When Jesus went to a Pagan site
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. [waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whosoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.] One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 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?’ 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 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.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 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.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ 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.
Not what you expect
Last time I explained how three of the characters that seek Jesus out near the beginning of John's Gospel respond in different ways, with the Gentile being the one who most welcomes the Good News whilst the Jewish Leader, Nicodemus, is the one who appears least at ease with Jesus. In this story we see it from another perspective; what happens when Jesus goes looking for someone who is seeking for help elsewhere, someone who doesn't know or care who Jesus is?
To my mind this is one of the most awkward to understand passages in any of the gospels. There are a number of really quite difficult questions that stand out which we need to find the courage to give voice to because one thing seems sure for me; we must not take this passage at face-value with a western Christianised reading, because without some first century understanding we will simply get this wrong.
This is also one of those passages whose understanding has been revolutionised over the last few years because archaeologists working in Jerusalem have found and excavated the site where this miracle took place. Whilst work began in the 19th century with its discovery, it is only in the last fifty years that it has been fully exposed, and in so doing we have become aware that there is something very important about this site. Despite being within the city walls of Jerusalem, there now seems to be little doubt that this was not a Jewish site at all, but was in fact a Pagan place of healing dedicated to the Greco-Roman god, Asclepius, the god of healing, and known to his followers as 'Saviour'. Knowing this changes everything about how we might understand what took place, but it also raises new questions.
The first question we might ask was, what on earth was a Pagan site doing within the walls of Jerusalem, a city dedicated to the monotheistic worship of the Jewish God at the Temple? Surely the city authorities would never have permitted this? That certainly seems true, were it not for the fact that the site was originally built outside the city walls and became what was called an 'Asclepion' whose purpose was to service the Roman troops at the Antonia Fortress which was close to the Temple, but just outside the city walls. Their location would have meant that they could keep a watchful eye over their healing site, and the city walls were not expanded to bring the site within Jerusalem itself until around the time of Jesus.
So the first thing for us to take on board is that it appears that Jesus had deliberately visited a Pagan healing site. Now we can deduce that this was probably missed even fairly early on in the copying and distribution of this Gospel. We can tell that from the rather odd verse 4 which is in italics and brackets above. The reason for that is that it doesn't appear in the earliest manuscripts and seems to be a later addition by a copyist. We might wonder why someone would add such a verse, but if someone was copying the text after Jerusalem had fallen, who didn't know the city, they might have missed the point entirely about where Jesus was, and so inserted a verse to Christianise the passage by having an angel stirring up the waters even though, in itself, that invented mythology is a little odd.
It seems strange to us to add this because it immediately raises the question of why an angel would stir up waters so that the first one in, who is probably therefore the least in need of healing, should be the one to receive it. Competitive healing doesn't square very well with the Gospel message of, 'The first shall be last and the last first.'
I suspect that verse 4 has therefore been responsible for sending generations of people off in the wrong direction. So the first thing we have had to establish is that Jesus deliberately went to a Pagan healing site at Jerusalem. In reality the stirring of the waters was probably caused by the keepers of the site allowing water from the upper pool to move to the lower pool, but in many ways even knowing that doesn't actually help us because of the series of questions that this passage raises.
The next question is, out of all the people present there, why this one man? John makes it clear that when Jesus walks in to the area he sees a whole array of people who are disabled in one way, shape or form. All of them were there because they wanted healing. So why does Jesus single this man out? Why not heal the others?
There are a number of possible reasons for that. John makes a point of saying that the man has been there for thirty eight years; could that have been the reason? Possibly, but do we think that God works on the principle that a person becomes more eligible for healing the longer they have been ill? And why not heal everyone there? Think about it. Jesus is in the midst of a big Pagan healing site. Asclepius was known as 'Saviour' amongst his followers. Wouldn't it have made more sense for Jesus to have healed everyone in order to show them that actually he was the real saviour? Well to our minds, maybe it would, but this is just one more of those ways that Jesus keeps us guessing by doing things a different way from how we would do them.
Then Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well? What kind of question is that? He's been crippled for thirty eight years; of course he wants to be made well! Except his reply is evasive... It makes me wonder whether the man had allowed his illness to define him. When asked if he wants to be well, the man answers with an excuse, not the affirmative answer that we would imagine.
