Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Pascha 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

This morning’s Gospel reading brings us to the pool of Bethesda, which means “the house of mercy.” We hear tell that many sick, blind, lame and other infirm people came to the pool in the hope of being cured of whatever ills they had. At the same time, we hear that obtaining a healing was not easy. We are told that healings only occurred when an angel descended into the waters and stirred them up. This did not happen all the time so we can assume that many people were left disappointed and disillusioned. In fact, we are told that whoever got into the pool first when the waters were stirred was the one to be healed so we can assume also that only the first to get into the pool each time the waters were stirred was healed and no others.

We are not sure if an angel really came down from heaven and stirred the waters. This description could easily be just a scribe’s way of explaining a pious or even superstitious belief of the people who lived at that time. Then again, it is entirely possible that an angel did do this work. Angels do exist; they are messengers of God and faithfully do His bidding all over the world. There may be angels among us this morning, worshipping and praising God with us, adding to the simple but profound glory and majesty of our Divine Liturgy. But whether or not an angel stirred up the waters is not the point. The point is, in matter of fact, that the pool at Bethesda was a place of hope and longing for the multitudes of sick, diseased, blind, lame and withered people who gathered there.

Anyone with a heart of compassion would be moved to tears at the sight of all those hurting and suffering people. Can you imagine the sounds: the crying, the moaning, the coughing, and the other myriad sounds of suffering and pain? Can you not just hear the pleas for help anytime someone who appeared healthy passed by? Can you imagine the smell of the ‘multitudes’ laying on mats, or leaning against walls and pillars, unable to bathe themselves, unable to care for their most basic hygienic needs? Imagine the smell of bad body odor, urine and excrement so strong and so foul that it would make you gag and want to throw up. Could you possibly picture yourself among such people trying to help them and comfort them? Not many of us have the stomach to do such work.

How many of you have been in the hospital seriously ill, so ill that you could not get out of bed to go to the bathroom? Do you remember what it was like when you had to use a bed pan and the nurses came in once you were done and cleaned you up? We often take for granted what nurses do for us. The men and women who care for us when we are sick, especially very ill, are people of great compassion and mercy, and we should pray for them every day and express our thanks and gratitude to them every opportunity we get. I mention this contemporary experience of compassionate and merciful care and our need to be grateful to those who show us such mercy and compassion because the people who gathered at the pool of Bethesda were not as fortunate as we are. For the most part, they were alone and were left abandoned to their illnesses. No one should ever have to live like that.

For some time now our elected government officials have been arguing and fighting back and forth about the costs, availability and scope of health care for the American people.  My brothers and sisters, there should be no arguments or disagreements on this matter. No human being, regardless of their age or health problems, should be left without adequate health and medical care. To prolong and debate this matter in the fashion our elected officials have been doing is a sin, a despicable act against the dignity and well-being of every American that cries out for justice to Almighty God. Our elected officials should be ashamed of themselves for using God’s children as pawns in their political chess games.

Our suffering, sick, and infirm brothers and sisters today are no different than those who sat by the pool of Bethesda centuries ago. They are frequently forgotten and marginalized. When they do get attention, it is often because they have become the centerpiece of some elected officials political aspirations or some celebrity’s public relations enhancement campaign, or some organization’s annual community outreach project.

 I wonder how many people from out of town who came to Jerusalem for its many feast days ever gave a moment’s thought to going straight to the ‘house of mercy,’ the pool of Bethesda, to visit the sick and blind, the lame and withered. I wonder how many people who come to visit Utica ever think to go and visit places like Hope House, the Rescue Mission or Thea Bowman House. Are not our poor and our homeless, our sick and suffering brothers and sisters equally worthy of the attention and solicitude of our visitors and guests just as much as our businesses and cultural attractions? We should never be ashamed of our poor, our homeless, our hurting and suffering brothers and sisters for they too stand equal with us before God and they too are part of the treasure of this great city in which we live.

What do you think Jesus did? As soon as He entered Jerusalem on this particular day, the pool at Bethesda was the first place He went. Jesus was not interested in engaging in the festivities first off. No, He wanted to go to the place where the sick, the infirm, the suffering and the lame were gathered. He went to a place of both despair and hope; He went to the ‘house of mercy’. Imagine what our Lord must have felt in His heart every time He looked upon one of His children who was suffering and in any kind of pain. Imagine how broken His heart was when He looked upon the multitude at the pool of Bethesda. Imagine how His heart breaks every time He looks down upon this world He created and sees the afflictions, heartache and suffering that rages throughout it because of sin.

I want you to see this first, my dear people; I want you to understand that what took place in this recorded account two thousand years ago at the pool of Bethesda has been replayed over and over again throughout the centuries everywhere throughout the world, and because of it, Jesus our God weeps.

