Sunday, February 6, 2022

Phil Kniss: Signs of healing, signs of trouble

Signs and faith: Two healing stories
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 4:46 - 5:18

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I’d like to start today,
with a quick review of the last four weeks in John,
specifically, the geography.
Because geography matters for today’s two stories.

On January 9 we were in Cana of Galilee, John chapter 2,
for the story about the wedding at Cana.
Cana is in the northern half of Palestine, above Samaria.
It was Jesus’ first venture into the public eye,
when he was sort of drafted by his mother
to perform a miracle to rescue a wedding reception
that ran out of wine.
John 2 then notes,
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee.
And, that sign revealed Jesus’ glory, and many believed in him.

So the next story, one Sunday later, also in John 2,
takes place in the temple at Jerusalem—
the center of religious and political power.
About 90-100 miles south, more or less,
because, as far as we know, this time
he did the normal bypass around Samaria.
5 days of walking for someone in good shape.

And what Jesus did in Jerusalem—
clearing the temple of a worship industry that exploited people—
caused a ruckus, to put it mildly.
Still, many came to believe in him, it says,
but it also made him many enemies, it’s safe to say.

One Sunday later, we are still, geographically,
down near Jerusalem, in John 3.
The well-connected and influential Pharisee Nicodemus
came to visit him in the night,
to ask some searching theological questions.
And we don’t know how Nicodemus ultimately responded,
but the scene is set up in such a way
that it sure seems it’s not a safe way of life,
either for Jesus, or for those closely connected to him.

Jesus and the disciples then spent some time in the
countryside around Judea.
Maybe everyone was happier
when Jesus was doing his thing out in the country,
and not right under the noses of the power elite.

In any case, last Sunday, John 4, Jesus heads back to Galilee again.
This time, he made a bold choice to go straight through Samaria,
a region other self-respecting Jews avoided.
And he had this deep and penetrating and scandalous conversation
with a Samaritan woman by the well.

And he stayed there for some days.
And then we come to today’s passage, beginning at the end of John 4.

It says, “he went from that place to Galilee
(for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet
has no honor in the prophet’s own country).
When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him,
since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem
at the festival;
for they too had gone to the festival.

Now, are you starting to get this geographical picture?
Jesus, who has been sent as a healing, saving,
Messiah to the world,
is received quite differently up north and down south.

Geographically speaking,
Palestine is kind of the reverse of the eastern United States.
Here the old guard political, economic and intellectual centers
are mostly in the north,
and the south is sometimes treated a bit dismissively
by the northern elite.
In Palestine in Jesus’ day, it was the same way,
except . . . just swap north and south.
There was even a saying in the south,
“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
that backward city up north.

In the opening prologue, in John 1, we heard this:
“He came to . . . his own, but his own did not receive him.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God.

“His own” people were down south.
His family line, at least through Joseph,
was rooted in Bethlehem, the city of David,
right outside Jerusalem.
He’d been schooled in the traditions of the Temple.
He was a rabbi.
Down south is where he was from, so to speak,
where he received his religious formation.

But Galilee, up north, also ran in his blood.
He grew up in Nazareth.
He chose a good many disciples from Galilee.
He hung out in Capernaum and other towns
bordering the Sea of Galilee,
and seemed quite at home up north,
farther away from the ruling elite.
Jesus had more room to move,
had more people cheering him on.

John said it outright.
When he got back to Galilee he was welcomed,
because of what he did in Jerusalem at the festival.
Because the Galileeans were there, also.
and they saw Jesus clear out the temple.
And they were not offended.
I’m guessing they were the ones being liberated
by Jesus’ prophetic action
against the animal merchants and money changers.
Maybe they had been swindled often enough,
to get some pleasure watching what Jesus did.

So . . . the first thing Jesus does, when back in Cana of Galilee,
is this healing story we heard today.
Jesus heals, not a son or daughter of Israel,
but a Gentile child of a Roman royal officer.
And what is the result?
More people believed.
More people saw God’s glory revealed.
From what we can tell, very little pushback
for showing compassion to someone outside the family.
And, John says, this was the second sign, pointing to Jesus’ glory,
and he did it in Galilee.

