WORCHESTER COLLEGE, OXFORD
Sunday, 9th February 2014
TEXT: ‘Jesus said, ‘’Do you want to be healed.’’
I vividly remember a cartoon in the New Yorker when I was living and working in America some years ago.
It showed a caterpillar crawling slowly along the ground, wistfully looking up and shouting to a passing butterfly. ‘’You’ll never catch me going up in one of those things.’’
But, back for a moment to the scene in tonight’s reading: the story of the healing of the paraplegic. I want to suggest tonight two totally unexpected turn-of events in that story. So first, that seemingly inappropriate question of Jesus: ‘’Do you want to be healed?’’ Inappropriate? You might even say that ‘cruel question’, seeing that in one way or another, we’re told Jesus actually knew that the man had been lying there a long time – thirty eight years apparently. And yet he still asks, “Do you want to be healed? WHY?
Well, did you notice the poor man’s reply? A bit like politicians, he doesn’t answer the question he’s asked, but simply repeats what he’s been saying – mainly to himself, probably – for thirty eight years: ‘’I’ve nobody to put me into the pool when there is moving of the waters for healing, and while I’m struggling to get myself into the pool, another steps down before me.’’
‘’I have nobody…’’ Surely you might think, in thirty-eight years there would have been somebody to help. Perhaps he had stopped looking for someone and so by way of a self-fulfilling prediction, there never was anyone. I wonder.
And then – ‘thirty-eight years?’ Yes, perhaps indeed there does come a point when, as Emily Dickinson – the America poet – says, – ‘’even prison can become a friend.’’ Yes, there comes a point when you don’t want, or even want to want to be healed, or take up a fresh start.
Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘’I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness.’’ (John 10:10) The good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to settle for life in the shadows. “With freedom has Christ set us free,” is the testimony of scripture. But then the responsible exercise of freedom requires maturity. Yet, the claim of the Bible, from cover to cover, is that most of us, most of the time are only half alive, like the title of the movie – ‘’Dead Men Walking.’’
‘’This is the judgement,” says Jesus in John’s Gospel, “that light has come into the world, and men and women prefer darkness.’’ Or at least the half-light. I think that’s what Eliot was on about when he said, ‘’Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’’
Yet, instinctively, most people know in their heart of hearts that we were made for something more than what even the best this world can give – call it transcendence, wonder, ecstasy (of the right kind); a life which insists on pushing back the boundaries both of knowledge and experience (that spark which motivates explorers and researchers at best). So little wonder that so many seek the short cuts and false promises of material wealth, stimulants, drugs, booze, erotamania or whatever. But at least, it’s a sign that there is still a spark of divine discontent in our hearts; at least we’re still seeking, still longing, still yearning…albeit after thirty eight years, or whatever, rather than throwing in the sponge and settling for second best.
In a word, I suppose, we’re talking about a quality of life and it’s this quality of life which the Bible calls eternal or better still, abundant or enriched – a life which is a life worth living or, if need be, worth dying for: a life lived in relation to the source of all life, as opposed to a kind of cut-flower existence.
The Bible speaks of this quality of life, as a life lived in relation to God, who in Jesus has come to draw us into a relationship with himself. “This is eternal life” – authentic, abundant, enriched life, says Jesus, ‘’to know (that is to be in relationship, connaitre knowledge), ‘’with the Father and him whom he sent.” Yes, indeed – true life, is life in relationship. Indeed I derive my identity from my relationship. Indeed I derive my identity from my network of relationships: the son of my father, the brother of my sister, the godfather of my godchildren and so it goes on.
Conversely, on the other hand, isolation or the much-trumpeted independence of individualism (‘doing my own thing’) is mere existence and not true life. Inter-dependence, not so much independence, is the name of the game.
But the second surprise in our story is somewhat more sinister. Surely to God, wouldn’t you expect that those observant, religious leaders (the Pharisees), would have rejoiced to see the dead raised, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hearing? But not a bit of it! The self-appointed religious police attack Jesus – notice on theological grounds, – theological knit-picking – namely, that he had broken Sabbath rules.
The new freedom of this formerly paralyzed man, infuriated those Pharisees, and the irony is, that they were totally blind to just how very paralyzed they were – they were in need of healing and liberation from the letter of the law and needing to recapture the spirit of the law-giver, standing right there in front of them!
You see, the perversion of religion is the most perverted power of all. We live in an age when religion – perverted religion in all the religions, including Christianity – is once again raising its ugly head. When religion goes wrong, it doesn’t go a little wrong – it becomes demonic. After all, as we say, the perversion of the best is the worst. Tillich said: ‘’Jesus came to save us from religion,’ and how very much all faiths need to hear those words in today’s world of religious fanaticism, control and power.
You see Christianity at its best is not a philosophy, an ideology or even a religion in the strict sense of the word. Christianity isn’t anything – it is essentially somebody : St. Paul summarizes the Christian experience as ‘Jesus and the Resurrection, – Jesus and the call to new and fuller life in him, which is what Jesus is offering that paralyzed man, in today’s story. And that is what he is offering everybody to this day, including that constrained caterpillar, rejecting the prospect of becoming a free-flying butterfly!
Christians believe, and not just because they’ve read it in the Bible, but better still from personal experience; Christians believe that this same Jesus, even today, is still seeking and searching for those whose lives, like that paralytic, are confined, for whatever reason to the shadows, – maimed, addicted or whatever; Christians believe, that this same Jesus, still meets each one of us at our particular point of need, like he met that paralyzed man, inviting us, challenging us or even sometimes commanding us in the name of love: “Take up your particular bed and walk; kick away the crutches; (whether it’s the bottle or the bed); open the eyes of your heart; (that ‘knowledge of the heart’ as Pascal calls its); ‘get a life’; walk free, leave the shadows; and drawn by Jesus, the Light of the world, who enlightens every man, woman and child – drawn by Jesus, the Light to the light, through the darkness, into that fullness of life, in the here and now – to that quality of life which is stronger than death and therefore incidentally eternal; seeking to respond freely to the perennial challenge from scripture in the words of Deuteronomy of old, ‘Thus says the Lord, “This day I put before you the way of life, and the way of death: Choose Life”
‘Jesus said.’ NO! ‘Jesus says’ and is still saying to each one of us, tonight: “Do YOU want to be healed?”
1309 words – 13minutes.