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Sermon – Made Well – May 5, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013                                The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Made Well

Acts 16:  9-15;  Revelation 21:  10, 22 – 22:  5;  John  5: 1-9

It’s a bit after six p.m. in Jerusalem right now, the city being that many hours ahead of us as the globe wheels into the sun.  Most large cities in the world have a cosmopolitan aspect.  International trade and cultural exchange creates colonies of foreigners in urban centers, and the demand for workers–including many low-paid jobs–brings people in from all over seeking to make a living.  Those things are true in Jerusalem.  What makes that particular city cosmopolitan in an additional way is the fact that it historically is connected with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Being what are known as “historical religions”–religions which derive their faith from events and individuals associated with specific places and times–they all encourage pilgrimage, and that casual cousin of pilgrimage, tourism.

The tension between the state of Israel and its neighbors, and between Islamicist activism and the West, also distinguishes Jerusalem.  The several populations of varying religions are overseen with careful security.  The religious significance of the place brings in so many people–students and scholars as well as pilgrims and tourists, guides and vendors–and has so much to do with the economy, that the state relies on preserving a working peace.  So what you end up with on any given day is a polyglot population, some of it fixed, some local but from outside the city, some transitory, with mingled religious and political loyalties.

The political and religious facts about Jerusalem make us think about the place in two main ways.  We think of it connected with God, with Bible stories, and with existing traces of the past which formed our convictions and culture.  We also think of it as a tinderbox, a place with such constant and irresolvable currents of conflict that we aren’t sure there will ever be peace there.  In fact, some of us think of it in association with the end of the world, not in spiritual terms–like the image from the Book of Revelation of a new heaven and new earth succeeding those concluded by God in the end-time, and a new Jerusalem descending from heaven– but people connect Jerusalem and Israel and the end of the world in actual terms, thanks to the Biblical tradition of Armageddon.  We were at a supper years ago in a local country church hall and the entertainment for the event was a man showing slides of his trip to the Holy Land.  There were lots of views out a bus window, and one taken from a great height showed the plain believed to be the Biblical Armageddon–he showed the slide and in the same, flat voice with which he’d identified every other scene he said, “that’s where the world will end right there.”

This morning’s scriptures are about conclusions, too; about endings.  The gospel of John and the Book of Revelation both describe events–John’s an image of Jesus’ earthly ministry and Revelation’s a vision of Christ’s triumphant mastery of the cosmos–which have to do with God’s initiating a final age for creation, inaugurated by the arrival of Jesus.  It both begins with Jesus and in some mystical sense already is achieved with Jesus, at least in the gospel of John.  The passage from the Book of Acts is one tale among many of the early work of Christian believers determinedly crossing the world to announce the new reality to those who haven’t yet heard.

See, everything is new.  Everything is changed.  Human destiny is not what it was.  Human life is not what it was.  What Christ has achieved at Easter puts all of experience in a new light.

What is important in today’s scriptures is that new reality is for everyone.  God has gone beyond the boundaries of the Chosen People.  God has remade the world and has reached out to the world to try and persuade it that it has been remade, that all the old jealousies and rivalries and anxieties are superseded by the gracious gift of Christ.  Everyone now has the capacity, the opportunity, to live as a child of God.

Jerusalem today may look as though it never got the message.  The world everywhere may look, and may live, as though it never got the message.  What did the dreams that came to people like Paul accomplish?  Where is the new world?

We’re it.  We’re the descendants of that Lydia and her household who heard the word about Jesus Christ and who began to live, not just in this time-and-place, but in a larger world, a world in  which God’s love is for everyone, God’s will is for everything, and beyond the boundaries of sense and time there is a home in heaven for us and for all we love.  That vision gave birth to schools and hospitals and eventually improved all kinds of treatment for all kinds of people– it changed the way the world worked, made it less hostage to presumption and violence, more open to progress– but there isn’t time to detail the difference that Christianity has made, even in this world which hasn’t ever embraced it the way the gospel wants us to.

The message hasn’t changed.  Jesus Christ, the beginning of John’s gospel tells us, came into the world as the Word of God made flesh, a cosmic redeemer, a big-picture savior on behalf of God’s will, and God’s will is, according to the opening of that gospel, that everyone who believes in him has power to become a child of God.  That’s living large: Not just this son or that daughter of those people, destined by circumstance to grow up speaking this or that language, offered such-and-such opportunities– but a child of God, a self-conscious son or daughter of the power that brings into being the universe, a being endowed with wonderful gifts and destined for eternity.

We know John’s gospel is about God’s plan for the world growing beyond Judaism and the Holy Land.  It begins by telling us that Christ came to his own people but they received him not, which is an overstatement, since all the first disciples were Jews, but the overstatement is there because John’s gospel is a product of bad blood between the nascent Christian church and a rebuilding Torah-centered Judaism.  John’s gospel is anti-Semitic.  That’s terrible because as scripture it has given a certain acceptability to anti-Semitism, and that’s why I’m pointing this out.  It’s anti-Semitic–we can understand that, given the dynamics of its origins, but we don’t have to be anti-Semitic.  The message within the gospel is wider, and the vision for the world more inclusive, than the community that wrote the gospel managed to perceive.

But the gospel begins with mentioning that his own people didn’t accept him, and comes to a kind of climax when, toward the end, one of his disciples tells him that some Greeks are there asking to meet him.  He greets that news by responding “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  The whole Passion Week drama, which in John’s gospel is the triumph of Christ over everything–begins with the arrival of non-Jewish would-be witnesses.

That’s how little Jewish John’s gospel is.  This morning’s scripture fits right in.  It’s not apparent at first– we have to learn a bit about this pool of Beth-zatha to see why.  The pool itself is an artifact of that period when the Greek successors of Alexander the Great ruled over Jerusalem.  They dug this little public dipping spot and built columns around it and put a roof over it outside the city walls and dedicated it to the cult of the god of healing of the Greeks, Asclepius.  Later, the city expanded, and the pool ended up inside.  When Rome was in charge, which is the case at the time of Jesus’ visit, the pool became associated with the Roman goddess of luck.

See, first-century Jerusalem was cosmopolitan.  That gets obscured for us because we know about first-century Judaism from scripture, and to some extent from learning about movements favoring a restoration of Jewish purity apart from the ministry of Jesus, such as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The New Testament faith is as invested in insisting on the continuity between Jesus and Jewish expectations as it is in anything else, and there is considerably more feeling about his fellow Jews’ reaction to him than to anyone else’s, so even though all kinds of non Jewish foreigners make their appearance in the gospel, we tend to think of them as special cases.  The truth is that first-century Jerusalem, like all big cities, was cosmopolitan in many ways.  Outsiders were restricted from involvement in the cult, but the city was full of outsiders, and the culture of the city was–much to the dismay of movements which eventually coalesced into armed rebellion–open to accommodating many points of view.  A pool once dedicated to Asclepius and then to Fortuna could also be a place for miraculous cures for Jews.  If there were healings, surely it had something to do with God.

Jesus compounds the scandal of associating himself with this worldly scene by arriving on the sabbath and performing a healing.  In the synoptic gospels the man whom Jesus heals early in his ministry and tells to walk is at the synagogue–John’s treatment of the tradition has him in a setting which anticipates the wider world’s being brought to Christ, fitting the theme of John’s gospel.  What we must remember from these scriptures is that God’s healing is for the world, not just for those who inherit the culture and religious practices traditional to it.  God’s will is for the world, and those who witness Easter must be, like Paul, open to the dream of helping the gospel make the world a new place.


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