Then Jesus does something that seems unexpected and raises yet more questions; he simply heals him. The reason this is unexpected is first the man doesn't ask him for it, and secondly the man has no idea who Jesus is! According to Mark 6, when Jesus visits his home village, Nazareth, he can't do many miracles there because they had no faith in him. Yet here Jesus heals a man who doesn't even know who he is! What's more, he does it without touching him, which is most unusual since in almost every other account of Jesus healing someone he does so by physically engaging with them. So without touching him, Jesus heals a man who hasn't asked for it and who has no idea about who Jesus is and so cannot put his faith in him!
But then the mystery deepens even further. You would imagine, given the location for this healing, that Jesus would say, as he did to the disciples, 'Follow me.' But he doesn't even do that. Jesus just slips away into the crowd. So when the man gets asked who told him he could carry his mat, he can't answer them. Then, as events unfold further, we begin to see some of why John included this passage, together with a few more difficult questions. You see the next time Jesus meets him is in the Temple. This almost misses us until we think, 'Hang on a moment. Wasn't the man at a Pagan site? What's he now doing in the Temple?' And that may well be a part of the point to the story. Now we're beginning to get a picture of a man of divided loyalties. I wonder whether that was why Jesus picked him out from the crowd at the pool, because he was essentially plucking at every different spiritual straw.
But then Jesus says something deeply troubling to him, and which completely contradicts something he says elsewhere. Jesus tells him not to sin any more or something worse will happen to him. This speaks directly into our mindset of, 'What have I done to deserve this?' when something goes wrong.
The answer we almost unerringly give is, 'You've done nothing wrong. Sometimes things just happen.' Yet here Jesus seems to be suggesting that his illness is down to his sin and unless he stops sinning something worse will happen to him. That's deeply disquieting. It also seems to contradict what we find in Luke 13 when Jesus responds to questions about Pilate's brutality and a tower falling on eighteen people and killing them by saying that they weren't worse offenders than anyone else, that it wasn't their sin that caused their deaths. Yet here Jesus seems to be saying that unless the man changes his ways, something worse will happen to him than his previous disability. The man reacts to this by finding some Jewish leaders and pointing out Jesus as the one who healed him thereby causing them to start picking on Jesus.
Far from following Jesus when he runs into him in the Temple, the man turns on Jesus and I suspect John includes this passage to show us that Jesus is already clashing with the authorities, and that by doing the right thing for the right reasons, he is already on the path to Golgotha.
So what can we learn from this? You'll notice that I deliberately haven't tried to give you cut and dried teaching in this passage. Part of the reason for that is because I think the various questions and contradictions are vital for us in understanding that we cannot put God in a box. Jesus does not always do the same thing. He is unpredictable, but our rational twenty first century minds struggle with that. But what we find here is that, whilst stuff just happens in general, sometimes we can bring it on ourselves by our behaviour. We find that Jesus heals some people and not others, and he has his own reasons for it. And we find the grace of God in that, despite knowing the man, knowing his background, knowing his history, knowing how he will respond, Jesus still heals him. We don't have to be good for Jesus to work in our lives.
So these are some of the things that arise from the questions and contradictions, but there are four specific lessons that I want us to take away from this.
First it reinforces what I said last time, that signs and wonders on their own are no guarantee of a living faith. This man was miraculously healed by Jesus but all he did with that healing was attempt to turn Jesus in to the authorities! The miracle did not lead him to faith.
Secondly, do not be disheartened at people who see your lively and active faith and aren't convinced by it. I think part of the reason for this story is John reminding us that not every one, even when confronted with a miracle, is going to believe.
Thirdly, this is a reminder to all of us that when we think we have a word from God to do something, and we act obediently on what we think God is calling us to do, it may not turn out right. That's really important.
We have a faith that often says, 'Knock on the doors and the one that opens is the right one.' But the reality is, if we find the right thing to do, if we open the right door and walk through it, there is no guarantee of a happy ending on the other side.
Remember that Jesus was called to crucifixion, and the seeds of that were, at least in part, planted in this episode. The right thing to do may not look like a good thing to the onlookers and it may not be something that we would choose for ourselves.