And then what happens next in John?
Jesus heads back south.
He went to Jerusalem for another festival.
John doesn’t specify how much time elapsed,
because it’s not that important.
In fact, chronology and sequence is not all that important
to John’s telling of the Gospel.
It’s not relevant whether Jesus actually and physically
went back and forth
between the north and south as often as John says,
and in the order that John wrote it down.
John is painting a theological and political picture of Jesus,
that’s gradually coming into focus.

At this festival in Jerusalem, something scandalous happens again.
It might not seem scandalous to us.
Seems like just another beautiful and miraculous healing story.
But it sparked a very different response
than the first healing, up north.

A man lame for most of his life,
couldn’t get his feet into the healing pool in time,
whenever the waters were stirred,
so he stayed crippled for 38 years.
That in itself is an indictment against a religious system
that couldn’t come up with any better plan to help this poor man.
Jesus simply speaks the word.
Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.
And at once, he walks!
Round of applause!
Everyone rejoices!

No, actually, that’s not how it goes down.
Not here in Jerusalem, home of the Temple and its rule-keepers.
Here, it’s a scandal.
Because the day is a Sabbath.

And the scandal gets set off, not by the healing act itself,
because that apparently happened quietly and unseen.
The problem came to light,
when the man was spotted carrying his mat on the Sabbath,
and it’s forbidden to carry a mat on the Sabbath.
The religious institution failed this man on two fronts.
He lay by the pool for decades,
with no one to intervene to help him get to the water.
And the moment he was able to walk,
rather than rejoicing he can walk,
he gets called out for walking with his mat on the Sabbath.

The religious inquisitors then tried to find out who had the nerve
to heal him on the Sabbath, and instruct him to carry his mat.

So incensed were they by this flagrant breaking of Sabbath law,
that John tells us the persecution of Jesus began in earnest.
And when Jesus added further offense,
by claiming God as Father,
they started conspiring to kill him.

So that’s where the story stops for now.

What is the Good News for our day? our present context?

Well, the extent of woundedness in our community and our world,
is as great as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.
We are wounded and weary beyond comprehension.
Obviously, the COVID pandemic.
But so much more has cut us down and traumatized us.
Wounds that are physical,
and spiritual.

So much of the misbehavior we witness,
from mean-spirited discourse,
to actually shooting people to death,
from individual acts of aggression,
to mob violence and insurrection,
does not come out of the blue.
It comes from our woundedness.
It comes from places that need healing,
more than legislation.
Not saying legislation isn’t needed.
It is. Without a doubt.
I’ll get behind any good and just piece of legislation.

But healing cannot be legislated.
And healing is central to call of the church.
God’s mission is healing.
And we are God’s collaborators.
It’s that simple.
And it’s that complex and demanding.

In Palestine, Jesus healed up north, and down south.
It mattered not whether the wounded was a poor Jewish leper,
or a wealthy religious leader,
or a member of the Roman occupying army.
It mattered not whether the wounding was from
being socially cut-off and marginalized from the community,
or from a physical, emotional, or spiritual disease.
The public response to his healings would vary,
according to the context (including geography),
and according to whose agenda got disrupted by the healing.
But he healed here, there, and everywhere.
And so must we.

It’s so easy to draw lines and create enemies and enemy groups,
that then fall outside the realm of our responsibility to heal.
But we must be committed to everyone’s healing.
No matter whose side they are aligned with.
No matter what type of woundedness they suffer from.
If we are not thus committed,
we are not following Jesus.

This is the Jesus who, in service to his call as a healing Messiah,
ended up crucified, dead, buried, and raised again on the third day.
This is the Jesus we remember when we come to the communion table.

We are partaking today as one body, at one table.
Now, that is profoundly true,
even though we are scattered in many places,
and many of you will partake in the quietness of your own home,
and persons in this space will partake
of their own elements in their seats.

The invitation to the table is just as real.
Let us come to the table,
from wherever you are,
join us in Spirit and in action,
as we partake of the bread and cup.

We come, because,
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.  Amen.

Please join us by partaking of the bread and cup at home,
or wherever you find yourself this morning.

—Phil Kniss, February 6, 2022

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