In the previous blog, We Are Commanded: Sin No More!, I commented on the Gospel lesson of the healing of the paralytic from John 5:1-15.
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, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.
The Gospel lesson begins with Jesus entering into Jerusalem, God’s holy city. What he finds there is a multitude of sick, infirm and invalids of all kinds, littering the porches around a pool of water, near the Sheep Gate of the city. The Good Shepherd sees the suffering of His sheep. It is the world of the Fall in which chaos threatens the lives of God’s chosen creatures.
Humans, I think, are far more comfortable with order, reason and justice than living in a world of chaos, unpredictability and meaninglessness. For example, we find disease which occurs for an understandable reason to be more acceptable – his lung cancer is the result of smoking cigarettes heavily for years. It helps us make sense of the world, and gives us some assurance that the world is somewhat predictable and not unrestrained random acts. The driver in the fatal crash was drunk. It gives us a sense of predictability or that things don’t just randomly happen.
In some ways in such thinking we are also making a judgment – his disease is the result of his own behavior. We feel a bit protected from such a fate if we ourselves don’t smoke. If the world were always so reasonable, we would be more at ease even with illness. The troubling aspect of the world is that things don’t always happen for an understandable reason. Illness strikes all kinds of people. Not everyone gets their just deserts. Good and bad, rich and poor, young and old, all fall victim to various sorrows, illness and death. Not all suffering can be explained let alone justified. Sometimes the innocent get hurt.
We find disease that strikes randomly to be terrifying. There is no explanation for it, there is no protection from it. Epidemics and pandemics terrify us and easily cause public panic.
In the Gospel lesson of John 5:1-15, one man suffers from his disease for 38 years. Thirty-eight years with no hope of cure. How can one understand such a long sentence of condemnation? His health is not dependent on any longer on his behavior and choices. The disease is with him always no matter what he does. Death almost seems merciful. The hymns of our church mention he is as good as dead; his bed is his living grave.
Christ appears on the scene and reveals to this one man that He has power and authority even over the chaos which threatens creation with destruction. He can relieve the man’s sickness and suffering.
It is why the Gospel lesson speaks to us – we need relief from the suffering of the world, from randomness, from the threat of overwhelming chaos and destruction. We hope for a world of meaning and purpose.
This man’s sickness leads him to an encounter with God. Had he not been paralyzed for all those years, had he not been lying with the crowd of maimed, distorted invalids, he too would never have encountered Christ in a meaningful way.
But it is his illness that leads the man to heed Christ’s words. His endless and meaningless suffering is revealed as the very reason for his encounter with Christ.
Any of us who suffer can find out way to God through the suffering. We put our hope on Him alone. We find ourselves in the presence of Christ, in need of His mercies, blessed with His kingdom, comforted by His words.
Most often, and both naturally and wisely, we wish to avoid sickness and suffering. But if we find ourselves in the midst of mass human suffering or alone with our own suffering, we can take heart that in that condition Christ can still find us. In that condition, and perhaps even because of that condition, we find our way to Christ, and He to us. No illness is without that hope, though none of us would wish for the suffering.
Our moment of despair is captured best in the verse from Psalm 51:17 –
The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you wilt not despise.