And the fourth thing here, which is the one most likely to have an effect on our everyday lives, is one of awareness. An awesome miracle took place by the pool but nobody noticed because nobody was looking. All eyes were focussed on the pool, waiting for the right moment to go in, hoping you might be healed. And then, sneaking in to the Pagan place by the back entrance, along comes Jesus who heals someone who has been ill for 38 years, and then sneaks out before anyone sees. He doesn't call the man to faith or anything. There's no altar call. This is just Jesus being where he thinks he should be, helping someone who needs help. He just goes, does what he intended to do, and leaves.
I wonder what is going on in our lives where Christ is seriously working away and we are completely unaware of that because we're looking in the other direction, maybe at our children or grandchildren, maybe at our jobs or our social lives, maybe even at the work we do for the church. Jesus may be doing something miraculously wonderful for us, but we haven't noticed because we're looking in the wrong direction.
There are many lessons we could take from this passage but I think this is the most important for us. We need to ask the question, 'Are my eyes open to what God is already doing in my life?' May the Great Healer remove our blindness so that we can can see where he is already at work.
What does the Father do? What does the Son do? What should we do?
Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son, so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
‘Very truly, I tell you, 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. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.
This is not a universal given, and I don't know if it holds for daughters and mothers, but there is a tendency of sons to want to emulate their fathers, provided their fathers give a good role model. To be honest, even if their fathers are poor models, the sons may well follow in their footsteps. This can especially apply to the jobs we take. As a child I can remember being fascinated by the world my father inhabited. It was a world full of atoms and molecules and of big noisy machines that plumbed the depths of chemistry and physics. At every opportunity I would question my dad and he would answer me. I recall one occasion in a public library where he had to quite pointedly, but very gently, tell me to stop asking questions so loudly.
It was about that time that my parents discovered the Ladybird series of books about how things worked, and I was soon hooked. Of course whenever one question is answered, it gives rise to another. It came as no surprise to my parents, therefore, that I chose a career in science because that was what my father did. I did what I saw my father doing. But of course that wasn't all, and of course it wasn't just about emulating my dad. In other ways I emulated both parents. I saw them being loving to each other and trying hard to create a stable home for us. I saw them give their time to the school I attended, with my mum becoming the treasurer and my dad becoming the chair of the PTA.
I saw them involved in their church and also having their own choir. They looked out for people and had a sense of fairness. I'm not saying that following in their ways was easy or even necessarily what I always wanted to do, but they gave me a good role model and they helped me to follow that too.
So in some ways it comes as no surprise when Jesus responds to criticism with the words before us, as he says, “...for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”. The context of this is a follow on from the reading we looked at last week when the Jewish leaders began their persecution against Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Jesus is essentially saying that he is simply doing what God the Father is doing. However, it's actually a statement that is more far-reaching than it initially appears because in saying this he is implying that he is the agency by which the things of heaven are being enacted on earth. What that means, and you can understand the Jewish leaders being upset with him, is that he is declaring that he is the one through which we can know what God is like.
This is where our relationships with our parents begin to diverge from Jesus and the Father. I am not simply a blend of my parents. Whilst they rightly tried to influence me so that I made good choices, and those choices would certainly have been influenced by my genetic inheritance, I have made a number of choices that they would not have made. I'm not a rebellious son. But I have my own mind. Many of my beliefs about life and values differ from theirs. Given a particular set of circumstances, there is no guarantee that we would make the same decisions. We are similar, but we are different.
But Jesus is saying something else, something more. He is saying that he will only do what he sees the Father doing. In some ways this is a rebuke to those who persecute them. He is essentially saying to them, 'You call yourselves followers of God? Yet here am I doing exactly what God does and you are trying to kill me because of that.' Now for us this is deeply important. It means that we no longer need to stumble around in the dark asking, 'Is God like this? Is God like that? Is God always angry? Is God never angry? Is God loving?' We need no longer question whether God is trustworthy. The person of Jesus reveals the nature of God. Do you want to know what God is like? Then look at Jesus. Do you want to know what God values? Look at Jesus. Do you want to know what God despises? Look at Jesus.
And when we look hard at Christ, what do we see?
