The Acts of the Apostles and Evangelism

The Gospel lessons for the Post-Paschal Sundays are wonderfully rich and deep and give us a treasury of inspired ideas to contemplate.  The “other” readings we do each Sunday,  called the Apostolos or reading from the Apostles (which we frequently refer to as the Epistle reading) is also Scripture, the Word of God and so essential to our understanding God’s own revelation.  We might get the idea that since the Gospel lessons give name to each of the Post-Paschal Sundays (for example, the 5th Sunday of Pascha is called The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman), that the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is somehow of secondary importance, but not so!   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”   (2 Timothy 3:16).

Acts 11:19-30 begins by noting that the first Christians concentrated their evangelistic efforts exclusively on their fellow Jews even after Stephen’s death at the hands of the Jews.  Being persecuted by their fellow Jews did not detour them from trying to convince the Jews that Jesus is Lord, God and Messiah.  However, some of these early Christians, fleeing  the persecution that began in earnest after the martyrdom of Stephen, went to the city of Antioch starting a successful mission to the Gentiles.  It is in Antioch that the name “Christian” is bestowed on those who believe Jesus is Messiah. The Antiochian Christians are direct descendants of this original mission work of the early Church.  The Antiochian mission is the oldest of the Christian missionary endeavors.

Note that in Acts 11, it is nameless Christians who are doing the evangelism not the apostles!

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.

The text only identifies these evangelists only as “some of them” but they are not the Apostles.   This evangelism is not intentional church planting but rather the result of the Christians being persecuted and scattered through the countryside.  Fleeing persecution, they go into the city of Antioch and find people receptive to their message.  They are being persecuted and fleeing and yet they are proclaiming Good News!   What seemed so good to them that despite being persecuted, running for their lives and becoming homeless refugees, that they still believed they had a message from God to offer to others?   Today prosperity Gospel people try to sell others on the notion that “faith” will lead to prosperity and good times.  But the early Christians had to acknowledge the truth that belief will lead to persecution – as Jesus had warned – and despite this others still join them.  The Kingdom of Heaven was desirable even though one had to suffer for it.  We should be so faithful!  We are not to be fair weather Christians – claiming to be Christians because it brings us prosperity, because times are good.  We need to be Christians even if we are living in poverty or in persecution.  That is true faith.

Note also, the faith is spreading ahead of or beyond any organized missionary outreach of the apostles.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

The Apostles aren’t doing the evangelism, they hear that the faith is spreading and have to catch up with what the Holy Spirit is doing!  The Apostles are themselves learning what the Holy Spirit is doing throughout the world.  Rather than being led by the Spirit, the Apostles are following what the Spirit is doing elsewhere in the world.  Despite the fact that the Holy Spirit is leading evangelism far beyond the reach and knowledge of the Apoostles, the efforts of evangelism had to be approved of and endorsed by the apostles – already there is church structure and hierarchy, a recognized leadership – the apostles don’t accept that everyone can do and teach what they know to be the truth.  The Apostles insist on correct doctrine and church unity.  The apostles have the power to recognize which Christian communities are legitimate and they insure that correct doctrine is being taught.  They  are determining who is in communion with them.  On the other hand, the believers don’t wait for the apostles to tell them what to do, they are not looking to Jerusalem or Constantinople  to tell them when and where to start new missions.  All the believers are both living the faith and sharing it with others.  The Apostles however maintain the right to determine who is teaching the true faith.  The Apostles do send their representatives out to ensure there is correct doctrine and also that the new Christian respect apostolic authority.

Barnabus, the Apostle’s appointed delegate, looking at the new missionary effort and Christian community, “saw the grace of God”  – grace can be seen, it is visible.  He was able to see with his own eyes what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing.  The work of  the Holy Spirit in our own lives should be so visible to us, to the saints and to non-believers.

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.

Barnabus’ response to this new unplanned mission is joy and gladness.  He offers encouragement to these new believers.   He doesn’t feel threatened by or worried about the fact that new people are embracing Christianity even though the disciples themselves are not responsible for this church growth.  He exhorts these new disciples to continue with the Lord, to remain loyal, for discipleship is a continuous process of devotion.  Being a Christian is not a one time conversion but is a lifetime process of living the Gospel.