Now, that is not to say that Jesus did not accomplish what He went to Bethesda to do. As we heard in the Gospel reading, He cured the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw the man lying by the pool, He already knew that the man had been in that condition for a long time. No one had to tell Jesus what the facts of this man’s case were; He already knew. Nevertheless, Jesus engaged the man in a conversation and finally asked him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’

Now in the same way that Jesus knew what was in men’s thoughts and in their hearts so too did He know not only this man’s physical condition but his spiritual condition as well. We have as proof of this in Jesus’ instruction to the man to stop sinning so he will not get sick again.

If we study this passage very carefully, particularly the dialogue between the sick man and Jesus, we will learn that the man does not answer Jesus’ question as to whether he wants to get well. The man seems entirely consumed by the fact that he is in his present condition because no one will help him get into the pool so that he can be healed. In essence, the man reveals by what he says that he was placing the blame for his circumstances on what somebody had not done for him.

Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well and the man does not give Jesus a direct answer, he simply complains and whines. So what does Jesus do? He tells the man to take up his pallet and walk. This was not a response by Jesus to prayer or faith. Nothing about the man’s behavior indicates to us that he even prayed at all. And it was not because Jesus had been given any clear indication that the man wanted to get on with a normal life and be set free from the chains of his physical condition. In fact, the man seemed to be almost resigned to his condition, although not gracefully.

Jesus’ healing of the man despite the absence of prayer or faith is a perfect example of what the Lord meant when He said to Moses, “I will have me4rcy upon whom I will have mercy, and compassion upon whom I will have compassion.”

Now when the man is healed, what do you think he does? Most of us, if we were in his situation, would thank God for the gift of being healed. But not this man; he shows no evidence of being grateful at all.

In other accounts of Jesus’ miracles we see people giving thanks to God. We hear a man testifying, “I was blind, and now I see.” We see people falling at Jesus’ feet and declaring Him both Lord and God. We even have an account of a leper who was so excited that he came back later, searching for Jesus, for the sole purpose of thanking Him.

Not the man in our Gospel this morning. After he was healed, he simply picked up his pallet and walked away, apparently without a word. When the Jews criticized him for carrying his pallet on the Sabbath, he could not even tell them who made him well. “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘take up your pallet and walk.’”

Can you believe this man! Not only did he not thank Jesus for healing him, but when he was criticized by the Jews for carrying his pallet on the Sabbath, he blamed Jesus for telling him to do so! No, not my fault! I was just sitting by the pool, minding my own business, and this guy comes up and miraculously healed me of a 38 year infirmity and told me to get up and carry my pallet. So, if you have a problem, take it up with him. And that is just what they did; they went out and looked for the man who dared violate the Sabbath laws.

Later that day, Jesus finds the man in the Temple and days to him, “Behold, you have become well. Do not sin anymore so that nothing worse may befall you.” Notice that Jesus did not say as to others, ‘Your faith has made you well,’ or as with the woman taken in adultery, ‘Go and sin no more. It was a common belief in that culture that when people were seriously injured or ill it was because of sin in their life or perhaps they were suffering for the sins of their parents.

You may remember the disciples asking Jesus if the man born blind was that way because he sinned or because his parents did. The answer Jesus gave was “neither,” but that the Father might be glorified. And of course, the Father was glorified in both the miracle of restored sight and in that man’s grateful testimony later.

Now we know that there are times when God uses sickness and illness to stop people from sinning and, of course, we know that illness or injury can be a direct result of sinful behavior. For example, drinking too much can result in belligerent behavior, which can also result in the drunken person getting into a fight. We also know that a drunken person, if driving while intoxicated, can get into an accident, which can result in injuries, even death, to himself and others.

Here at the pool of Bethesda it seems that out of knowledge of this man’s past life, Jesus is indicating that his illness of 38 years was a result of sin, and now that he was healed purely by the grace and power of the One talking to him, he should learn from it and not go and continue in his sin.

We have no indication in this morning’s Gospel that the man, even though he was healed, turned to God. We have no indication that his heart was filled with joy and gratitude. On the contrary, we have every good reason to believe that the man was simply ungrateful.

So what was Jesus’ purpose or reason for healing the man by the pool of Bethesda? First and foremost, it was an assertion and manifestation of His divine power and authority. Certainly, no mere mortal could do the things Jesus did. Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus is compassionate and merciful and the healing of the man by the pool is an assertion that ‘I will heal whom I choose to heal and show compassion upon those whom I choose to show compassion.”

Jesus’ reasons for helping others never have a political motivation; Jesus’ only motivation in helping others is love, but it is a love really unknown to us. Our definition and understanding of love is totally different than the love which Jesus shows His creation. Many times our love has strings attached to it. There are no strings attached to Jesus’ love for us; that is what makes it so rich and so pure, so unmistakably divine.

