Three weeks ago, I preached from the Book of Acts about a man with a crooked leg who was healed in the name of Jesus by Peter. Then, two weeks ago, I preached, again from the Book of Acts, about Tabitha who was raised from the dead by Peter, again in the name of Jesus. Last week you heard Susan Pitchford preach from the Book of Acts, again about Peter, and how he had a vision that the moral purity code around food no longer applying to people who follow Jesus.
So, what we have learned is that a person, irrespective of the health of their body, is included in the Kingdom of God. What we have learned is that a person, irrespective of the temporal or eternal status of soul is included in the Kingdom of God. What we have learned is that a person, irrespective of cultural imperatives, is included in the Kingdom of God.
What the early church learned, and what we live into, is that everyone is included; but, does that really mean everyone? Which brings us to the fourth and final lesson on inclusion in the Kingdom of God; brought to us by none other than the man who has been sitting next to the pool Bethesda for 38 years.
38 years. What is that about? That is the mystery we are going to solve.… But here is a hint from Jesus on what to expect: “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45).
Now for years I have thought this story was about hardhearted community. That there was a poor soul rejected and ignored by mean people unwilling to help him because he was disabled. His only crime, not being able to get in the water by himself; an innocent victim…
Maybe that has been your interpretation as well. It’s a pretty conventional reading of the story. And yet, it is a reading that doesn’t quite fit together, and so, as is our want here at Epiphany, as a learning church, let’s see if we can understand an old story in a new way.
Let’s take a look. First, what do we know about this man? Well, he’s been there 38 years, which means he’s been able to eat; he’s probably had a change of clothes; maybe he’s even has a bath. He can see. He can hear. He can talk. And yet, in 38 years he couldn’t convince just one person to help him get into the pool.
Then Jesus shows up in Jerusalem. He stops by the pools of Bethesda and sees the man. Jesus approaches him, and asked: “Do you want to be made well?” The man answered: “Sir, I have no one to put me in the water when it’s stirred up, and while I’m trying to get in myself someone jumps in front of me.”
And Jesus’s response? “Pick up your mat and walk.”
So, the man picks up his mat and walks. The Pharisees see him and say: “It is the Sabbath! It is not lawful for you to carry the mat.” The man answers… “The man who healed me said, ‘pick up your mat and walk.’” Then he walks to the Temple, to the halls of power, and runs into Jesus. Jesus approaches him and says: “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more so that nothing worse will happen to you.”
The man immediately goes and finds the Pharisees and he says to them: “It was Jesus that made me well!” That information adds to the Pharisees’ contempt for Jesus and fuels their desire to kill him.
That is the story. Is that the story of an innocent victim? Is that the story about the inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God? Let’s look again. What do we know? Well, there were people who felt responsible enough for this guy these past 38 years to feed him, clothe him, and clean him, but not enough so to help him into the pool. That hints at the nature of his relationships, possibly.
Then Jesus asks if he wants to be healed. He doesn’t say “yes,” he just blames other people for why he wasn’t healed. Jesus heals him anyway. When the Pharisees ask why he is “breaking the Sabbath,” he then blames the person who healed him…bites the hand that feeds him. Then he goes to the Temple…Maybe to give thanks to God, or maybe just to hobnob with the in-crowd. Jesus approaches him with a warning…“Do not sin any more, or something worse will happen.”
That is a curious, if not troubling, statement, easily leading to the assumption that Jesus believes sin is correlated to disability. But we know that is not what Jesus believes. There’s too much evidence to the contrary in the Gospel. So, this sin must be referring to something else. But what?
Well, what is sin? Fractured relationship. Might there have been fractured relationship between this man and his neighbors, and friends, and family? And that is bad, but what fractured relationship could be worse than that? What might Jesus be hinting at? Maybe a fractured relationship with God.
Jesus warns him and still, he goes out of his way to find the Pharisees and say that Jesus is the one that broke the law; fueling their persecution of the Son of God, the second person of the trinity, God incarnate. This man, I might suggest, has up-graded from sinning against neighbor to sinning against God. A worse sin indeed.
And so, my shift in perspective is one from this guy being a victim to this guy being a jerk… who maybe had a disability, or maybe was just living by himself at the pool of Bethesda because he was a jerk.
The point is Jesus re-included him into community even if he was the kind of person who never took responsibility for his actions, and blamed others for his lot in life. Jesus showed up for him anyway. And when he was re-included into the community he immediately sought the cool kids. Jesus saw this and warned him…and what did he do? Threw gas on the fire that fueled the persecution of Jesus, that ended with him on the cross. A worse sin indeed.
So maybe that is a different way to hear this story then you have heard it before. That is the kind of thinking we pursue as a learning church; we turn the crystal as we seek new and interesting insights into the Kingdom of God.
But we can go deeper still. I have a sense that Jesus knew this from the beginning that this guy was a jerk. The text says Jesus saw this man, and he KNEW him; which means Jesus knew his character, he knew he was a jerk, and still he included him, still he healed him. (That is the point of miracles, incidentally, they are actions of inclusion).
Jesus did this because that is how the Kingdom of God work; it is fully inclusive. Jesus includes all physical abilities and disabilities; Jesus includes all souls temporal and eternal; Jesus includes all people irrespective of cultural particularities; and Jesus includes jerks because: “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45).
And so, you may be asking: “Preach, why should I be good then? If it’s all the same to God, why should it matter to me? Look around, there are plenty of people out there that are big jerks and seem to have pretty good lives.”
And if that’s been your observation of things, then you’re an accurate observer. But here’s the reality (and this is a pretty good takeaway for the value of the Christian lifestyle) when we trust in humanity we will always be disappointed. When we trust in God we may be disappointed for a while, but not forever.
That is the message of the resurrection: that God will have God’s way at the end of the day. And between then and this very moment, we have all have choices about how to live. And one of those choices is to be a jerk. And jerkiness, I might note, is not dependent, in any way, upon our station in life; or our strength or weakness; or richness or poverty. Irrespective of gender, or ZIP Code, or education, we all have an opportunity to choose whether we’re going to be a jerk or not. And the more often we choose the jerky way, the more likely it becomes our habit, which means it becomes the default response when we are not thinking about how we are responding… which seems to be the case with the man who sat by the pools of Bethesda for 38 years.
Most people don’t think of themselves as jerks, incidentally. Mostly in moments when they’re acting jerky, they blame somebody else for causing this to be the case. I know I do. But there are moments, I hope, that we catch ourselves in the blame game, and when we do we stop and look in the mirror. And more so, if someone calls you out for being a jerk, we stop and look in the mirror. And doubly more so (if that is a thing), if you find yourself calling someone else out for being a jerk, we stop, pull up a chair and sit down in front of the mirror next to them, and take a good, long look.
Jerkiness can be a habit, refined over the time, in a way that works into our character so as to go unnoticed by ourselves. Which is why we need community to help us move back toward becoming the person God created us to be. That is the hope of Christian community, to be a place where we stand shoulder to shoulder as our better selves.
And, here’s some good news, Jesus always shows up. Jesus is active, and present, and involved in our lives, even when we’re jerks. Maybe mostly when we’re jerks. That is the message of resurrection. The cross is human jerkiness; resurrection is God’s response in love; perpetual, eternal, presence.
That is the hope. There’s always hope. There is always hope that the big jerk will become less jerky because of the presence of Jesus. Jesus sees us by the pools in Bethesda whatever that pool is in our life, when we are lounging around, he knows us, and he loves us, and he acts in our best interest. And he tells us to get up and take our mats and walk. And we do so freely, hopefully with gratitude, knowing that Jesus never gives up hoping in us.