Note also when the Christians in Antioch learn of the impending famine threatening their fellow Christians, they don’t wait for fund raising letters from the Jerusalem or the Apostles, they take action themselves – they know what their response should be as Christians.  They understand their role in the church is to practice love.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

May we too be inspired to live the Gospel, to do what we know we should be doing as God’s people in terms of evangelism and charity.  Bringing both the Good News of eternal life to all as well as the love of God in the form of charity.

This brings us to the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).  First though I remind you of the words of our Lord Jesus:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.   (John 15:16-17)

Jesus goes into the land of the Samaritans – into a foreign land which belongs to those who consider the Jews their enemies.  Christ is showing us we are to have a relationship with the world – with those who don’t know the Gospel, who don’t understand God as, with those whom we may be suspicious about or consider them to be dubious people.  What should our relationship be with old friends and family who aren’t Orthodox?   The Samaritan woman shows us the way – she goes to them and talks to them about her encounter with Jesus.  She doesn’t tell these others how wrong they are in beliefs and practices, rather she extols Christ.

For His part, Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan woman for her life/lifestyle – she has been in multiple relationships with men, serial monogamy some would say.  He is irenic toward her, and calmly, wisely and gently leads her way from a worldly perspective to the truth.  But note first he asks her for help – give me a drink.  He helps bring her to the faith by first showing his own vulnerability, his own dependency, and that He needs the Samaritan woman to help Him.  That even becomes the basis of their conversation, for the woman quite rightfully can see the obvious – you can’t even get yourself a drink of water, how are you going to give me “living water“?     Jesus uses his obvious weakness and need to lead her into a conversation about the Kingdom.  He does not rebuke her sinfulness, but leads her to the kingdom.  Jesus fulfills what He has taught:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.   (John 10:14-16)

The Scriptures today show us two ways that we Christians might respond to strangers, to non-believers, to those we don’t like, and even to our enemies.  1) We might find that others reject our message and lifestyle, that others not only reject us but want to persecute us to change our minds or to drive us out of their towns.  We might have to find a new place to live and new people with whom we can share the Gospel.  Or,  2) We can show our humility by asking others for their help, showing our own vulnerability and humanness, recognizing that we are in need of and share their resources.  Only then, when we have established a human relationship do we  share with others the Good News of salvation as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman.  Instead of doing imperialistic evangelism (where we wrongly show our superiority and proclaim our triumphalism), we are to establish relationships with others first by showing we need them to be our neighbors.   [By the way, the Samaritan Woman is not anonymous, for in tradition we know her name as Photini.]

Whether we encounter people who are non-believers or are hostile to us, we are to respond as Christ did and as His disciples.  As St John Chrysostom once said, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.

The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)

In Christ and Christ in Us

Commenting on the words of St Paul the Apostle, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”   (1 Corinthians 2:9), St Symeon the New Theologian writes:

Image 1These… eternal good things… which God has prepared for those who love Him, are not protected by heights, nor enclosed in some secret place… They are right in front of you, before your very eyes… [they] are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which we see every day, and eat, and drink…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 112)

What God has prepared for those who love Him, He does not hide but rather freely gives to His servants in a form that we can receive.  Not only does God not hide what He has prepared, but He enters into our lives, into our selves, into our bodies, into our hearts so that we can experience it and be both enlivened and enlightened by it!

The Eucharist is the presence of that same body born of Mary and now, through the Resurrection, entirely ‘spiritualized,’ i.e., moved and quickened by the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament accounts of Christ’s Resurrection tell, after all, of a change, not of a simple resuscitation (1 Cor 15:42-54, John 20:11-19, Luke 24:13-31).”  (Alexander Golitizin, ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, p 115)

Christ enters into us to reveal Himself to us.  It is a revelation which St Symeon says Christ made to him when He said these words to the saint:

“I am the kingdom of God that is hidden in your midst… though by nature I cannot be contained, yet even here below I am contained in you by grace; though I am invisible I become visible… I am the leaven the soul receives… [I am] He who takes the place of the visible Paradise and becomes a spiritual paradise for My servants… I am the sun Who rises in them every hour as in the morning and am seen by the intellect, just as I in times past manifested Myself in the prophets…” (ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE,  Vol 3, pp 110-111)

The same Son of God who revealed Himself to the prophets, now reveals Himself to us in the Eucharist as well as in the Eucharistic assembly, namely the Body of Christ.

