David A. Davis
May 1, 2016
“Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” It’s a phrase, an affirmation, a sort of theological branding that runs deep in the Reformed Tradition of the Presbyterian Church. “Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” As our denomination’s constitution puts it, and has put it for a very long, long time, “the Presbyterian Church (USA) upholds the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation. The focus of these affirmations is God’s grace in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scriptures. The Protestant watchwords — grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone — embody principles of understanding that continue to guide and motivate the people of God in the life of faith.” (F-2.04) “Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” Not works, not the tradition, not even the church. “Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” It ought to be right on the tip of the tongue. Sort of like “Walgreens: at the corner of happy and healthy,” or “Princeton University: in the nations service and the service to all nations” or “Nassau Church: on the edge of campus in the heart of town proclaiming the love of God.” “Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.” It sort of sums it up, right? It sums it pretty well… until it doesn’t. Because sometimes, it all stops at “grace alone.” Sometimes it’s nothing but grace.
In Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there was a pool. The pool was surrounded by five porticoes. These porticoes around the pool, they were filled with the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. One man there among that crowd of human need, he had been suffering for 38 years. 38 years. Jesus saw him lying there. Jesus knew he had been there a long time; he had been there near the pool for a long time, he had been in that condition a long time. A long time and Jesus knew. “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the sick many lying on the ground. “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 in front of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Just like that the man was made well. He took up that mat and he began to walk.
After 38 years — 38 years — the man was now walking along with his mat under his arm. It was a Sabbath day. So the religious leaders confronted the newly well man about doing work, about carrying his mat. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They wanted to know who that man was but the walking man didn’t know. It seems Jesus just sort of disappeared into the crowd. Sometime later in the temple Jesus came upon the man again. “See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” The man went away and announced to those who wanted to know that it was Jesus who made him well.
Thirty-eight years. And Jesus tells him to keep out of trouble so nothing worse happens. Scholars try to make that provocative statement from Jesus a bit more palatable by suggesting that sin in John’s Gospel comes down to unbelief. So the last line from Jesus is less about blaming his 38-year ailment on sin and more about exhorting him to believe and know in his heart where his newfound wellness came from, where wellness comes from, where wellness will come from. Maybe that part from Jesus is much more ordinary, much simpler: “Look, I just made you well after 38 years. You don’t want go and mess this up. Okay?!”
It is so easy for the reader, for the interpreter, for the preacher, for you and me, to come to conclusions about the man. Just a quick check on things written about John 5 and the negative assumptions about him pile up pretty quickly. He was lazy. He didn’t try hard enough. He didn’t want to be made well. He blamed others. He didn’t even care enough to learn Jesus’ name. He wasn’t grateful enough. He threw Jesus under the bus for his Sabbath carrying. He ratted Jesus out and set the persecution in motion. One preacher didn’t hold back: “He’s a real bum, that’s who he is! He had no gratitude, no faith, no humility, no guts.” Ouch! Calm down, preacher! It was 38 years. Thirty-eight years the man was not well. Those religious leaders judged him for picking up his mat on the Sabbath and the rest of us just keep judging him for not saying thank you. Thirty-eight years! Instead of saying, “Hey, look at you, you’re walking!” they said, “Hey, why are carrying your mat?” You’d think you could get a little more of a pass after 38 years. Instead, us able-bodied, healthy, pew-sitting, mostly grateful, comfortable Christians expect him to be more respectful.
It’s a theological example of “respectability politics.” The term refers to the notion that an underprivileged class, or a minority group, or disenfranchised people, or an oppressed population will make better progress if they express their concerns or protest or act out in a manner respectful to the standards of those who have the power and the privilege and the majority. In the current issue of The Christian Century a letter to the editor in response to several thoughtful pieces on the Black Lives Matter movement is a perfect example. In questioning the tactics and methods of their protests, the letter writer asks, “Was the whole point to annoy allies in the white community?” In other words, couldn’t they all be more respectful. “Respectability politics.” Respectability miracles. That man now walking — where’s the gratitude, where’s the faith!
