in pondering this particular passage from Scripture. One is that Jesus often answers our prayers in unexpected ways. In this case, he said to the man (who didn’t even know he was praying): You stand up. You take up your mat. You walk. The synoptic Gospels contain a variety of accounts of Jesus telling miracle-seekers that God’s saving grace was all around them… and that what they really needed was faith. You know some of these stories… like the one about the woman suffering from a twelve-year hemorrhage… who reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. When she fessed up and told him what she’d done, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed . . .” (Mark 5:25-34). Or the one in which Matthew tells us about two blind men who approached asking for healing. Jesus asked them if they believed if he could really do it. They said “yes,” and Jesus told them, “According to your faith let it be done to you” (vv. 9:27-31). In Luke’s Gospel, we learn of ten lepers who cried out to Jesus for healing. He told the men to go and show themselves to the priests, and when they did, SHAZAM!!! They’d been made clean. One of them (who was a Samaritan, by the way) returned to thank Jesus and prostrated himself at his feet. Jesus told him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (vv. 17:11-19). The takeaway, I guess, is that sometimes the real miracle lies in our learning to rely on faith to open the way of God’s grace.
OR… we could talk about the significance of the Sabbath. Since the Jewish leadership was rarely able to condemn the substance of Jesus’ miracles… things like healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead, they were quick to quibble with his methodology. In today’s Gospel story, a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years had gotten his life back and… and… and… darn it Jesus, you shouldn’t be working on the Sabbath! I suppose it didn’t help when Jesus rubbed it in a little bit a couple of verses later, when he told the elders, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” That really made ’em mad (John 5:10-18). Apart from Jesus’ pointed reference to God as his Father, the point he made about the Sabbath is this: God’s commandment to the Israelites to “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” was followed by an explanation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20:8-11). When Jesus made reference to his Father still being “on the job,” he was reminding the Doctors of Jewish Law (and us) that sabbath is less about a particular day of the week, than it is about maintaining boundaries between what we do to live… our work, our mundane toil… and the things we do that are life-giving… fruits of the Spirit… gifts from God… that allow us to live into our vocation as Kingdom-bringers (cf. Galatians 5:22-25). Jesus schooled the Pharisees in similar fashion on another occasion when they criticized the disciples for plucking heads of grain and eating them as they walked through the fields one sabbath. Jesus responded by reminding the Pharisees of a time when young King David was running from his arch-nemesis, Saul, and the priest at the Tabernacle had given David and his companions the Bread of Presence (normally reserved for priests only… on pain of death!) to eat because that’s all there was to sustain them in the purpose that God set before them. Jesus was inferring that his disciples were also about the Lord’s business as they traversed the fields that particular day, and needed sustenance to complete the work they had been given to do. The sabbath was made for man,” said Jesus, “…not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28 NKJV).
How about one, last rabbit hole? If you read on in John, Chapter 5, you’ll notice that the more hostile the Jewish hierarchy becomes towards Jesus, the more persistent Jesus becomes in spreading the good news of the Kingdom, and of God’s salvation: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me… has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life . . . 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 . . . I say these things so that you may be saved” (vv. 24-25, 34b). Our Gospel story today takes place about two thirds of the way through Jesus’ period of active ministry. Jesus understood all too well where he was headed, and how it was all going to end, and yet he remained steadfast in his mission to spread the good news of God’s love and salvation to people in need of hope. Some received Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and it changed their lives… and the trajectory of human civilization. Others heard the message and decided that the world (at least their world) would be better off without Jesus. And Jesus saw it coming, but he never stopped preaching love.
We are living during a period of history in which identifying ourselves as Christ followers, or in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: members of the “Jesus Movement,” might be a risky proposition. Christians are being persecuted around the world right now with an intensity that hasn’t been seen since before Christianity was adopted as Rome’s state religion in 380 AD. Some might say that this is the inevitable result of the religious hegemony Christians have exercised over large swathes of the planet for the past couple of millennia. And maybe they’re right. We haven’t always been good “ambassadors for Christ” . . . or of “God’s righteousness” (cf. 2 Cor 5:20-21), have we? And what goes around comes around, right? In any case, it’s a scary time… a time of great uncertainty… a time when we might be tempted to “circle the wagons” and assume a defensive posture… to withdraw into enclaves of like-minded believers who practice a religion of safety and security and exclusivity, distancing ourselves from the ever-increasing suffering and instability we see in the world around us. Or worse, when we’re pilloried for our faith or become subject to physical persecution, we might be tempted to react as Peter did when asked by the High Priest’s servant if he was one of Jesus’ disciples, and reply, “I am not” (John 18:15-27).
Jesus could have built an army and surrounded himself with so powerful a group of followers that neither the Jewish leadership nor even the Romans could have touched him. Or he could have simply forsworn his mission and his ministry and lived a quiet life looking after his mom in Nazareth. But he didn’t. He understood that being about his Father’s work (cf. Luke 2:49 NKJV) was more important than any illusion of safety or security that this world can ever offer. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul,” he said (Mark 8:36 NKJV). I sometimes have to remind myself that, as Christ-followers, we have signed up to be sent forth against insurmountable odds. To be reviled and spit upon, if need be, for the sake of Jesus and his message for the world. We were made to preach… and keep on preaching… God’s love and salvation until our dying breath. That, my friends, is what we’ve signed up for.
How are we doing with that? Are we stepping out in faith each and every day? preaching love? despite the odds and all of the noise to the contrary, believing—knowing—that God’s saving grace is all around us, and that we may apprehend (take hold of) it by faith alone? My brothers and sisters: God. Is. With. Us. and will provide rest… and refreshment… the sabbath we crave… as we strive to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12) and accomplish the work we have been given to do. So, let us all stand up, take our mats and be about our Father’s business. Take heart! The reward will be more than we could ever ask for… or imagine.
The Edict of Thessalonica, issued on 27 February AD 380 by three reigning Roman Emperors made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.