Old Testament as Images of the New

While many Christians love to defend the literal reading of Scripture, in Orthodox hymns we are more likely to find the richness of Scriptures.  The literal reading of a text is often not seen as the true significance of the text.  For one thing Orthodoxy follows the teaching of Christ that the Old Testament is really about Christ.  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:39-46)  For example,  a hymn for Wednesday Matins of the 2nd Week of the Pentecostarion offers our interpretation of Genesis 22 (Abraham’s offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice) and from Jonah 1-2:

ISAAC WAS LED UP THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRIFICE;

JONAH DESCENDED INTO THE DEEP.

BOTH WERE IMAGES OF YOUR PASSION, O SAVIOR:

THE FIRST WAS BOUND FOR THE SLAUGHTER;

THE OTHER PREFIGURED YOUR DEATH

AND YOUR WONDROUS RISING TO LIFE!  LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Following the One Who Taught Poverty

If you want a life of discipleship,

do not allow the desire for material possessions

to get a grip on you.

A disciple with many possessions

is like a ship that has been too heavily laden.

It is lashed by the storms of cares

and sinks in the deep waters of distress.

The love of money gives birth to many evil obsessions

and has rightly been called the “root of all evil.”

(St Theodoros the Ascetic, The Book of Mystical Chapters, p. 58-59)

A Sacrifice of Praise

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  (Hebrews 13:15)

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in the whole world. (Romans 1:8)   When writing to certain people the Apostle says he gives thanks for all of them, as he does now in writing to the Romans. . . .

Thus his first expression in this letter starts with a word of thanksgiving. Now to give thanks to God is to offer a sacrifice of praise; and for that reason he adds, ‘through Jesus Christ,’ as through a great high priest.”

(Origen, Origen Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 1-5 , p. 77)

God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

Bearing the Burden of Being Christian

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

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Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.   (John 5:1-15)

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Jesus said:  And he said to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.   (Luke 9:23)

The Paralytic in John 5 is commanded to rise, take up his bed and walk.  It turns out that his cross, the cross on which he had been crucified, is his own bed to which he had been nailed for 38 years of paralysis.   He picks up that cross so that he can walk with Christ and  follow Christ wherever Christ may go.

5729454201_3fe7828dcf_nToday’s Gospel lesson shows us how “taking up the cross” might be a very different experience than we usually imagine it to be – and it is possible that taking up the Cross is a blessing rather than a burden.  For most of us, there are enough trials and temptations each day of our life to make life difficult, and some would feel almost impossible to accomplish.  Why then would we want to take up the Cross to add to our burdens, sorrows and troubles?

What we learn from today’s Gospel lesson is that there are two kinds of burdens – the ones we should lay down and not carry because we follow God’s blessed Sabbath rest, and the burden we must carry In order to follow Christ – the cross that it is necessary for us to carry to follow Him. The issue is whether we can see what is the cross in my life that I have to take up in order to follow Christ. There are some burdens we must bear as Christians to be faithful to our Lord.

It is also true that in taking up the Cross we can find ourselves liberated from our own heavy burdens – our thoughts and ideas of justice, revenge, repentance, forgiveness, hatred and retribution.  These are the burdens we can lay down in order to hear and obey Christ.

Additionally, If we allow it to, the Cross can carry us through some of life’s trials.  Yet, this thought makes us squirm with discomfort for we are terrified at the thought of being lifted up on the Cross and we prefer an easier way in which there is no pain and no cost to us.

Today’s Gospel reaffirms the truth that God’s commandments are not heavy and difficult burdens.  God liberates us from our wearisome burdens.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place at the sheep pool called Bethesda – a pool of water near one of the gates allowing passage into Jerusalem.  The sheep gate is first mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, written about 450 years before the time of Christ.  Nehemiah records the building of the sheep gate.  He is one of the prophets who advocated that Israel must keep the Sabbath Day holy:

 When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. (Nehemiah 13:19)

10352434244_7eaf34629c_nNehemiah’s prohibition against carrying a burden on the Sabbath day near one of the city gates is the basis of our the Gospel lesson in John 5.   The people in the Gospel account were practicing what Nehemiah commanded the to do when they confront the paralytic for carrying his bed on the Sabbath near the city gate.  They probably thought he was a bed salesman carrying his wares!   The Prophet Jeremiah adds:

Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. ‘But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.   (Jeremiah 17:19-25)

No wonder the people were so upset with this paralytic carrying his bed on the sabbath!

