01 May 2016, Sixth Sunday of Easter
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 16. 9-15 John 5. 1-9
Last Boxing Day I was roused early from my post-Christmas Day reverie by an urgent voice from downstairs. It was Anne telling me that the cellar was flooding. One look outside told me why this might be: the River Wharfe was lapping over the bridge by the stepping stones as the rain continued to pour down. We had reached peak water table and the inundation of our cellar was the result. But there was no lasting damage, and of course our difficulties were as nothing compared with those experienced by so many elsewhere in the country in the days after Christmas.
A couple of weeks later I received an email from a colleague asking me for an independent opinion on the proposed design for the new diocesan banner for the Mothers’ Union. I was pleased to respond, but before commenting I did a little research on what the Mothers’ Union was up to, both in this country and worldwide. If you visit the Mothers’ Union international website you will discover much about the astonishing range of initiatives in which this worldwide organisation is involved: community and development work, literacy, parenting, relief work – nothing, it seems, is beyond the ambit of the Mothers’ Union. And underpinning all these initiatives is faith. This is what the website had to say: ‘(our) faith runs like a river through the organisation’s strategy and like water it always finds its own shape.’ As I read this, and remembered the River Wharfe taking on a distinctly Rectory cellar-type shape on Boxing Day, I immediately warmed to the power of the image.
Another more distant memory was stirred as a result of my research. The imaginative programmes of Christian education the Mothers’ Union undertakes, especially in Africa, were in sharp contrast with my own experience of preparation for Confirmation: a series of rather desiccated sessions on the Prayer Book Catechism. It was not quite the culture of thirteen year olds, even as far back as 1973. I have only two memories of these sessions. One is that I briefly enjoyed the favour of my parish priest when I proved to be the only person in the class who knew the date of the feast day of St. Barnabas, the patron saint of the church I grew up in. The other memory is of being struck quite forcibly by the definition of a sacrament that is given in the catechism: ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself’. As I was reflecting on this morning’s Gospel, the description of Jesus’ healing of the man at the Pool of Bethzatha, that definition of a sacrament came to mind.
St. John’s account of Jesus’ ministry is punctuated by seven significant events, often loosely described as miracles. The first is the turning of water into wine at Cana, the last the raising of Lazarus. In between, though not in this order, there are three stories of healing, including the one we heard today, the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. I said that these events are loosely described as miracles, because the word John uses most often in connection with them is the word ‘sign’. John’s extensive use of this word is highly significant. He uses a word – the Greek is semaion – which would have been familiar to a group of people very different from the early Christians. It was a word used by philosophers to indicate something which could be seen, from which something unseen could be inferred. Think of the branches of a tree moving around, from which the presence of wind can be inferred, though the wind itself can’t be seen. So by describing these seven significant events as ‘signs’, John wants to draw us into an understanding of the deeper significance of what he is describing; he wants us to move on from his physical description of momentous events to a discernment of the spiritual truths that underlie those events. Perhaps you see now where that definition of sacrament comes in: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. We might want to think of the signs in St. John’s Gospel as sacraments.
So what is the underlying spiritual truth of the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethzatha? Well, like the Mothers’ Union description of faith being like a river running through the organisations’ strategy, and indeed like the Rectory cellar on Boxing Day, there’s something to do with water in John’s story – and it’s not the first time that John’s used water in his Gospel. In chapter 2, Jesus changes water into wine at Cana. Water intended for the purification rituals belonging to the old covenant is now wine, signifying a new covenant between God and humanity which Jesus would seal by means of his blood shed on the cross. In John chapter 4, Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well and speaks of how he can give spiritual water to those who believe in him, water that will become an everlasting spring and which will give eternal life. And now water is introduced once again, as a medium of healing. Yet Jesus shows, by his actions, that water’s healing properties have been superseded by his word and his authority. So in each case – the miracle at Cana, the encounter with the woman at the well and the healing of the paralysed man – water is used, or perhaps we should say in this morning’s story not used, as a means to an end, the end being to emphasise the role of Jesus as reconciler, life-giver and healer.
I want to mention one other thing as well, though it’s true significance becomes apparent only after the passage we heard this morning has ended. The healing at the pool takes place on the Sabbath. After the healing, the authorities are alerted to what has happened because the man who has been healed is carrying his mat, as Jesus told him to. The trouble is, carrying a mat on the Sabbath was not allowed because it counted as work. The authorities then track Jesus down, but his response is straightforward: ‘My Father is always working, and I too must work.’ Here is the heart of the matter: Jesus has identified himself wholly with God, whose activity is unceasing, even on the Sabbath. It is this claim which so outrages the authorities. Yet it is also this claim which, as Christians, we are called to affirm and, in our turn, to proclaim to the world: that Jesus is Lord, that he has reconciled us to God on the cross and that he is the source of life and healing for all.