We see a mixture of questions and clarity. Jesus himself says that he gives life to whomsoever he wishes. We've just seen that demonstrated when he healed one disabled man in a crowd of disabled people. We don't know why he chooses to heal some and not others. I have a friend who has a marvellous testimony of her own healing, of being completely bedridden for several years, yet who was prayed for and healed. Yet many of us, myself included, have stories of family and friends who were not healed. He has his reasons, and we may not like it, but he is God and we are his creation.
But whilst we might have questions about the decisions God makes, it strikes me we do, at least, have clarity over what God values by the way Jesus behaves around people. Whose company did Jesus seem to seek out? Those who were most in need. And who were his friends? They were a mixture of small businessmen, such as Peter the fisherman, political collaborators like Matthew the tax man, freedom fighters like Simon the Zealot, independent women like Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany, housekeepers like Martha of Bethany. He sought out those who were rejected because of their lifestyles, like the Samaritan woman at the well who'd had five husbands and was a moral outcast. We can also see quite clearly who he criticised; it was the religious leaders who claimed moral superiority for themselves whom he labelled hypocrites, and it was the rich and powerful who used their own wealth for their own desires and the desires of their friends.
These are the values that Jesus lived by, and so, if he does what he says, which is to only do what the Father does, then Jesus shows us exactly what God is like. But there is one more thing to add to this. Jesus is the Son of God, but he is also the son of Mary. Isn't there a hole in my argument? Could we not make exactly the same argument from a genetic point of view about doing what he sees Mary doing. After all, she makes up a big part of who he is. Why does he make claims only about God the Father and not about Mary his mother?
The answer to that is to do with the two natures of Christ; that he was both human and divine. We cannot separate the two and say, 'Well that was his human side' or 'that was his divine side'. But what we can say is that, as a human he was in total submission to God, and as God he was the Son of the Father. In both ways he was active in his decision to do the will of God.
Ultimately what it comes down to is prayer. Over and over again we see it recorded about the amount of time Jesus spent in prayer, dwelling in the presence of the Father. I don't think this is the intercessory type of prayer. I think this is the simple spending of time quietly in the presence of the Father, listening and learning, observing and waiting.
How did Jesus know what God was doing? Partly because divinity was in his nature and partly because, as a human, he had to pray. So he watched, he listened, he learned and then he acted.
This was why, as both human and God, he could say, “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
The question it raises for us is, what about our actions? We are not divine, but we have divinity within us, united to our spirits in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the greatest miracles of all. We are adopted as children of God, as St. Paul wrote in Galatians, so the same is open to us as we see in Jesus. We may not naturally, instinctively know the Father's will, but because the Holy Spirit is within us, we can nevertheless, through prayer and waiting, come to know what the Father would do. The challenge for us is to have the courage to do that, and then to act.
The Effect of Integrity
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, ‘Where is he?’ And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man’, others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’ Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.
When I was a teenager there was a comment that was often thrown disparagingly at rock bands who had managed a reasonable degree of success, and this was that they were 'Big in Japan' There was some truth in this in that a number of the British or European bands I really enjoyed had indeed managed to have a big success in Japan. They could go there on tours and sell out venues, yet back here many people had never heard of them and so people generally thought, 'Well so what?' The reason for that was that you couldn't be counted as a superstar unless you made it in the US. And if we're honest we still see the same thing today, although these days it's more about film stars and TV hosts. So in the UK the comedian James Corden was pretty successful and well known, but when he began to make it big in the US as well, people took him more seriously. The same could be said for the actor Simon Pegg. Originally best known for the UK series 'Spaced', he appeared in a number of critically acclaimed British films. But what made people take notice was when he started getting major roles in Hollywood films.
What we seem to be seeing with this story is more or less the same thing. To someone in the rural north of Galilee it was no big deal if you made a stir there. So what? Who cared about a few thousand country bumpkins. What really counted was if you could make it big in the Hollywood of Jerusalem. That was what really counted. So this story follows on from the remarkable feeding of the five thousand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, with that being insufficient for Jesus' brothers, who don't yet believe in him. So, perhaps mockingly, they tell him to go to Jerusalem so everyone can see him.
