(Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-18)
The Gospel According to John reading today presents us with an unusual healing story. Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. During his time in Jerusalem, he passes by the Sheep Gate, where there is a pool, called Beth-zatha, that has five porticoes, which are areas covered by roofs. In these porticoes lay many invalids who are waiting for the opportunity to enter the pool when the water is stirred up so that they can be healed. One of the invalids is a man who had been ill for 38 years. Jesus sees this man and knows he has been ill for a long time, so he asks him, “Do you want to be made well” (5:6) The man doesn’t say yes or no; instead, he describes his experience at the pool, saying, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (7). Jesus tells the man to take up his mat and walk, which the man does, proving that he has been healed by Jesus. The man never thanks Jesus for the healing, however. Instead, when confronted by the religious authorities because he is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, which is supposed to be a day of rest, the man blames Jesus, saying, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’” (11). In fact, later, when he discovers who it was who healed him, he returns to the religious authorities and tells them it was Jesus who healed on the Sabbath and told him to pick up his mat and walk, so the religious authorities then begin persecuting Jesus. Jesus defends himself by stating, “My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working,” which makes the religious authorities want to kill him all the more (17)! “[N]ot only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (18)!
Let’s pause here and note what is unusual about this healing. First, the man is not seeking healing from Jesus. Jesus approaches him rather than the man approaching Jesus. Second, the man does not express any faith in Jesus’ power to heal him. He doesn’t even say he would like to be healed when Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well. Usually, people come to Jesus to ask to be healed by him, and they express their faith in his power to heal. In fact, Jesus usually states after healings have occurred, “Your faith has made you well.” But that is not the case in this instance. Third, the man does not thank Jesus for the healing. Fourth, he blames Jesus for making him carry his mat on the Sabbath. And fifth, he later reports Jesus to the authorities when he figures out it was Jesus who healed him. When he finds out it was Jesus who healed him, he could have just let it go, but instead he seeks out the authorities and tells them, thereby increasing their persecution of Jesus.
This is truly an unusual healing story, one that has an important lesson for us about the wideness of God’s grace and mercy. Last week, we learned that God was and is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ regarding who belongs to the Christian community. Through the Holy Spirit, God led the first Christians, who were Jewish, to the understanding that Gentiles can become Christian without fulfilling the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant, especially circumcision. As shocking as it is, God through the Holy Spirit revealed that those thought not to belong to the Christian community actually do belong. This week, this unusual healing story reveals that God’s grace and mercy extend beyond the Christian community into the whole world. Someone who doesn’t seek Jesus out, who doesn’t have faith, who doesn’t express gratitude, who blames Jesus for breaking the Sabbath, and who even reports Jesus to the authorities receives healing. The invalid man lying beside the Beth-zatha pool receives unmerited grace and mercy from God.
This unusual healing story challenges us because it challenges our assumptions about who deserves and receives God’s grace and mercy. Humans tend to think in “if, then” terms. If I am a faithful Christian, then I will deserve and receive God’s grace and mercy. Or, if so-and-so is a faithful Christian, then so-and-so will deserve and receive God’s grace and mercy. But we don’t worship an “if, then” God. God doesn’t do “if, then” deals. “If, then” deals belong to Satan. Remember what Satan said to Eve in the Garden of Eden? In essence, he said, “If you eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, then you will be like God” (Gn 3:4-5). And remember what he said to Jesus in the wilderness? “If you are the son of God, then you can turn these stones into bread” (Mt 4:3). “If you are the Son of God, then you can throw yourself down and God will protect you” (6). “If you will bow down and worship me, then I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor (9). “If, then deals belong to Satan, but not to God. God is Love, and that love is expressed in grace and mercy, not “if, then” deals.
It’s a novel concept, the concept of grace, which is the “free and unmerited favor of God.” Frederick Buechner defined God’s grace this way: “There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” Huh? But, don’t I have to . . . No. Are you sure I don’t have to . . . No. But, I keep feeling like I have to . . . No. But, doesn’t so-and-so have to . . . No. Are you sure so-and-so doesn’t have to . . . No. But, I keep feeling like so-and-so has to . . . No. There’s nothing you or anyone else must do. Except, that is, receive the grace being given. Just receive. That’s all you or anyone else must do. Take the gift, unwrap it, and enjoy it.
