Summary: This message talks about how all the commands and laws that God has given to us are to be understood as applications and examples of how to follow the greatest commandment: loving God and loving neighbour.
“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.