A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 22 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 1-18
Deuteronomy 12:29 - 13:4
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
5 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. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When 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?” 7 The 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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ ” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later 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.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews 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.
I've been looking forward to preaching this text ever since we were going through it last week in Sunday School. On the surface it seems like a typical healing story, and we are familiar with Jesus healing people, and this is one of the Sabbath healings and we are also familiar with those. Typically what happens is Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and then the Pharisees get up in his faith over it, and then Jesus tells a parable or something else talking about how it is not compassionate to hold so fast to the law when people are suffering. That is what typically goes on but the details of this story are slightly different, and it was these differences that piqued my interest last week.
First of all it isn't Jesus who gets criticized first, it is the man who was healed, and not for being healed but for it being Sabbath, and him carrying his mat. And then something really striking happens, they ask him who healed him and he doesn't know. He has no clue who Jesus is. (It's kinda like my grandfather, he was working in construction and his men were working on buildings that were going to be used in the movie Somersby, that had Richard Gere, and it was when he was married to Cindy Crawford. She brought cookies to the site for them to eat, and he just thought this nice, and strikingly beautiful woman had done something nice, he had no clue who she was). Like that, to this man Jesus is just some nice man who said take up your mat and walk, and the guy did, so faith, no believing, no seeking Jesus out, no magic words, he did nothing, and has done nothing, and yet Jesus heals him. . . and now he is getting in trouble for taking up his mat because it was the Sabbath. And the story gets even more interesting because then the newly healed man is found again by Jesus in the crowd, and he says, "see you have been made well, go and sin no more, so that nothing happens to you. Now that is an interesting thing to say. To what sin is Jesus referring to, and in what context. Is he talking like he has before in this gospel about the man's past life, that Jesus may know something about this man, and what he has done, could be, the possibility is certainly legitimate and it fits the flow of the gospel, with Jesus seeing into people's souls and all, and it fits with our standard idea of Jesus, you've been healed, so now go live a sinless life, repent, turn over a new leaf, live the life of the saved. . . but I'm not so sure because of what Jesus follows the do not sin part with. He says, so that nothing happens to you. Maybe I've watched too many movies, when somebody says, "so that nothing happens to you" it's usually some kind of warning, like hey take care of yourself, people who you don't know are out to get you, but who? It doesn't seem to me to be Jesus or God, but the people who were just giving this man trouble about his mat. . . and Jesus is saying hey get out of here, don't sin anymore, these people are dangerous. . . could be, because there is certainly alot of anger, and outrage, even to the point of wanting to plot to kill Jesus. It says, "The Jews started persecuting because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
And all of these details were interesting to me, but the one that really stood out was, this pool. This magic pool where people are lining up to get healed. Now if you are following along in your pew Bible you will notice another anomaly about this chapter, and that is that there is no verse 4. . . . it goes straight from 3 to 5, like a hotel elevator superstitiously skipping the 13th floor because no one will ever want to rent a room on it. No verse 4, and I'm not sure if you will have a footnote in the pew Bibles, but most study Bibles do, and it says that verse 4 states. . .
waiting for the stirring of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.
It actually includes the end of verse 5 as well. . . and you may be asking yourself why is it in a footnote and not the text, the answer is that it was not found in the oldest of original texts in existence, but was in the text used to create the King James Version translation, and so most Bibles today leave it out of the main text, but for verse consistency with other older translations leave the verse numbering the same, and then include the footnote to show the full text. So how did that part get added in, who knows, those things happen from time to time in the old copying that monks did in the middle ages. Sometimes it is an error, sometimes it is what they call a gloss, where someone added it in as a note, and then the next person copying thought that it was a part of the text, or it could be that one of the scribes decided to add it because he thought that the verses around it did not work for some theological or personal reason of the one copying it. Now in this case this missing verse does two things. . . . one is that it provides a little background for why all these people are gathered in these pools for healing, and two it seeks to redeem these baths from their pagan roots, saying that an angel of the Lord came down to "trouble the waters."
And this is what I found so interesting. . . because there is one really serious question here, and that is why were the "Jews" as mentioned in this chapter so upset about the healing and carrying mats on the Sabbath, but they didn't care about the pool? Because these pools are certainly just as troubling from a Jewish Law perspective, and especially to pharisees, who these "Jews" probably were based on their presence and behavior from the other gospels, I mean this sounds like them. . . but why the outrage over the Sabbath and not the pools?
Let me back up a minute and talk for a second about what Pharisees were, and what their mission was. At the time of Jesus the Pharisees were a sect of Jewish teachers who were trying to reinvigorate the Jewish community and connection via their national identity as Jews, through their adherence to the law. And this was an important job. To them following the Law is what separated them from their Greek and Roman occupiers. Their identity and their sense of history, everything that could unite them as a people was the Law, truly the only thing that could unite them as a people was the law. Because for the last 500+ years the lands of Judea had been occupied, Jerusalem was an occupied city, first by the Babylonians, then the Persians then the Greeks, and now the Romans. Many of the Jewish people were becoming "Hellenized" which means they were adapting to the culture of the day, they were adapting to the Greek and Roman culture. . . and the Pharisees read in the Torah, the law, in books especially like Deuteronomy that their ancestors got into trouble because they allowed themselves to be corrupted by outsiders, by the canaanites, and other peoples, pagans, idolaters, people who believed in many gods rather than the one Holy God, who Is
Kane read it for us:
29 When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, 30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31 You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 d You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it. 
