Making excuses

Easter 6 – 2010

John 5:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us into a new way of being in relationship, a new way of being. Amen.

Yesterday I opened an email that had been forwarded to me. It contained a series of very fine pencil drawing of animals and birds. While I admired the drawings, they were not particularly original. I couldn’t think why someone would gather them together and send them into hyper space. I am more used to forwards that are fun or that have a serious message – drawings was something new. I scrolled through the pictures until I came to a picture of the artist. Perhaps this was an advertisement I thought. I nearly closed the email, but curiosity got the better of me. Scrolling further I found the text which accompanied the email. The artist’s picture wasn’t an advertisement. These very detailed, very fine drawings had been created by someone who was only able to use his mouth to hold the pencil to execute the work. The accompanying text began: “We find excuses for not doing things ……”

Excuses come in all shapes and sizes and can be pulled out on almost any occasion – we are too young, we are too old, we haven’t had the right sort of education, someone will laugh at us, we have nothing to wear. We put things off until it is too late. We wait for other people to do things for us or for the time to be right. Some people are so good at making excuses for not doing things that they create arbitrary or fanciful limits on what they can do. They cage themselves around with indecision, self-doubt and uncertainty. They fail to trust, fail to venture. They procrastinate for so long that the opportunity to do what they wanted passes by. They expect the world to remake itself to suit them or at the very least expect others to remove the barriers for them.

Our reading today begins a new section in John’s gospel. In the first four chapters, the author has concentrated on the theme of belief or unbelief. From now until the end of chapter 10, Jewish feasts will provide both the background for Jesus’ teaching and the platform for a whole new way of interpreting God’s presence with God’s people. “A celebration of Jewish Feasts is called a zikkaron – a memory that recalled God’s active presence to the Jewish people[1]”. Passover, the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Dedication all reminded the people of God’s actions in the past and made those actions real in the present.

For Jews – those who believed in Jesus and those who did not – the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of the rebellion by Rome created a vacuum. Without the Temple the entire sacrificial system became redundant which meant that the relationship between God and God’s people had to be re-examined. The people were struggling to find a way to live their faith and to celebrate the Feasts which reminded them of God’s presence. The Jewish-Christian community for whom John wrote, were facing similar issues, exacerbated by their expulsion from the synagogues.

In telling the story of Jesus, John uses Jesus’ presence at the feast to demonstrate that God is present in the community, albeit in a new and unexpected way. Through a re-interpretation of the Feasts, Jesus is able to share with the community the knowledge that the Feasts (and consequently, the law) have been transformed or transcended in him. God’s presence is not to be sought in the law or the festivals, but in Jesus himself.  A believer’s relationship with God now occurs on a totally different plane. Believers relate to God through Jesus, not through the law or the festivals.

In this section of the gospel John also introduces Jesus’ confrontation with “the Jews” (in inverted commas). (“It is important to note here that when John’s gospel speaks of “the Jews”, it does not refer to the Jewish people who were contemporaneous with Jesus, but rather to those who, in the writer’s present continued to oppose the Johannine community, which itself had a Jewish identity. The conflict is not between two religions as you and I might imagine, but between two branches of the same family”. In John’s view “the Jews” are those who continue to hold to the law, the old way of understanding God’s intervention and presence, despite the fact that Jesus has revealed God to them. In contrast the Johannine community has been transformed by their relationship with Jesus and by a completely new view of the world and their relationship with God.

In this morning’s gospel, the point at issue is the observance of the Feast of the Sabbath as we can tell from the ominous ending: “Now that day was a Sabbath.” Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. In the north corner of the city is a pool which had a long history of being associated with healing – probably as far back as the Canaanites. John gives enough information for us to picture the scene for ourselves – there are five porticos filled with invalids. With the sort of prescience Jesus has shown before, – with Nathaniel, with the woman at the well,  he recognises a man who has been ill for 38 years!

Jesus asks the man a strange question: “Do you want to be made well?” The man responds with an excuse: “I have no one to put me in the water.” Clearly, he doesn’t know who Jesus is. What is more, like “the Jews”, he is looking at the world the wrong way. He is waiting for someone to physically put him in the pool. He doesn’t understand that what Jesus is offering is quite different. The old categories have been surpassed. Jesus offers something new and immediate, a relationship with God that does not require an intermediary. “Rise, take up your mat and walk.” This time the man offers no excuse.  In his obedient response to Jesus, the invalid finds that it is in his power to walk.

A simple miracle story turns out to be a lesson in understanding. The invalid’s horizon is broadened. He is no longer bound by the purely physical, or by the laws of the natural world. However, when we read further, we discover that the understanding of “the Jews” is reinforced and hardened by the event. They are not prepared to move away from tradition (in this case keeping the Sabbath) and their righteous self-control to recognise something new. They continue to look backwards, to seek authority in the law to rely on something other than themselves to achieve their relationship with God. They can not see that Jesus has exploded all the previous categories of expectation and relationship and has opened a new way of being the people of God that is not bound by ritual or circumscribed by law. They cannot accept that the God of their faith has now been revealed as the Father of Jesus and so they continue to find excuses not to believe and ways to prove to themselves that Jesus is not who he says he is.

In Jesus, God can be experienced in an immediate, direct and intimate way. We do not need anyone to help us to build a relationship. There are no excuses. We either risk opening our lives to Jesus and to the Spirit within us, or, like “the Jews” of John’s gospel, we can seek a refuge in formularies and laws, hoping that they will do the job for us. Jesus says: “Rise, take up your bed and walk” and the invalid responds. Jesus says: “Come, trust in me for your salvation” and all we need to do is believe.

[1] Francis Maloney The Gospel of John, 164.


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