The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 1, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Associate Rector of St. Michael’s Church
As a hospital chaplain, I became well acquainted with injury and illness among others. As a chaplain, I recognized that illness is something we all experience. Whether physical or psychological, the pain and suffering that illness brings reminds us of our vulnerability, our weakness, our frailty as human beings.
As I’ve listened to people tell their stories of illness, I’ve heard many ways to frame this experience. For some, illness is like a battle—a fight against an unknown, unwelcome enemy who threatens our way of life. For some illness is chaos—an overwhelming experience of feeling lost and helpless in the midst of a whirlpool of intense and terrifying crises. For some illness is a quest—a journey through suffering that ultimately leads towards deeper meaning, truth, and transformation. For some illness means restitution—a complete restoration of one’s life back to the way it was before. For some illness becomes a constant, chronic companion—to embrace a difficult, painful part of one’s self and recognize that this can yield wisdom and blessings.
Medicine also has its way of framing the experience of illness. In the modern medical culture of the West, illness is defined as a disorder of structure or function in the human body. A condition that adversely affects a person or group of people.
Medical teams perceive healing as a cure—a complete restoration of health that eliminates all signs and symptoms of disease. But John’s Gospel defines illness differently. In the original Greek, the word for illness means a longing for strength either physically or spiritually. As such, our faith seeks healing not as a cure, but as a restoration of wholeness and peace.
Jesus asks the sick man, “Do you want to be made well?” Another translation says, “Do you want to be made whole?”
When we speak about the healing that God offers us, it is important to recognize that healing is not always in the form of a cure. Sometimes, healing from God can involve a complete restoration of health, but not always.
With God it is possible to be healed but not cured—to find wholeness and peace in our lives, but not eliminate disease.
Similarly, with modern medicine it is possible to be cured but not healed. To eliminate all signs and symptoms of a disease but still long for strength.
We can be healthy but not whole—still wanting understanding; still wanting to do great and glorious things; still wanting to restrain harmful desires; still wanting to bear trials and troubles.
Medicine does not promise to give us strength. But, God’s healing does.
Illness impacts each of our lives in significant ways. It weakens us. It hurts us. It overwhelms us. It makes life infinitely more complex and complicated for us. It can destroy and even kill us.
Illness has the power to impact our lives in so profound ways. It’s no wonder when we face a significant injury or illness that we are tempted to let our illness define who we are. Tempted to allow our weakness, our frailty, our longings and desires to solely define our identity.
This is the case with the man in our Gospel today. We know him not by his name—only as ‘the sick man.’ We do not know much about his life—his work, his hobbies, his family, his friends…we only know he has been sick for 38 years. We know he gathers around a pool of invalids—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed—but it remains unclear exactly what type of illness he has. Perhaps it is physical. Or maybe it is psychological. Could be spiritual. Or maybe some combination of all three.
Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
The man responds, “I have no one to lift me and place me in the pool. And when I try to get there myself, someone else gets there first.”
The sick man says to Jesus, “I am alone—there is no one to help me. Even when I do try to help myself, I look around and see everyone else being healed, but I’m still waiting.”
It’s been 38 years and the sick man is tired of waiting. He has given up on living. He merely exists beside the pool lamenting the life he could have had if only he could receive a cure. In his illness, he has grown stagnant submerged beneath fear and hopelessness to the point where he has forgotten who he really is.
Jesus’ response is not to cure illness, but to heal the man. Note that Jesus does not pick up the man and place him in the healing pool. Nor does Jesus lay hands on him and perform a healing miracle. Instead, Jesus responds saying, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”
Jesus speaks to something more than this man’s illness—he speaks directly to the person within.
With his words, Jesus stirs up strength in the man reminding him that he is more than his suffering, more than his frailty, more than his fear and pain and despair. More than his illness and longing for strength.
Rise, take up your mat and walk. Rise and be healed.
Jesus’ words stir something in us too—reminding us that our identity is not defined by what we do or by what happens to us, or by the illness or injury we have suffered, but by who we are in God. By his words, we are healed and made whole. With his words, Jesus stirs something in each of us.
If we could capture the image of Jesus healing, what would it look like?
In his book, The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane describes an experience of bioluminescence. This is what I think of, when I think of Jesus’ healing words stirring in the sick man and in me.
“I waded into the warm shallows…the water was still and black. But where it was stirred, it burned with light. Every movement I made provoked a brilliant swirl…Glancing back, the cove, the cliffs and the caves all appeared trimmed with light…I could fling long streaks of fire from my fingertips. Then I walked out into the deeper water…It was dark…and there was little loose light in the sky, and I realized I could not see myself, only the [light] that surrounded me, so that it appeared as though I were not there in the water at all: my body was unclear, defined only as a shape of darkness set against the swirling aqueous light.”
“Bioluminescence – is a consequence of the build-up in the water of minute organisms…By processes not entirely understood, these simple creatures ignite into light when jostled. They convert the energy of movement into the energy of radiance. For their [light] to become visible to the human eye, requires the collaboration of billions of these single cells, each of which emanates light.”
In this Easter season of the resurrection, I can think of no better healing image than nature’s bioluminescence. Imagine if each of us reflected on the places where God is stirring us up—where the still dark waters of illness are being jostled into glowing, vibrant colors of light. And as we respond to those stirrings—we outwardly stir up the dark waters of others, jostling them into light.
Imagine the energy of our movement in God combining with the movement of God in others. An entire ocean, all the waters of the deep could shine with the radiance of God’s healing salvation. The whole of humanity transformed from an energy of movement to an energy of radiance; and the brilliant healing light of God is visible for all to see and experience. And gradually, those dark remnants of infirmity, of illness, of frailty, of pain will be as if they weren’t there at all—simply unclear shapes of darkness totally immersed in the flow of swirling divine light.
This is what we are called to do, as individuals, as a church, as a diocese, as the world.
If billions of plankton can do it, why can’t we?
 Robert Macfarlane. The Wild Places. 40.
 Ibid., 41.