Monday, May 23, 2022

The Healing of Our Incapacity for Self-Improvement


May 22, 2022 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:50.

When Jesus was learning how to be a rabbi, it’s clear that he didn’t pay attention during CPE. CPE is an abbreviation for clinical pastoral education, the grueling but enlightening program that is designed to teach would-be ministers how to provide spiritual care to others. For me, it was ten weeks of full-time hospital chaplaincy work with a bunch of reflective practice and group discussion thrown in. But, as much as anything else I did in seminary, CPE taught me how to be a pastor because it taught me how much I didn’t know. It taught me that, no matter what I thought I knew about the patient in front of me, they were always better at telling me what they needed than I was at assuming. One of the most important lessons you are supposed to learn is how to let a patient be in charge of their own healing—a lesson that Jesus clearly ignores.

“When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” And the man never said yes. Instead, he recited for Jesus all of the reasons that he could not be healed: “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.” Literally, by the time the man who could not walk had crawled down to the water’s edge, dragging his lifeless legs behind him, the miraculous bubbling of the water, which was known to be a source of physical healing, had been claimed by someone else—someone who could get there more quickly. And so the man was stuck.

At that point, the textbooks say that Jesus should have said something like, “That sounds really difficult. What do you think you’ll do about that?” Or Jesus could have just stared back at him, offering a well-rehearsed look of pastoral concern, silently waiting for the man to ask him for help. But Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t wait. “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus said, working within that paralyzed man the miraculous healing that somehow Jesus knew he sought even before the man found the voice to say it. 

Thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight long years, the man had waited and hoped for a healing that was always beyond his reach. We don’t imagine that he stayed by the pool all of that time. Surely he had a doorway or a lean-to where he could drag his beggar’s pallet when the weather was bad, but he always came back to the place where healing felt close by even if it was still too far away. If only the man could recognize the one who was standing before him—the one who had asked whether he wanted to be healed. If only he could see beyond his own predicament and realize that Jesus wasn’t looking for a justification for his thirty-eight-year incapacity but offering a way out—offering him the healing that had eluded him for so long. When Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, why didn’t the man just say yes?

Maybe he did recognize Jesus. Maybe he had heard stories about this miracle worker. Maybe he had learned from others that this rabbi had the power to grant a healing that even the magic waters could not give. Maybe, in that split second after Jesus asked him whether he wanted to be healed, the man sized up the situation and decided that the rabbi was more likely to grant his request if he laid out his pitiful story, tugging at Jesus’ heartstrings.

Or maybe the man had been lying there so long that he had forgotten how to hope for healing. Maybe thirty-eight years of watching other people get to the water first had inscribed into his imagination a pattern of failure that seemed unbreakable. Maybe the man did not ask Jesus for healing because he couldn’t—because he couldn’t see it, because he couldn’t dream it, because he couldn’t even hope for it.

What happens to us when even our desire for healing, wholeness, and restoration is so worn out that it cannot stand up on its own? What happens when the thing within us that is the sickest is one the thing we need most in order to get better? It’s like telling someone with depression that they need to try harder or saying to an addict that, if they only made better choices, their life would improve. What good is that? Like the man beside the pool, sometimes we need more than physical healing in order to get better. Sometimes we need someone to restore the brokenness in our spirit before we can start down the path that leads to true healing. Sometimes we need someone else to love us because we’ve forgotten what it means to be lovable.

We believe in a God who loves us even before we love God back. We belong to a God who claims us even before we recognize the one who calls us God’s own. But, somewhere along the way, Christianity became a religion that looks just like every other self-motivated pursuit in the world. That’s because human beings are far more comfortable with a god who gives us what we deserve than a God who loves, saves, and redeems those who don’t deserve it. We’d rather believe that good people go to heaven because they’re good than admit that bad people go to heaven because God loves them anyway, but at least we can find comfort in restricting access to the pearly gates to only those sinners who demonstrate adequate repentance. We might not expect the man to crawl to the water under his own power, but he had better want to be healed bad enough to ask for it—to even beg for it. But what good is a God who only accepts those who think, say, or do the right things or wish they could when we’re the ones stuck on a tattered cardboard pallet, unable even to accept the offer of help that is standing right in front of us?

Jesus died and was raised not in order that reasonably good and good-intentioned people might get something better but so that totally broken, sin-sick human beings like you and me could have even our incapacity for self-improvement transformed and redeemed. We do not believe that people go to heaven because they live a good life or because they sufficiently turn away from the bad. Instead, we believe that we go to heaven because God loves us and heals us and saves us regardless of the choices we make and the life we live. I can think of nothing more hopeless than being responsible for my own salvation—than lying by the side of a pool for a lifetime with the healing I need always out of reach. We need a healing that we cannot achieve on our own, and thanks be to God that, in Jesus Christ, God gives it to us.

I don’t know what went through the mind of that paralytic when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, but I do know that Jesus didn’t wait for the man to do his part before he healed him. God is not waiting for us to do our part. That’s the good news. That’s grace. That’s unconditional love. The healing that God offers us in Jesus Christ starts not when we meet God halfway but when we realize that we don’t even know how to stand up on our own—that without God’s help we can’t even imagine how things could be any different. That’s where God meets us, turning what is as good as dead into a new and flourishing life. Into our deepest incapacity and even into the paralysis of our own volition, God reaches out and offers healing. When we believe that, we, too, can stand up and walk.

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