So why would Jesus, the Son of God, tell this paralyzed man to carry his bed on the Sabbath at the very place where God had said through His prophets that it shouldn’t be done?

10238223875_e053b8a548_nThe answer becomes clear when Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to become healthy?”

For Jesus the paralyzed man’s burden is not his bed, but his paralysis.  His burden is also that though he is part of the people of God, he has no one to help him.   His sickness is the burden of His life.  And on that Sabbath Day, Jesus gave the paralyzed man rest from his burden for Jesus freed him of his paralysis.  [see my post The True Sabbath Rest]  When the paralyzed man picked up his bed, he was also finally laying down his burden, his paralysis and was given health.  For his paralysis had also burdened the man with bitterness and doubt, opening his heart to the oppression of Satan.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Yet some of those people in Jerusalem could not see how Jesus freeing the man from carrying his burden, his paralysis, was keeping God’s law.  That is why Jesus said to them:

I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  (Luke 6:9)

And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:3-5)

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Carrying a bed on the Sabbath as is shown in the Gospel might not be a violation of the Sabbath but rather might be a sign that one is entering into the Lord’s rest.  The burden which concerns God might surprise us, as Jeremiah says:

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’    (Jeremiah 23:33)

The people’s mistaken understanding of the Torah made them into a burden, which this paralyzed man also had to bear in addition to the burden of his paralysis.  But the paralytic shows himself to be following God’s command because he listens to the words of Christ and obeys them:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.   (John 5:24)

We have to discern what are the burden we carry from which God will free us?  Our sins, our debts, our guilt, our desire for revenge.

Sometimes, however, we act as if our burdens are prayer, fasting, confession, Sunday worship, reading scripture, forgiving others, apologizing for our sins, giving to charity, seeking forgiveness, being generous.

24878356506_e63d42795a_nWe ask: Do I have to come to church on Sunday?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I need to tithe to the church?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to go to confession?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to forgive those who sin against me?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to fast and pray and practice self-control?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I really have to stop looking at pornography or stop getting drunk or stop my bouts of anger and rage?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask:  Do I have to stop hating people who are worthless and do I need to show mercy and be kind to those I don’t know and don’t like?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

Jesus says to us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we wrongly believe that the way out of our problems, our passions, our sins, is more effort on our part.  If only we have more faith or fast more or pray more, then God would help us.  But the paralyzed man couldn’t save himself, no matter how hard he tried, his problems were insurmountable to him.  He couldn’t get into the pool of water first no matter how much he wanted to.  This man had plenty of faith, after all he had been waiting at the pool for 38 years for someone to help him get into the water and be healed.  He believed God was present there and continued in this hope for 38 years!  Nonetheless, his salvation lay outside himself.  It wasn’t more effort on this part that were needed – he needed Christ, he needed to wait on the Lord, he needed Jesus to be his spiritual partner.

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It is possible, my brothers and sister, that there are people all around us, like this man paralyzed for 38 years and patiently waiting for help – people for whom we can be Christ and reach out to them and help them.  And it is possible that we have been struggling with some burden for many years feeling there is no one to help me, and the solution might be outside of myself – in seeking help from a neighbor or a stranger.  The lessons for us in this Gospel periscope are many, we need to know when we are to be Christ to another and when we need someone else to be Christ for us.  As St Paul said:  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (Galatians 6:2)

The True Sabbath Rest

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.  (John 5:1-15)

Jesus Christ on several occasions heals the sick on the Sabbath Day, which causes the religious leaders of His day to doubt that His power to heal comes from God since He breaks the Sabbath law.  In John 5:1-15, not only does Jesus heal a paralytic, but He commands the healed man to carry his bed and it is the Sabbath Day.  In these actions, Jesus is challenging the religious authority’s understanding of the Torah and accusing them of being hard-hearted while suggesting that keeping the Torah should lead to loving both God and neighbor.  From the 4th Century we have comments of a Syrian monk who explains in a sermon the true nature of Torah:

