Readings: Acts 16: 9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5: 1- 9
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame, the paralysed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’
‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’
At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath. (John 5: 1- 9. New International Version).
“It was a Sabbath day.” So ends our Gospel today and the observance and celebration of the Sabbath day can be seen to be the common thread linking our lectionary readings together this Sunday morning.
The Sabbath (literally “rest” in Hebrew) was ordained by God at the end of creation. “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished … And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested … So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy”. (Genesis 2:1-3).
Sundays have changed a lot, even since I was a child – then it was a forced day of rest. No shops were open. No theatres. No football matches were played. It was the day when we had to go to church. Something which my brother and I dreaded – hiding under the covers hoping that our parents’ alarm would not go off presaging the headlong dash to get up and dressed and out to church in time for the 9:30 service.
A lot has changed. It is now my favourite day of the week. Offering an opportunity to switch off the phone and the computer and be still and quiet. To come together with friends and to share in the worship and presence of God. Though the world is now more active and busy than in the past, the day retains a special character as people spend it in the company of family and friends.
I believe the coming together part of Sunday is very important. In our reading from Acts we heard how Paul met with Lydia on the Sabbath when she and other women had gathered by the river to listen to the word of God and to pray together.
There are two elements to this – the worship and the togetherness.
We come to church to worship – to praise God, give thanks for our blessings, to confess our sins, to pray for our needs and for the needs of others. And we do this together, as a group.
By coming together we are able to share those prayers with others.
The effect of this was seen to dramatic effect in the last fortnight when our new prayer network sprang into action as we prayed for our Rector’s son, David Harknett, in his fight for life in hospital.
Through the chain of interconnections prayers spread for him through this parish and throughout the world – to places as far flung as Nigeria, Gibraltar and Australia.
We rejoice in the news this morning of his turning the corner in his illness. We know that prayer was at least a part of the answer. That prayer for a common cause united us and brought us closer together as well as being a great source of comfort for David’s family.
We do not in this celebration of the power of prayer in any way dismiss the actions of the medical staff in the healing process. Healing is not just a question of sitting back and waiting. In our Gospel reading, Jesus intervenes with the paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda. He says ignore the superstition about being the first into the water when it ripples – take action for yourself. “Do you want to be well?” Then do something – get up and walk!
In this John reworks the Story from Mark 2 where the paralysed man is lowered down through the roof by his friends. What is different in John’s story is that the paralysed man has no friends until Jesus comes to him. On his own, alone, he is helpless. Jesus comes to him, intervenes in his life, the man gets up and walks.
Just as we go to look for Jesus on the Sabbath, so Jesus comes to look for us.
And we ask him to be present and to intervene in our lives
This coming together in collective worship is important for other reasons too.
At the end of the process of discerning vocation to the priesthood, when one is presented to the Bishops’ Advisory Panel, one must answer the question “how do you know that you are being called and how do you know that it is God who is calling you?” A tough question!
I believe it is a great source of comfort to both the candidate and the advisory panel when there is evidence from other people who believe that the candidate is being called – that the sense of vocation of the individual is shared corporately by the parish. I certainly take comfort from the many words of support I have received from the Parish at the beginning and throughout this process.
The testimony of others is corroboration of the work of God.
So when Paul had his vision telling him to come to Macedonia he shared this with his companions – how did he know that it was God who was calling him to Macedonia? By sharing with his companions he corroborates the spiritual insight which he has received – he does not go alone.
We have recently celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the book “Honest to God” – a book which was important to me personally as it encouraged me to explore ideas about God beyond the boundaries of what I had previously thought were acceptable. I can trace much of my subsequent theological interest to reading this book in my early teens. Discussion of “Honest to God” in recent weeks has pointed to how it represents a stage in the increasing personalisation of Christianity – we all have our own views now – and whilst it is certainly true that the experience of God is an intensely personal matter, so it is important that we come together to share that experience with others, to corroborate and authenticate it as rooted in God and not a mere narcissistic reflection of ourselves.
The collective keeps us sane – as does the reading of the spiritual insight and experience of those who precede us in the form of the scriptures.
So on a Sunday, we come together to find God – to ask him to come and be present with us – in prayer, in scripture and in the breaking of bread – to intervene in our lives and make us well.
In a moment we will invoke God to be present with us in form of the Holy Spirit saying together: “The Lord is here. His spirit is with us.”
The writer of Revelation looks forward to a new Jerusalem where God is so much present that there is no temple – no church – there is just God and Jesus (the lamb)
We are not yet the new Jerusalem, so while in the Book of Revelation God takes the place of the church, so today , the church stands for God – we, together, this congregation we are God’s presence and his mission here on earth today.
This is quite a responsibility, but an exciting one
Worshipping, praying, learning from scripture, breaking and sharing bread together in this place but then going out into the world and taking action in helping and healing, being for God and for one another – in the language of last week’s Gospel – loving one another
And so when we leave from here and go out into the world in our various different directions, let us carry God’s presence with us, bearing his mark upon our faces – shining as a reflection of God’s continuing presence.
The writer of Revelation says “his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:3)
These words echo the priestly blessing which God gave to Moses
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
So followoing our worship here this morning, may God’s name be on our foreheads, visible in our deeds to all the world,
May his Gospel be written in our hearts and heard on our lips.
May our faces shine with God’s love,
as we go from this place and shine forth into the world
This Sabbath day and every day
Sermon delivered by Chris Hancock, 5th May, 2013, St Mary’s Headley