We’ve been retelling familiar bible stories that we’ve heard many times. As an online pastor, I have worked to free myself from any denominational or institutional frameworks that curtail the hermeneutical (bible interpretation) process or set a specific agenda for teaching. This allows me to go deeper and wider, beyond the boundaries of common tradition, following the flow of the spirit into new horizons. This scares traditionalists whose rigid framework guards against change and new perspectives.
John 5 tells of a mystical pool of water in Jerusalem called Bethesda. It was believed that if the still waters become “stirred” (v.7), that the spirit of God was moving and the first person in the pool would receive healing.
Healing is synonymous with liberation. It was also “First come, First serve.“
An invalid had been sitting by this pool for 38 years when Jesus walks over to him and asks: “Do you want to be healed?”
The invalid tells Jesus that no one will help him into the water, then others get in first. I’ve heard sermons teaching these were excuses. Perhaps, but they are his imprisoned reality nonetheless. Self-pity is our first prison from which we are freed.
Healing is synonymous with freedom. What is your “imprisoned reality?”
Religion is like the imprisoned reality of the invalid. Religion has proximity to the pool where magical stuff is supposed to happen, but it never gets in the water. It doles out pseudonyms (fake ID’s) through its assimilation programs which give us a false hope by pitting us against everyone else rather than uniting everyone.
Jesus responds by dropping a nuclear bomb on the invalid’s imprisoned reality. He tells the man; “Get up, pick up your matt, and walk.”
Most sermons stop here and celebrate that Jesus healed the man. This is fine, but it misses the subversive statement Jesus is making.
It was the Jewish Sabbath. Keeping the religious day holy meant not working. Carrying a bed matt around was work. So was walking around. Jesus was saying; “Your healing comes by breaking the Ten Commandments” or “Your freedom comes by breaking with religion.”
In fact much of Jesus’ controversy is that he performed his works on the sabbath, thus breaking religious law. That’s really important. Jesus said he was Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), and that “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). His message exposes how religion imprisons humanity while unaffiliated faith liberates us.
Jesus offers something beyond ritual, dogma and religious practice. He provides the liberty that religion promises but cannot deliver. His message is that love surpasses religious conformity. Mercy NOT sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).
Like the religious elite of Jesus day, modern Religious leaders are often caught up in their tradition, buildings, staff, budgets, plans, programs, and their doctrine. Most are struggling to get by and Jesus is asking, “Do you want to be healed?” Like the invalid, healing comes with a counter-intuitive departure from the rules. Lawbreakers experience a liberty that abiders can’t possess (more on this in a second).
The invalid in this story parades around on the Sabbath with his bed and is the talk of the town. Open violations of law are intolerable for systems that uses fear for behavior modification. The loss of fear by the invalid equates to the loss of institutional power. Jesus knows that fear, not love, makes people compliant to their prison. Hell is actually our inability to break free of institutional power.
How does institutional religion react? They diminish the invalid. They cast doubt on the liberty and ultimately squash anyone who subscribes to a reality beyond their propaganda. Institutions steal personal power by defining reality for others.
Later, Jesus catches up to the man and says: “I see you are well, sin no more so that nothing worse will happen to you” (v.14). I’ve heard sermons which suggested Jesus is saying that his sin caused him to become an invalid, and that future sin will bring something worse. This saddens me. That is yet another power play designed to keep people trapped in fear. The opposite of what this story is promising to do.
Jesus statement is a loving but sobering reminder of his present reality. It means his freedom, which is expressed by his present sin of violating the sabbath, could get him killed by the religious elite. Jesus is saying “You’re healed, you’re free, but not everyone is. Those enslaved in fear, or whose identity and power is wrapped up in the system, will deeply resent you and try to harm you.”
Subverting institutional power will come at a cost. The path of healing offered by Jesus stands right in the face of the ethical violence imposed upon us by institutional power. It may cost us severely to freely walk away, but it will cost us far more to stay. The only way to obey the 4th commandment and keep it holy was to break the tradition of keeping it.
The good news (gospel) of liberation/healing is not a world with no rules, but a world governed by one rule: LOVE. If we think we have God within our highly structured, organized, and dogmatic containment system, then we have a religion and not God. If fear makes us unable to leave such a system in our search for healing/liberty, then we have become the invalid.
Perhaps the most liberating nuance comes once we gain the eyes to see beyond the power plays. It’s where we regain our personal power to “sin no more” (v.14). It’s how we know we are healed. Only the person free enough to break the rules is free enough to keep them in love. Once fear loses its grip, obedience can emerge from the pure motivation of love. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Only by leaving religion are we free and empowered enough to restore it.