“A Sabbath Healing”
John 5: 1 – 18
Recently my wife and I watched the movie Luther. Do you know the story of Martin Luther? Most of you probably know something about him. Martin Luther was a 16th century monk, priest, and theology professor. You may know him as the one who wrote the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Well, on one occasion early in his career Luther was sent to Rome. When he got there he was appalled by what he saw. He discovered there were special brothels just for priests and monks. And thousands of people would flock to churches and shrines to view relics – various items that were either connected to a particular saint or with Jesus, or allegedly some body part of a famous saint: the head of John the Baptist, the bodies of the apostles, the nails from Jesus’ cross, to name a few examples. By honouring these relics you could shave off some of your time in purgatory.
And worst of all was the sale of indulgences. The theology behind indulgences is complex, but needless to say, it meant that you could pay money to get out of purgatory more quickly. You could also purchase an indulgence for a loved one who had already died.
Martin Luther, rightly believing that this was a corruption of the true faith, nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of his church in Wittenberg which cited all the abuses of the clergy and the church. That set in motion what we know as the Reformation – what began initially as an attempt to restore the church and eventually became a movement that split the church.
You see, the Roman Catholic Church was unwilling to let go of the false and corrupt practices that Luther outlined in his “95 Theses.” A core reason for this is that this was a lucrative practice – it made the Church lots of money. It was through the sale of indulgences that the Church was able to finance St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Unfortunately, it did so on the backs of the poor.
What we have here is an unwillingness to see the need for change, and stubbornness about getting rid of tradition – in this case tradition that is corrupt and contrary to biblical faith. What we have here is a blind refusal to restore things to their proper and right order. The selling and buying of indulgences was part of it meant to be a good Catholic and was part of the larger worldview of Catholicism at the time. The end result: a particular practice took precedence over people.
“Now that day was a sabbath . . .”
In our Gospel story a miracle takes place. Jesus comes across a man who has been lame for nearly 40 years – probably most of his life. The man was at a pool in Jerusalem called Bethzatha or Bethsaida. This pool was frequented by those who were sick and invalid. The waters of the pool were thought by some to have healing properties – and at the very least they offered relief to the suffering. So Jesus says to this man, “Do you want to be made well?” Just like many others in the Gospel of John, this man doesn’t really get what Jesus means. He says, “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.” He thinks Jesus is there asking if he wants help into the pool. As one scholar comments, “The man interprets Jesus’ question through his own presuppositions about how healing can be accomplished.” We know, of course, that Jesus has something even better in mind than helping him into the pool.
Jesus tells the man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man does. He obeys. He immediately is healed. And he gets up, takes his mat, and walks away.
Up until this point in our story, everything tells us that this is just another typical healing miracle. There’s the same set up, the encounter between Jesus and someone in need of healing, and the healing itself. We’ve seen them before. In fact, we just had one before this: the healing of the official’s son. There the result of Jesus healing was belief. So we expect the same here, don’t we?
But then we read the first line after the man is healed: “Now that day was a sabbath.” A sabbath. This sentence almost operates as a punchline – a way of delivering the significance of Jesus’ actions. We read this and think to ourselves, “So that’s what this story is about!” So the key to our story is not that Jesus healed a man, but that he did so on the sabbath. This one straightforward line – this seemingly innocuous sentence – introduces a conflict into our story, and the first major conflict in John’s Gospel between Jesus and the religious authorities.
The conflict initially arises not because Jesus healed the man but because the man was carrying his mat. Sabbath law prohibited such an action because it was work to carry one’s mat or pallet. As the leaders in our story say, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” The man committed a sabbath violation and that is why the Jewish authorities objected.
Let’s get some background here. You see, “first century Judaism defined community identity around three practices: circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance. In Jesus’ time, a challenge to the sabbath meant a challenge to the definition to covenant membership.”
More than this, these laws had shaped their worldview. These laws were the lens through which they understood themselves, their world, their relations with one another, and most significantly, how they understood their relationship with God. Following the law was obedience and meant you had divine favour. To disobey the law meant you were outside the realm of God’s mercy and truth. Needless to say, for these Jews there was much more at stake in their view than the simple carrying of a mat. A sabbath violation was serious business – and that was all that they could see.