Yeah don't add anything or take anything away, my Laws are consistent they do not change, do not be corrupted by the people of the land. . . taking on their gods, their idols, their traditions.
. . . and the Pharisees wanted to not make that mistake again, especially since they were still paying for the mistakes of those ancestors, which is why they are occupied in the first place. So that is the Pharisees mission. . . work with the people, remind them of their Jewishness, get out into the people and get your hands dirty and work to preserve the Jewish identity of the people. Noble pursuit of course, for no one wants to see their religion corrupted by the pressures of the world. . . never.
But here is the strange part. . . why so upset about the Sabbath breaking when you have people going to be healed in a pool. Now my first thought here when I came across this last week was, hey that pool, that sounds much more Pagan than Jewish, even with the angel gloss addition from the footnote. It sounds like polytheistic hocus pocus, not Judaism. . .
It sounds alot like the second part of what Kane read:
a If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.
Some one obviously was healed in these pools, and prophets and diviners of other gods, are calling you to come be apart, you've seen the healing, seen the miracle, come do the same get into this pool. And that is what my first thought was, that this is a pagan ritual and someone had Judaized it. . . maybe by saying that it was an angel of the Lord that troubled the water. . . but even if it were, why would God act the same way twice? Why could you control the God who you can't even speak the name of, or enshrine in a temple? Again I thought it sounded pagan, so I did some research. . . and sure enough this pool of Beth zatha, or Bethesda. . . was what was called an "Asclepieia" or the healing waters of the god Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. He was famous for carrying a snake entwined staff. . . you may recognize it when you see symbols of our healthcare system, whether at a hospital or on your insurance premium statement. In paganism there is always ritual, you do these things, as prescribed by the priest and you could be healed. . . of course there may be some small fee, or oath of allegiance, but what does that matter for healing. . . some may even try to do that for 38 years.
So my question is why are the Pharisees in this story so worried about the Sabbath, but don't say a word about Jewish people near the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem taking part in a blatantly pagan ritual? Talk about selective outrage. . . why because some rules are easier to mark and enforce than others. . . like the Sabbath for instance. . . it's relatively benign right, who doesn't want a day off. . . but if you start messing around with taking away something that is offering healing, well that probably isn't quite as popular to make a stink about, now isn't. . . it would be like cancelling Christmas. . . where is your compassion, your mercy for those who are suffering. . . but yeah lets enforce the Sabbath, much easier. It reminds me of school, where we enforce rules like shaving, and dress code, and making appointments, but larger issues of character that are harder to quantify and actually raise the bar, those standards we can let slide. It is typical of human nature. . . we tend to pick and choose, what is convenient to us, and what ensues often is what is often called selective outrage. . . you pick and choose what to get offended by based on what fits into your political ideology or your own person agenda. It allows you to condemn the behavior of someone else while you ignore your own misgivings. . . I think Jesus called it, having a plank in your own eye and seeing a speck in the others. . . or he who is without sin cast the first stone. . . or as President Obama gave Jesus credit for, but it actually is derived from Chaucer, he who lives in a glass house shouldn't throw stones. . . judge not, lest ye be judged. . . or as I've seen on facebook often, don't judge someone else because they sin differently than you.
Now of course Providence would ironically set this passage up for me this week. . . when the Presbyterian Church has been in the national news all week because of the changes in to our constitution being ratified changing the definition of marriage. That even though I have misgivings about the change, and what it will do to the church as a whole, as we become more and more divided, and to little churches, in size and numbers at least, but certainly not in importance, who are bleeding members they cannot afford to lose, and or like us, who have lost prospective members because of it, it is troubling from that perspective, but despite that, I am more heartbroken by all the comments I have read from Christians from other denominations who have said that we have left the Bible behind, or that we are no longer following Christ. Providence has given us this passage to study this week because, the echo of the Pharisees is strong in the mission and comments of those who proclaim that we have left the true meaning of Christ following behind, the echo of the Pharisees is strong in choosing one Sin that is easy to mark and defend, and choosing to rally around that, while many others go unnoticed or unfought for. . . it is always easy to point fingers, and the echo of the Pharisees is in the other side, too, celebrating the change because they feel that because they have the “right” and “inclusive” view it does not matter who gets in the way, for they feel they are justified. . . I said in August that I feel like the real mother who comes to Solomon, who does not want her child to be ripped apart, but we must remember always that the Pharisees were not on Jesus side. . . Jesus said to them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The statement is still true today. . . often despite us, and beyond what we see, but The Father and Christ are still working, may we have the patience, fortitude, faith, and stubborn persistence to keep looking for that work in ourselves and others, rather than being selectively outraged by what we see is sin, but not by the sin we don't see.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:1-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
d Ch 13:1 in Heb
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 12:29-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
a Ch 13:2 in Heb
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 13:1-4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.