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Creator of all, who cares for every one of His created children, who knows each one deeply and intimately, and because he is God, He can do no wrong to anyone. Every word or thought or action of God toward mankind is for their good and for His glory. His love for this man by the pool of Bethesda was no less or no more than His love for anyone else.

‘Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk.’ It is a very simple, very straight forward command. Nevertheless, it is a command that will bring Jesus much criticism and add to His list of troubles with the religious authorities of that time.

Did Jesus really need to do this? Did He need to bring more unwanted attention to Himself, knowing that the authorities were constantly seeking ways and opportunities to trap Him and arrest Him? No, He did not. As I said a few minutes ago, the only thing that motivates Jesus is His love for His children.

But Jesus never shied away from confrontation with the Pharisees and religious authorities of His day. This alone made them angry, especially because He did so with authority and righteousness. They also feared Jesus, not because He had a following, but because they knew, in their hearts, that He could very well be who and what He said He was. This was a reality that feared more than anything else.

The Pharisees knew and understood that the Son of God was Himself, God. They did not have the concept of a higher God and a lesser God by virtue of a subservient relationship or position between one and the other. Thus, when Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of God, they become enraged and seek to kill Him, for they know exactly what the implications of such a claim are. All of Jesus’ teaching, miracles and demonstrations of power showed Him to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah and this frightened the Pharisees and other religious authorities.

Only God could do the things that Jesus did. Who other than God could heal a man who had been sick for 38 years? Who other than God could raise a man from the dead who had been dead four days? Who else but God could feed a crowd of five thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread? If any of us here this morning were witnesses to such acts or if any of us were the beneficiaries of Jesus’s compassion and mercy such that we obtained an immediate physical healing, what would we do? Would we be grateful and give thanks to God, or would we be indifferent and just go on our way?

St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, ‘For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’ How true it is that so many people know God, but they do not honor Him or gibe thanks to Him. Every day God works miracles among His people, every day God heals our infirmities and illnesses. He heals our brokenness and makes us whole but do we thank Him for His kindness, His mercy and compassion toward us? Sadly, many do not. But God heals us and shows us His mercy and compassion despite how foolishly we act or how ungrateful we are. That, my dear people, is pure and unadulterated love!

Man’s ingratitude toward God is not borne out of ignorance but rather out of our rejection of God’s goodness and our desire to be our own god. We will take from God whatever we can get, but we will not submit to His goodness and power. We will not glorify Him. We will not give Him thanks. We will not hold ourselves accountable to Him. We will just take and go our own way. What happens then is that we continue in our sinful ways. Even though we may have received a healing from God, we will become ill again because we choose to continue in our sinfulness. We do not want to change. We do not want to give God what is rightfully His and that is our lives.

My dear people, we do not live for ourselves alone. We live first for God and then for each other. Unless we are willing to give ourselves over completely to God and let Him direct our lives, we shall never be healed, we shall never be whole. Our wholeness and completeness comes from a life lived fully in Christ and for Christ.

This place in which we are gathered this morning, in which we gather every week, is a “house of mercy”. It is in this sacred and grace-filled place that we come not only to worship God and give Him thanks but to receive His mercy and healing. Sometimes we take our church buildings for granted; we see them merely as real estate and a “physical plant” whose upkeep and maintenance is a line item on the annual parish budget. But this is more than a mere building. It is the Temple of God, the Household of God, the place where God dwells in glory and majesty. It is in this sacred and holy place that God’s mercy is poured out on us like a fresh mountain spring as we come to be washed clean of our sins and healed of our infirmities, both spiritual and physical.

While the Church is comprised of the redeemed of the Lord who have been cleansed and reborn from above by water and the Spirit and who are now heirs to the promises of Christ, sin still manages to rear its ugly head; fallen human nature struggling to defy the will of God in the life even of the believer. Yet, God still deals with us mercifully and with compassion; He does not deal with us according to our iniquities, nor does He turn His face from us.

In the face of the ingratitude of the invalid at the pool at Bethesda, and the ingratitude of the Pharisees, and the ingratitude of millions of believers throughout the centuries, the work of the Father and the work of the Son and the work of the Holy Spirit continued and still continues to this day. Because of God’s great love healing where healing is underserved and even unsolicited will continue abundantly and without interruption.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7).

The message we are to take from this morning’s Gospel is that God shows mercy even in the face of ingratitude and unbelief. God’s desire is to redeem for Himself a people who will spend eternity with Him before His throne and in His blessed presence, forever expressing in word and life the gratitude of those who have been shown the riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.


Christ is risen!

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