In the shadow of the Law given to Moses, God decreed that everyone should rest on the sabbath and do nothing. This was a figure and a shadow of the true Sabbath given to the soul by the Lord. For the soul that has been deemed worthy to have been set free from shameful and sordid thoughts both observes the true Sabbath and enjoys true rest, being at leisure and freed from the works of darkness. There, in the typical Sabbath, even though they rested physically, their souls were enslaved to evils and wickednesses. However, this, the true Sabbath, is genuine rest, since the soul is at leisure and is purified from the temptations of Satan and rests in the eternal rest and joy of the Lord.

Just as then God decreed that also the irrational animals should rest on the Sabbath – that the ox should not be forced under the yoke of necessity, that they should not burden the ass (for even the animals themselves were to rest from their heavy works) – so, when the Lord came and gave the true and eternal Sabbath, he gave rest to the soul of heavily burdened and loaded down with burdens of iniquity, of unclean thoughts, and laboring under restraint in doing works of injustice as though it were under slaver to bitter masters. And he lightened the soul from its burdens, so difficult to bear, of vain and obscene thoughts. And he took away the yoke, so bitter, of the works of injustice, and gave rest to the soul that had been worn out by the temptations of impurity.

For the Lord calls man to his rest, saying, “Come, all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). And as many persons as obey and draw near, he refreshes them from all these heavy and burdensome and unclean thoughts. And they are at leisure from every iniquity, observing the true, pleasing, holy Sabbath. And they celebrate a feast of the Spirit, of joy and ineffable exultation. They celebrate a pure service, pleasing to God from a pure heart. This is the true and holy Sabbath. Let us, therefore, entreat God that we may enter into this rest (Heb 4:11) and that we may be freed from shameful and evil and vain thoughts sot that thus we may be able to serve God out of a pure heart and celebrate the feast of the Holy Spirit. Blessed is he who enters into that rest. Glory to the Father, who is so well pleased, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen. (Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, pp. 204-205)

The true burden the paralytic of John 5 carried for 38 years was his illness and the fact that he had no one to help him.  His paralysis laid upon his heart a burden of bitterness which allowed Satan to torment him, bringing him to doubt and despair. Christ gave him rest from his burden.  Commanding him to carry his bed was proof that his burden had been lifted.  Now on that Sabbath, carrying his bed was not carrying a burden but  was proof that he had entered into the Lord’s rest.  Now the man no longer was burdened by Satan with bitterness, doubt and despair.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

The Incarnation and the Resurrection

Through His Resurrection, Christ put an end to death, changing it into a necessary passage to immortality. Seen in this perspective, death frees us from the demands and conditions of the fall. Death, the fruit of corruption and “corruptibility,” allows us to move beyond time, which in turn abolishes the corruptibility of death. There is one condition, however: that this movement be an entrance into the Kingdom already present in this world. This is what allows Death to open onto eternity.

According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

This is why God cast [Adam] out of Paradise and sent him far from the tree of life; not because He kept this tree of life form him out of jealousy, as some have dared to maintain, but He acted out of compassion, so that man might not remain in sin forever, so that the sin which weighed him down might not be immortal, so that evil might not be without end and thus without remedy. He kept him from his transgression, therefore, by introducing death…giving him an end through the dissolution of the flesh which would take place in the earth so that man, having “died to sin” [Rom 6:2], might be “alive to God” (Adv. Haer., III, 23, 6).

Through His Incarnation, the Logos of creation penetrated matter, His own work. The Infinite became incarnate and subject to space; the Eternal entered time. By coming into the world Christ transformed time and space, effecting a revolution with profound consequences. As God-Man He did not merely assume the corporeal limitations of our condition, He surpassed them. Destined to die by virtue of His Incarnation, whereby He entered into time and space, the crucified Christ bears the suffering and death of every person throughout time and space. Through His Ascension and Resurrection, He leads us beyond the cycle of time, to the never-setting sun.”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p. 210)