A sermon for Sunday 5th May 2013
I wonder if any of you have an aspect of yourself that you wish was otherwise? Some besetting sin, or some character trait that you perceive as a weakness, or some flaw that you feel defines you, though you wish it didn’t. Or something that’s been central to the way you explain yourself for so long that it’s become part apology, part excuse, and you’re no longer sure whether you want it to change, or whether it’s better simply to take refuge in it and let it keep defining you?
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then good for you! But I certainly have a few of these things. The easiest one for me to talk about is “I’m disorganised”. You’ve probably all heard me say it. It’s an apology, sure, but it’s also an excuse. And I know that for me, when I say it, I’m accepting something as inevitable, rather than working to grow beyond it. Whenever I say “Sorry I’m so disorganised” I’m taking refuge in my own flaws and making it harder for me to be anything other than what I say I am.
Why am I telling you this?
If we leave aside for a moment the fact that the story of the man by the pool at Bethzatha was probably a true story, and that a real miracle of healing took place, we can treat it more like a parable and ask ourselves why that particular story was preserved in the gospels and what its deeper meanings might be.
When we do this it turns out that there are several: one concerns Jesus’ willingness to go round healing people on the Sabbath, even though he knows it will get him into trouble – there are other stories that do this, too, so I won’t go into that today.
The deeper meaning that struck a chord with me today is the question of what healing really meant for the man by the pool. He’s spent 38 years lying in the same spot, always thinking that if he could only be first in the queue for the magic healing waters he would be well again, and always finding that someone else was faster than him, beating him to it. 38 years of trying the same thing, again and again, and still expecting the outcome to be different.
38 years of telling passers-by, “It’s because I don’t have anyone to put me in the water” until that’s all there is. He is the man who never gets healed, it has become what defines him. It’s been so long that he can’t remember what it was like before he was ill, and he’s not sure what he’d do if he was ever made well again. Yes, the man’s paralysis was real, but metaphorically he can stand for all of us who take refuge in something that’s been holding us back for years, unsure if we really want things to be different.
This is where I am that man, stuck saying “I’m disorganised” even though I know it doesn’t help.
So when I hear Jesus ask the man, “Don’t you want to be made well?” I hear him saying to me, “Don’t you want to be more organised?” And I think to myself, “But if I didn’t have my constant refrain as an excuse, then I’d have to take more responsibility. I wouldn’t be able to write off and explain away the many things that slip through my net, attributing them to some general sense of disorganisation, as if it were an illness that is beyond my control.
“Get up, take up your bed and walk” says Jesus. And the man does. He receives healing without going anywhere near the magic healing waters, and he will have to find a new story to tell about himself, he’ll have to find a new way to define himself, because he’s no longer the man who never gets healed, no longer the man who can’t get to the water first.
So when Jesus says those same words to me, he says them through the people he’s sent to me to show me that just because I’ve been disorganised, doesn’t mean that that’s what I am and always have to be. That I can actually change, be better, and rewrite my own story so that I’m no longer peddling a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is it simply about willpower? No, it’s not. It’s about the way that God can act on our will and enable us to make choices that we wouldn’t have the strength to make on our own. It’s about the power of God to show us how much of our healing and wholeness is not to do with making sure we get access to the magic water, but showing us that we can, in fact, through his grace, redefine ourselves and not be ruled by our flaws.
I’ve shared with you something of my own response to this story, confessed something of the way that I’ve let my flaws define me (and believe me, I have worse ones than disorganisation!). And I do so as one whose process of healing and new life is still a work in progress.
If anything I’ve said has struck a chord with you, then consider that the words of todays gospel, on that same metaphorical level, can speak to any individual, or group, or organisation, or community, who is aware of a flaw, or negative tendancy, that they know is holding them back, but who has given up any hope of things being different. Such groups have a choice: to wait around, hoping for some external solution which will probably never come, or always trying the same solutions, which have never worked and never will – or to hear Christ asking the question, “Don’t you want things to be different?” and respond not by repeating the same story that we’ve always told about ourselves or heard others use, but by really opening up the question honestly, and working out what it would mean for things to be otherwise.
But it’s not some magic water that makes change possible. It’s Christ right here with us, asking us to look at ourselves and become what we might be, not get stuck with what we’ve always been. It’s Christ right here with us, asking us why we’re letting our flaws hold us to ransom and offering us another way. And it’s Christ looking at us, including our flaws, and unlike our own self-image, being able to see beyond them to what we could be. And it’s Christ showing us that the power to be otherwise is within us, not because it’s all about our willpower, but because he, Jesus, is active within us, and has promised to work within us to make us whole and strong.
When we invite Christ to dwell within us we should expect to be changed. We should expect to lose our excuses and have to rewrite our stories. We should expect to be changed, to become more than we are. The question is, are we ready for that kind of healing? Some days I’m not sure I am, but by the grace of God I pray that when God next asks me to stand up and bundle up my excuses, I’ll find that I can.