But we need to be careful. Sabbath observance was a command of God. The sabbath itself wasn’t the problem. Their interpretation and implementation of the law was the real problem – they had the letter of the law down right, but missed the spirit of the law entirely. Their view was so constricted, so tightly wound, around the following of rules and regulations that they no longer could see the reasons for those very rules and regulations. The law was not there to be followed for its own sake, but in order to promote love of God and neighbour. To highlight the attitude and belief of the time, one commentator says, “Although life-saving healing would be permissible on the sabbath, the healing of a disease that had lasted thirty-eight years could surely wait until sundown.” So intent on preserving tightly controlled sabbath observance were they that they could not permit such a healing. But of course Jesus says in Mark 2:27, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” In failing to understand this, the Jewish authorities and their attitude about the law provide an apt illustration of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The problem, too, is that the Jewish leaders were also not consistent. There was an incongruity between their teaching and their practice. Jesus points this out in Luke 14: 15. There Jesus heals a woman on the sabbath and when the leader of the synagogue objects, saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day,” Jesus answers and says, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” The leaders were willing to water their animals on the sabbath but were unwilling to allow healing and the giving of life on the sabbath.
Working on the Sabbath
Notice that both in their conversation with the man who was healed and with Jesus that the Jewish leaders seem to ignore the healing completely and focus on the issue of sabbath violation. Whether they believe the healing took place or not, we don’t know; either way, they look past it to a matter of minutiae. Well, sort of. Eventually the Jewish authorities learn that it was Jesus who told this man to carry this mat. The man, after he encounters Jesus in the temple, goes to the leaders and tells them that is was Jesus who healed him. Notice that he doesn’t tell them Jesus is the one who told him to pick up and carry his mat. His focus is on the healing. The man, we can say, is giving his witness.
When the authorities finally learn that it was Jesus they begin to persecute him “because he was doing such things on the sabbath.” The movement of our story seems to suggest that they more or less forgot about the healed man carrying his pallet until he came to them to tell it was Jesus who did it. That set them into action. They no longer cared about this man; their attention was squarely focused on Jesus. And how does Jesus respond to their persecution?
Jesus’ response is simple yet profound. In verse 17 he says: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” What does he mean by this?
In a way Jesus completely ignores their concerns over sabbath violation and shifts the topic to something completely different: his relationship with the Father. Yet in a way, he doesn’t. You see, in our story there really are two conversations taking place: the Jews have been pursuing a conversation about sabbath violation; and Jesus and the healed man have been pursuing a conversation about being made well.
Jesus’ words in v. 17 addresses both issues. “He addresses the issue of work, the pivot of the Jews’ concern about sabbath violation, but he does so to speak about his relationship with God, not to teach about the sabbath. If God continues to work on the sabbath, giving and sustaining life, so does Jesus.” It seems Jesus takes this opportunity as one to speak about his identity and unique relationship to the Father, not as one to teach about the law. Essentially, rather than take time to explain the real meaning of sabbath and why healing of this kind should be allowed, Jesus instead says, “Whether you like it or not, I have the authority to do this because of my relationship to God the Father.”
But of course, this is a lesson about the sabbath, isn’t it? Because Jesus is essentially saying, “if you want to understand what is and isn’t permissible on the sabbath, watch me. I have the authority of God himself. I instituted the sabbath. You need to learn what the sabbath is all about from me.” Several times in the other gospels we hear these questions, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath? To save life or to kill?” Jesus answer? As far as the John’s Gospel is concerned, Jesus’ response is like the one from Mark 2:27: “So the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath.” So if this is the case – if Jesus himself is the one who defines sabbath-keeping – then this is a lesson about the sabbath. It is a lesson about the relationship between the priority of religious practices versus the priority we place on the needs of people.
However, for Jesus to say what he does here – to put his work on the same level as that of God the Father – was blasphemy to the ears of the Jewish authorities. Violating the sabbath was one thing, but making yourself equal with God was something entirely different; and what was their reaction? They begin plotting to kill Jesus.
Years of obstinate thinking hardened their hearts to the voice of God. They were unable to discern God’s voice when Jesus was speaking. They were unwilling to consider that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Since they couldn’t see God in Jesus, they were also unable to see the significance of what Jesus was doing in healing on the sabbath. All they saw was a violation of God’s law. So mired in the mud of regulations and rules were they that simply were incapable of hearing anything except what they’d been telling themselves for centuries. So when God sent His Son to reveal Himself to them, all they saw was someone violating the very divine law they believed themselves in charge of protecting and perpetuating. Blind to all else, they failed at the basics: love of God and love of neighbour. Their theology had become too narrow to accommodate Jesus’ compassionate act of healing, much less to accept that he was the one sent by God as their Messiah.