Now there is another good reason for why this is mocking. At the end of the previous chapter, the teaching that Jesus gave to accompany the feeding of the five thousand had been deeply challenging to those following him. The result of that had been that vast numbers had left. Jesus had questioned the twelve as to whether they were going to go as well, to which Peter had replied, 'Where else could we go? You have the words of eternal life.'
So Jesus had thinned down the crowd of followers quite considerably by not holding back on the truth about following him. When they began to take on board what he was teaching and its radical nature, they had drifted away. Verse 1 of today's reading explains that Jesus '...went about' in Galilee. That verse tells us that for some period, possibly a reasonably long time, Jesus worked as a rabbi around Galilee. But maybe his brothers had seen how his initial support had bled away. So they mock him, saying, 'Go on then, make it big in Jerusalem instead. Show the world what you can do.' The response that Jesus makes is quite telling with regard to his belief in the way he was conducting his ministry. Were he an insecure performer he might have thought to himself, 'Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm only ever get noticed if I go to the bright lights and the big city.'
But Jesus doesn't do that, and his response says much to us. 'You go because any time is good for you. My time isn't here yet. And anyhow, it comes as no surprise that people reject me because I am telling them the truth about good and evil. I'm not looking for fame and fortune.'
This, then, is the key issue for us here. Jesus is not controlled by outside influences but by an inner conviction. He doesn't allow himself to be pressurised by others into doing what they think is the correct thing to do because he knows, in the depths of his being, the right way to act and the right thing to do. In other words he has a vision that sustains his direction and he will not be turned to the right or the left.
The way that John describes Jesus then travelling to Jerusalem in secret is very important. I have often spoken about how John's Gospel has lots of layers within layers, and the same is true here because it seems he is drawing our attention back to the last book in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi, who foretells a time when God will send a messenger ahead of him to prepare the way.
That sounds rather like John the Baptist doesn't it. And then the prophet declares how the Lord God, whom they seek, will suddenly and unexpectedly appear in the temple. So it is that Jesus, who the Gospel writer has made quite clear is divine, travels secretly to Jerusalem, not taking part in the many celebrations surrounding what was in effect their harvest festival. The very next verse after this reading, which comes next week, shows Jesus suddenly appearing in the Temple and beginning to teach, thus beginning to fulfil the prophecy of Malachi.
So what we have seen is Jesus not being tempted by his brothers to seek recognition, but instead to wait for the right time, and instead of travelling openly, which would probably have got him killed, he goes in secret, in God's timing and according to his vision, and then appears in the Temple quite unexpectedly, just as Malachi had foretold.
This is how the strength of conviction works its way out. This is what it means to not be swayed by the opinions of others. This is what it means to stick to your guns even when others tell you that you're wrong.
This raises a number of questions for us. As individuals, how good are we at doing what we think is the right thing to do when others criticise or belittle us? There is a temptation amongst the meek to do as they're told; anything for a quiet life. We become afraid of the opinions of others who seem to be more strong willed than we are. So in the first instance this is why I try to encourage each of us to seek a vision from God as to what we should be doing in our own lives. Noah was ridiculed, but he persisted because he knew what God called him to. Let us do likewise, and have the courage to do what we think to be the right thing, or simply to say the right thing, or defend someone because it's the right thing to do.
A second question that this raises for us is how the Church responds to this. This is one of the reasons we have concentrated so much on developing a vision for the future. Proverbs 29:18 says that without a vision, the people perish. There is a huge amount of truth in this. We have to know the direction we're taking so that when we encounter difficulties we will have the courage and the resolution to press on.
We can also see the way the integrity of Jesus to his vision bears fruit after his earthly ministry is complete in the life of Jesus' family. At this point in time they seem to be ridiculing him. Yet turn the clock forward and we discover that the head of the Jerusalem church, after Peter leaves on mission work, is James, the Lord's younger brother. I wonder at what point he became convinced? We don't know and nor can we, but for most people it is the little things that we notice in the lives of others that draw us to share opinions with them, and maybe to follow them.
I suspect that James saw in Jesus a resolution to follow his vision, and so gradually accepted him for who he was. This is the power of having a vision from God for our direction in life, and then staying with it. Not only do you do the right thing, but others are drawn to it too. And in being drawn to us, so they are drawn to Christ.