When you psychologize the man and superimpose an attitude on him, in him, when the focus becomes how that man disappoints any expectations about how healing, miracles, and transformation are supposed to happen, it’s far too easy to miss the disturbing scene unfolding there under those porticoes. Maybe it’s a hot spring of medicinal value or it’s some kind of a spiritualized ritual that rewards the first one in the pool when the water stirs. Regardless, something about it is not working. Judging from the numbers and from at least one man’s wait time, it’s not working. You just can’t gloss over the lack of compassion and assistance that the the able-bodied might offer to those trying to get to the pool. Or there is that ageless practice of gathering the blind and the lame in a dehumanizing way. That portico practice was some kind of systemized round-up of the broken. If you set aside your disappointment with the man made well for just a second, that scene by the pool is as unsettling. The NRSV labels the people strewn around as “many invalids.” But the King James says it was a “great multitude.” A great multitude! Like the great multitudes of crowds who gathered for the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Or the great multitude from Galilee that followed Jesus in Mark. Or that great multitude in the Revelation to John, a great multitude that no one could number from every nation. It was a mass of human suffering there by the pool. It was an institutionalized gathering of human suffering there by the pool.
There is no indictment here of that man who was sick for 38 years. The Lord’s indictment is of humanity’s chronic inability to care for the least of these. Jesus didn’t carry him down to the water and wait for the waters to stir. Jesus told him to stand up and walk. The healing bucks the system. The healing flies in the face of Sabbath law and healing pools and that guttural human yearning to avoid the sick and the aging and the disabled and the dying and the broken. Yes, one man was transformed that day but the gospel of Jesus Christ sheds light on the bigger human predicament as well.
Around here at Nassau Church, you can’t hear 38 years, you can’t think 38 years without thinking of David Bryant. In the spring of 2013, through the work of Centurion Ministries, David was released after spending 38 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commitment. After about a year here with us in Princeton, living in the Robeson House at Witherspoon Street Church and working at Princeton Seminary, a judge reversed the decision to release David and he now sits back in prison in upstate New York. A few church folks have made the Saturday drive up to visit David. Thirty-eight, now 39, 40, 41. The gospel of Jesus Christ ought to shed light on the bigger predicament of broken systems and broken institutions and humanity’s chronic inability to care for the least of these. The next time someone suggests that maybe my preaching is too political, I’m going to tell them about David Bryant and the man healed after 38 years. I’m going to tell them about Jesus, David Bryant, and the man who stood up to walk after 38 years.
In the healing story just at the end of Chapter 4, a royal official comes to Jesus and begs him to come and heal his son who was dying. John records that the royal official believed the word Jesus spoke to him and started home knowing his boy would be healed. Jesus had him at hello. “He himself believed, along with his whole household.” That healing story oozes faith. John 9 records the long narrative of the healing of the man born blind. When we was grilled by the religious leaders about who healed him, his answers were legendary. “The man called Jesus put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see… What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened… He is a prophet… I do not whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see… Here is the astonishing thing! You do not know where the man comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners but God does listen to one who worships God and obeys God’s will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!” Okay then! Testimony? Affirmation? Giving the shout out to Jesus. Check! One thing I know!
But here in John 5, under the porticoes, Jesus picked that guy. Jesus healed him. There amid that sea of humanity there must have been folks with more faith, more gratitude, more piety, more spiritual health. People who were more deserving. Someone who would have a better story to tell for the ages. But Jesus picked him. Jesus picked that guy. No faith. No gratitude. No shout out. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing but grace. And if you and I are honest about our sinful selves and our life in the world out there, the world in here, nothing irks you more… I better speak only for myself here… nothing irks me more than someone else getting something they don’t deserve.
Nothing irks me more, nothing saves me more than grace. Sometimes its nothing but grace. That amid this sea of humanity, this great multitude, Christ picks me. Jesus picks you.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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