Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2019
Stories like the one in our Gospel Reading usually get preached in one of two ways. Way number one: if you believe in Jesus hard enough, he will heal you of any and all afflictions here and now. This is the classic prosperity-gospel method, which is popular the world over, where God is sort of like a divine vending machine, where you get out what you put in. But you’re Lutherans, and you’re not fooled by prosperity gospel preachers. Way number two: when Jesus heals, that healing is an analogy for faith. This is a pretty good way to preach on these healing miracle texts, especially because of what happens a few verses later in our reading: Jesus actually tracks down the guy he healed and says to him: “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The wellness of the body indicates a wellness of the soul and the spirit, by faith.
But, although it is an aspect of our reading, the analogy between healing and faith doesn’t quite cut it. Why, you ask? Because had Jesus not come along to help the poor guy out, I’m almost 100% certain that someone eventually would have helped him into the pool, and he would have been healed anyway, without Jesus. But if that happened, then what of faith? Since the healing most likely would have happened one way or another, the healing itself is not the central point of the story. So, then you ask, what is the central focus of the story? Is it the angel stirring the water, the feast day, the Sabbath, the rising and walking? These are all important aspects of the story, but everyone forgets one thing. And this one simple fact is very important, and very offensive.
Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem, and as he’s walking through the city, he wanders by a large pool called “Bethesda.” Archaeologists have actually uncovered this pool, and it turns out that it was over 130 feet long and very wide, so when John says there were a “great multitude of people,” he really means it. Sick people, blind people, lame people, paralyzed people…all lying between the colonnades, waiting for their chance to be healed.
So, here’s the offense: why doesn’t Jesus heal them, too? He could’ve, but he didn’t. Doesn’t he care? It wouldn’t have been any skin off his nose at all; it’s not like he’s going to run out of God-power any time soon, and he’s already in hot water with the Jews, especially the temple hierarchy, so why doesn’t he just go ahead and heal all these people? Why does he single out this man from all the rest?
Well, we’ve already established that the healing itself isn’t the important thing, so it might be an idle question. We know that Jesus heals many people out of his great compassion, but we also remember that he often hides himself away from the crowds, because, as he says, his kingdom is not of this world—miracle healings are secondary to the goal of the kingdom of God, which is the destroying of sin by Jesus’ own death and resurrection. And people often forget that those who are healed don’t stay healed forever—the human life still has an expiration date, miracle or no. But the question still stands: why doesn’t Jesus heal everybody? John says there were actual paralytics there—are you telling me those people didn’t need Jesus’ help just as much if not more than this guy?
This question casts the story into a different light. Now the story has an interesting cast to it. And now we can ask the really troubling question: how does Jesus choose? How does God himself choose between people? Why one and not the other? When we start asking this question, the first place everyone goes is to the people themselves. Surely there must be some sort of distinction between the chosen and the unchosen. Maybe, out of all the sick people at the pool, this man was the sickest. Maybe this man had never missed a church service in his life, while everyone else only went twice a year to make mom happy. Maybe this man was really on fire for the Lord, more than everyone around the pool. Whatever distinction you can come up with, it can be boiled down to this: Maybe this man deserved it, and everyone else fell short.
The temptation is always to make people “choose-able.” We want to reinterpret the story so that it makes some kind of rational sense to us that Jesus would choose this man over all others. We’d like to put our finger on the reason and say “Aha! That’s why Jesus chose him. Now, if we can just be like this man, Jesus will have no choice but to choose us, too.” You see the problem. This is all just an elaborate method of self-preservation. This is our Old Adam, the sinner in us, hanging on for dear life. If we could only figure out why Jesus picked this man out of the crowd, then we could finally be righteous by the Law.
But make no mistake—this man is not choose-able. Nothing really stands out about him other than his abject helplessness. He doesn’t seem more righteous than anyone else, he doesn’t call Jesus over, he doesn’t even answer Jesus’ question correctly. Jesus asks him, “do you want to be made well?” and he answers, “well, no one is helping me into the pool, and I try to go down but I’m so slow, and someone else always gets there first.” I think a simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, bud. Nothing special about this man. And when you think about it, this is kind of scary. Does God just choose arbitrarily? Where are his standards? What made him pass up all the others? And—this is where these questions are leading—what if he doesn’t choose me?
When you start asking this question, Luther used to say, “you have the predestination sickness.” He certainly wasn’t immune to it, and neither are we. It’s tempting to think about and speculate, isn’t it? Has God really predestined me for salvation? And the longer you speculate, the more you realize how unattractive of a choice you are. How could God ever pick me out of a crowd? And even if he did, how could I know that it’s real?
It’s at this point where our Gospel reading really opens up. The fact of the matter is that you are no different than this man. Infirm, totally helpless, not that special, and certainly not any better than anyone else. Probably worse. Thoroughly “un-choose-able.” And yet, Jesus comes along out of the blue and chooses you anyway. That man never had to wonder if Jesus chose him or not, because when Jesus said “Rise, take up your bed, and walk,” he rose, took up his bed, and walked. You don’t really have to question if you’re walking or not when you’re doing it. And believe me, it’s the same for you. You’ve been set free from something much worse than mere physical ailments—you’ve been set free from sin, death, and the devil. And you never have to wonder if you’ve been chosen or not—every idle question and speculation is silenced, because God himself addresses you personally, each and every day with his Word, and it sounds exactly like this: “I forgive you all your sins.” God has chosen to speak this Word to you, and his Word never fails. In fact, his Word died your death and was resurrected so that you too might be dead to sin and alive to God. You who were “un-choose-able” have now been elected as partakers of eternal life through the promise he makes to you, and when God makes a promise, he never breaks it. So, I ask you now the same question Jesus asked a sick man lying by a pool two millennia ago: “Do you want to be made well?” If so, rise and walk, it’s already been done. And the peace, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds safely in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.