What this means, of course, is that we can’t define who deserves God’s grace and mercy, and we can’t limit who receives them. God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son (Jn 3:16). From the beginning, God created the world out of overflowing love. From the beginning, God’s love has been inconceivably vast in scope. We humans cannot even conceive of the vastness of God’s love. And so, we keep being tempted to define who deserves God’s grace and mercy, and we keep trying to limit who receives them. But today’s unusual healing story from the Gospel According to John shows us that God loves the whole world and everyone in it despite our tendency to define and limit that love.
Today’s unusual healing story reminds us that we are not God and that we cannot know God completely – at least, we cannot know God completely on this side of the grave. This awareness brings to mind two types of theology: cataphatic and apophatic. Cataphatic theology attempts to define who God is, while apophatic theology attempts to define who God is not. Really, we need both kinds of theology. We need to know some things about God (cataphatic), and we also need to realize that we cannot know all things about God (apophatic). For example, we cannot know who deserves God’s grace and mercy, and we cannot know who will receive it. As Paul states, we “see through a glass darkly” on this side of the grave (1 Cor. 13:12).
Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher who founded the Center for Contemplation and Action, which produces a daily reflection that can be found on its website or emailed to those who request it. Recently, Rohr wrote about how cataphatic ways of knowing God can lead to arrogance and judgement and thus apophatic ways of knowing God are necessary to restore humility and honesty. He wrote,
“I want to point out that there are two different kinds of certitude: mouthy and mystical. Just for the sake of alliteration and cleverness, I call the first one ‘mouthy certitude.’ Mouthy certitude is filled with bravado; overstatement; quick, dogmatic conclusions; and a rush to judgment. People like this are always trying to convince others. They need to get us on their side and tend to talk a lot in the process. Underneath the ‘mouthiness’ is a lot of anxiety about being right. Mouthy certitude, I think, often gives itself away, frankly, by being rude and even unkind because it’s so convinced it has the whole truth.
We have to balance mouthy certitude with ‘mystical certitude.’ Mystical certitude is utterly authoritative, but it’s humble. It isn’t unkind. It doesn’t need to push its agenda. It doesn’t need to compel anyone to join a club, a political party, or even a religion. It’s a calm, collected presence, which Jesus seems to possess entirely. As Jesuit Greg Boyle writes, ‘There is no place in the gospel where Jesus is defensive. In fact, he says, “Do not worry what your defense will be” [Luke 12:11]. Jesus had no interest in winning the argument, only in making the argument.’  . . .
The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest. This is traditional Christian doctrine. . . . Without those two qualities—humility and honesty—we just don’t grow.
We must be humble about the limits of our knowledge regarding God and God’s grace and mercy, and we must be honest in admitting our limitations, to ourselves and others. Who are we to define and limit God?
In the scripture passages today, we can see God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 coming true: “[A]ll peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” In the Acts of the Apostles reading, Paul takes the gospel beyond Judea and Samaria into Macedonia, fulfilling Jesus’ request that it be proclaimed to all the nations. In Psalm 67, all nations and people praise God and experience God’s blessings. In the gospel reading, Jesus extends grace and mercy to a man who hasn’t asked for it and appears not to deserve it. And the reading from Revelation presents God’s vision of a holy city whose gates will never be shut and in which nations will walk by its light. In this city is the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1). “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (2). God so loves the world that his vision for it is this place in which all are safe, fed, and healed as they live in the light of God and the Lamb.
Who are we to define and limit God? We are arrogant and judgmental fools if we do so. Let us not do so, then; instead, let us praise and thank God for grace, his “free and unmerited favor” that is available to everyone, and let us pray that everyone receives the gift, unwraps it, and enjoys it, for God so loves the world and all of its people. Amen.
Sermon by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 22, 2022, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.
*Image by WikiImages from Pixabay
 Google dictionary.
 Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 38.