SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● May 22, 2022
For me, one of the blessings of this ongoing pandemic years been working with Becky
Osborn-Coolidge as she prepares the bulletin for our Sunday services. I’m always
impressed how Becky assembles the assigned Scripture readings, finds appropriate
prayers, and puts everything together in four, easy-to-use pages.
It’s not entirely Becky’s fault, but this Sunday’s bulletin is somewhat deceptive.
Becky does use the Episcopal Church’s Lectionary Page. She cuts and pastes the
lessons and psalm for each Sunday. Thus, we see that the Gospel for today, which
Margaret just read, says John 5:1-9.
The truth, though, is that Margaret read only seven and a half verses – not
nine. That’s because the oldest and most authentic Greek manuscripts omit the last
part of verse 3 and all of verse 4. You may recall that those verses suggest an angel
periodically stirs the pool of water, imbibing them disease-healing power.
The other peculiar thing about today’s Gospel is that the last word – Sabbath –
is the key to unlocking the very good news in this Scripture reading. That last word
also explains why the spurious verses should be omitted when reading this Gospel
The promise on offer today is that if we hear that one last word, we
too will experience healing in our lives. We will be able to get up
and get going – and face our challenges with hope and confidence.
John’s Gospel gives us signs
Before we get there, though, let’s step back for a minute or two. During this
Easter season, except for the Second Sunday of Easter, we’ve interrupted our reading
Luke’s Gospel to be treated to the Easter-drenched Gospel of John. Like Matthew,
Mark, and Luke, this so-called Fourth Gospel is comprised of stories and sayings, but
90 percent of what’s in John’s Gospel isn’t found in the other three Gospels, which
share have 50 percent or more content with each other.
The first half of John’s Gospel is built around seven signs, what other Gospels
depict as miracles. The first was the wedding at Cana with its overflowing
abundance of premium wine. The second also took place at Cana, where Jesus cured
the royal official’s dying son – without actually going to see the boy in Capernaum.
Today’s Gospel is the third sign, which like the Cana wedding and the
Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4 involved water. After today’s Gospel
comes the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 6. Here, once again an abundance of
nourishment takes place. Then, for the fifth sign, we’re back to water: this time Jesus
walks on the water during a storm. In chapter 9, we have the sixth sign: the healing
of the blind man.
The seventh and final sign wraps up the first half of the Gospel: the raising
Lazarus from the dead. This time, Jesus does go to the dying person, but he arrives
too late. So, Jesus must go into the tomb and shout Lazarus alive.
God works on the Sabbath
Now we can look more closely at today’s Gospel, the third sign, and get back to
that last word: Sabbath. As is often the case, the verses that follow today’s appointed
text explain the significance of what we heard read the Gospel. On the Sabbath, no
work is supposed to take place. At first glance, it appears that the crippled man – not
Jesus – is actually the one working: he carries his mat, which was considered work.
And we learn that the crippled man didn’t even know who it was who had healed him.
As all this comes out, the Jews – John’s words for Jesus’ opponents, not the
Jewish race – become incensed with Jesus for breaking the Sabbath.
Jesus rebuts their accusation in a different manner than he does in Matthew,
Mark, and Luke. And that’s good news for us today.
Jesus reminds his opponents – as well as those first readers of John’s
Gospel and us today – that, even though the Sabbath was a day of
rest, God, the creator of all that exists, does not stop working on the
Sabbath. God, who is the life force, is always at work.
And this is what really upset Jesus’ opponents. Jesus claims that he is the
Child of God. As God’s equal, Jesus too works on the Sabbath. Jesus is busy working
– creating abundance out of scarcity, washing us clean through baptism, healing our
infirmities, rescuing us from death.
That’s why it’s important to omit the verses about an angel stirring the waters.
It’s not some angel or agent of God who is at work in our lives. No, it is God at work.
It is God in Jesus who makes it possible for us to get up when life knocks us down –
or when we’re too tired or discouraged to face another day.
I don’t know about you, but these days when I get up in the morning and make
coffee with my achy hands and foggy brain and then read my newspaper articles, I’m
ready to get back in bed. Another wave of coronavirus, a faltering economy, the
brutal war in Ukraine, and hate-filled killings in our own country. Overwhelmed by
confusion and anxiety, getting up out my chair seems a chore.
God, who is supposed to be constantly working as the Creator of all things,
seems to be on an extended vacation – if not part of the great resignation.
Jesus’ death is God’s life-giving work
In the midst of our uncertainty and weariness, John’s Gospel shows us how
Jesus is busy in our lives today, how he heals us and gets our discouraged selves
moving. Paradox of paradox, Jesus does this life-saving work by dying. We hear in
chapter 5 that Jesus’ opponents begin plotting against him. By chapter 11, the raising
of Lazarus finally puts his opponents over the edge, and they begin seeking a way to
put Jesus to death. In other words, giving life to Lazarus precipitates Jesus’ death.
That’s where all those signs in the first half of John’s Gospel were pointing: to
the hour of Jesus’ death on the cross. The hour when he would be lifted up, when he
would be wounded for us. If we had any doubt about this, not long after the raising of
Lazarus, his sister Mary anoints Jesus’ feet – with lots of very expensive perfume.
Jesus defends her extravagance by saying that she’s preparing him for his burial.
And it is this fragrant extravagance that invites us to trust the Easter promise
that, in his death, Jesus overcomes death. That Jesus is lifted up to be with God, the
one who is always working on our behalf. That the wounded Lord is able to breathe
his Spirit of new life into us. That, even in our dying – which is our human condition,
for some more noticeably than others – God is giving us new hope, deep joy, and –
yes – life eternal.
We are fed so we can busy doing God’s work
After John reveals the unfolding plot that will put Jesus to death, he takes time
to reminds his readers – and us today – how we can trust that Jesus’ death – and our
own death – is not the last word. In chapter 6, we are invited to share the loaves and
fishes that become the new manna of the new Exodus. We are invited to take part in
the Eucharist that is the Bread of Life. We have this “standing invitation,” John tells
us because of our baptism, by which we are adopted to be siblings of Jesus, to be part
of God’s family.
Because of the pandemic, we don’t get to take part in the Eucharist as often as
we would like, but the good news is that just a morsel bread – and a sip of wine –
become a feast that nourishes us for weeks on end.
And strengthened by this holy food, we can get up and walk. We, too, as
adopted children of God, can be busy doing God’s work all the time. Despite our
frailties and infirmities, we are a source of healing and hope for others. Our smallest
gestures make the biggest difference. In a time of worry and despair, we are beacons
of joy and hope.
As we heard in last week’s Gospel – and in Margaret’s marvelous reflection –
this work we’re doing is called love. It’s what holds our lives – all creation – together.
So, today – and every day – is our Sabbath. Let’s get to work! Amen.