Here are just a few thoughts as we conclude today.
First, “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” For us, then, rule-keeping and religious practice is not in itself important, but only has significance as it demonstrates our love for God and neighbour. The greatest commandment is to love God and neighbour, and all other commands are subsumed under this one; all other regulations, rules, and commandments are meant to be specific examples and applications of how to live out this love in the conditions of everyday life. Jesus acted almost spontaneously out of compassion when he healed the lame man – this is the right way to respond to genuine human need. There is no wrong time or occasion to show love to others. As soon as our religious practices get in the way of showing love, something has gone dreadfully wrong. No wonder Jesus tells the leaders later in this same chapter that “you do not have the love of God in you.”
This means that nothing we do as a church – whatever the significance of our practices – nothing should come in the way of showing our love for others: for God and neighbour. If anything does, then we render null and void the meaning of the practices themselves because only in the context of the great commandment of love do such practices have meaning. If we have not love, we have nothing at all. If Paul’s great manifesto on love in the context of congregational worship – 1 Corinthians 13 – does not illustrate this for us, nothing does.
Second, the Jewish leaders in our story “make Jesus their enemy because he threatens their power, authority, indeed, their very perception of reality. The defense of the sabbath is the defense of an entire system of ordering life and religious practice. It is the defense of a particular understanding of God and how God belongs in human experience, and of membership in a religious community.” Since they have too much to lose “if Jesus is allowed to redefine God’s presence in the world . . . they choose to eliminate Jesus as a threat.” “The rejection of Jesus in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God and ordering the life of faith.” The healing miracle, then, as the catalyst for this controversy, represents a challenge to an understanding of how the world is ordered and how God acts in the midst of this world. The Jews focus on the challenge to the conventional order and understanding while Jesus and the man focus on the new possibilities manifested in the man’s new life.
Jesus continues to challenge all of us in how and why we do what we do as a church. “The contemporary reader us thus invited by this text to examine when and by whom in contemporary church life the knowledge of God brought by Jesus is rejected because it is too challenging to existing religious systems and structures.” Do our practices and activities point to him? Are we doing things out of love for him or because we’ve always done them? If our worldview is so limited that we can no longer hear God through Jesus and start to focus on what we’re doing, then we’ve lost our way.
Third, all of our practices ought to be centered around Jesus. Our focus is Jesus. All of our practices and rituals – all the ways in which we do church – only have their significance to the degree that they enable us to live the Christian life, to walk in the Jesus-way. “The reality of the incarnation of God’s availability and presence in Jesus is the defining mark of the believing community for John, not the defense of particular practices.”
Jesus came to reveal the Father, to make God known, and to make known the love of God and invite anyone to come to him and be satisfied, to follow him, to “come and see” and taste that the Lord is indeed good. We begin to see this week that following this path – revealing God for who He really is – doesn’t always lead to acceptance. Jesus is largely rejected. Jesus, you might say from a human point of view, is remarkably unsuccessful in his mission. Yet the Jesus-way, the way we are called to embrace and make our own way, is the way of power in weakness, the way of the cross. Here we see in our story hints of what is to some – that Jesus’ mission and preaching would ultimately lead to his death. But little did these authorities know that in plotting and executing a plan to murder Jesus that they were fulfilling the plan of God to bring salvation into the world – that this death would mean life – resurrection life, new life, eternal life, living water for the thirsty and the bread of life for those who are hungry. The Son reveals the Father’s love and mercy by going to the cross. We celebrate this today as we share at the Lord’s table.
One last thought. Let’s never give anyone a chance to accuse us of just playing church. Let’s never give anyone a chance to suggest that we allow practices and rituals get in the way of love. Let’s never give anyone a chance to say that we fail to show the love of Jesus for the sake of how we do church. Instead, let us give people the only chance that truly matters: the chance to see the love of God embodied in His very own people, for we are the body of Christ, and He is our head. Let us never be so preoccupied with what we do that we are willing to overlook someone in need of help, compassion, and love. Let our activities be so transparent to the love of God in Jesus Christ that people cannot but see this love and desire to know the love of God for themselves.