Peace I Leave with You

Sermon for May 22, 2022                               Peace I Leave with You
            In the first passage from John, Jesus encounters a man, let’s call him George, who is sitting with many other people by the healing pool in Jerusalem, waiting for the water to churn and bubble in a way that means angels are stirring it so people can be healed. This poor guy has been ill for 38 years. He’s been getting back and forth to the pool from home every day, so he has someone who transports him and provides for his needs. Yet they don’t hang around to try to help him into the pool. It’s the sabbath, so they may be in the temple, or perhaps they’re as discouraged as he seems to be with the competition to reach the water in time. Maybe they’re tired of listening to him complain. He’s isolated in his quest for wholeness, sitting by the pool day after day, feeling defeated.
            If George had recognized Jesus, he might have asked him for healing.
            Jesus asks him an interesting question. “Do you want to be made well?” Not “Do you believe that God can heal you?” In other healing stories, the people Jesus heals know about his healing miracles and are eager for him to touch them, wanting relief. Jesus wisely doesn’t what George wants. There are folks, after all, who are so used to the role of patient that they aren’t really looking for a change. We have to want healing before it can happen. But apparently, we don’t always have to believe that it will. Even when we don’t believe we can be healed, even when we don’t know Jesus is working, even when we have no faith, no hope, no help, Jesus can enter our lives and heal us. This is why we need to pray for everyone, not just believers.
            George’s response reflects not only his feelings of frustration and powerlessness, but also his desire and persistence in seeking healing. Jesus commands him to rise, pick up his mat, and walk.
George obeys and is healed instantly. While he’s trying to take it in, Jesus slips off into the crowd, not waiting to be thanked.
            Now the plot thickens. The Jewish leaders see George carrying his mat and criticize him for doing work on the sabbath. When he testifies to what happened, they aren’t happy for him. They don’t thank God for healing him. They focus on the rules. They’re offended that Jesus broke the letter of the law by healing someone who wasn’t in immediate danger of dying on the sabbath. They think he should have at least waited until sunset. The man’s been sick for 38 years. What’s a few hours going to hurt? Now the story’s about conflict, about the law, not the miracle.
            When they ask George who healed him, he doesn’t even know Jesus’ name.
            Later, Jesus finds him in the temple and says, “See, you’ve been made well! Mazel tov! Now behave yourself, so you don’t get in more trouble.” Sudden health could lead to the temptation to do things he hasn’t been able to do for years, not all of them good. Jesus and George focus on how his life has been transformed.
            George returns to the Jewish leaders, wanting to share the good news. The Greek word for how he tells them means he “announces happily” - “Jesus made me well!” George didn’t realize what effect this would have. The leaders go find Jesus and confront him. Jesus talks about his relationship with God, not the rules. God still gives and sustains life on the sabbath, so Jesus does as well. This is the first time in John’s gospel that he is rejected by the establishment. They find him threatening to their beliefs, preconceptions, and way of life. They have too much to lose to allow Jesus to upset their understanding of God and their own power.  They’re so angry, they decide to kill him.
            God gave the Israelites ten commandments, laws that keep people loving God and each other in family relationships and in community, and keep them safe. Over time, the Pharisees wrote about 613 commandments or mitzvot, 248 do’s and 365 don’ts, designed to prevent even a minimal violation of any of the original ten. While I appreciate their zeal, their harsh enforcement of the mitzvot doesn’t sound loving to me. They became bound up in their own legalism.
All institutions, even the Christian denominations of today, have some leaders who are more interested in their control than in living as God wants us to live. They feel free to criticize others to make themselves feel better. No one organization should try to dominate others out of a misguided sense of superiority. God made us all different and all equal.
            I think there are three basic reasons why people criticize each other. I call them the three P’s: Preference, Power and Principle.
            There are actions people criticize because they don’t agree with how another person is doing them, not what they’re doing. These are a matter of preference, not principle. I like to wear my hair short, you like your hair long. Let’s agree to disagree.
            There are actions people criticize because they feel threatened by them. They don’t want things to change. They don’t want to feel wrong or have to rethink their beliefs. This kind of criticism is self-centered, a matter of power, not principle. Jesus influenced people to do things the leaders thought were against their rules. If the people in authority have too much power, like dictators, it can lead to criticism or worse if you challenge them.
            While my late husband Tom and I were living in Arkansas, we attended a non-denominational church that turned out to be run by very conservative people. After helping to take up the offering one Sunday, I spontaneously led the congregation in a short prayer. When church was over, I was told that women do not speak during worship, period. Tom was told to get his woman under control. You can imagine how that went over. We never went back.
            The only time I think criticism is appropriate is when an action violates God’s values and/or is dangerous. These are matters of principle. For example, “I want to keep everyone safe, so I’ll start the car when everyone’s wearing their seat belt.” It takes courage to speak up at those times, but it’s important. There are ways of saying it that are kind and thoughtful, assertive rather than harsh.
            The world would be so much more peaceful if we could all bite our tongues unless it’s a matter of principle. Say a quick prayer. The Holy Spirit is a good advisor about when and whether to say something.
            In our second passage from John, the other Judas asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” In other words, why can some people see Jesus as divine and others can’t? Jesus’ answer that those who don’t love him don’t keep his words is interesting. If someone doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, they don’t have a reason to love him and keep his words. God gave Adam and Eve a choice in the garden whether to obey and stay there or disobey and leave. God gives us the choice of whether to love God, because love that’s demanded isn’t really love. It’s a form of slavery.
            The early Christians who were facing persecution for their beliefs wondered why their detractors, or even their families, couldn’t understand and share their faith. Today, secular critics deny all religious claims because they cannot be proved or disproved. To those who believe, no proof is necessary aside from the Word of God. To those who don’t believe, no proof is sufficient.
            Jesus tells the disciples that he’s leaving, and promises them that the Holy Spirit will come to clarify his teachings and help them. There are three ways to translate the name of the Holy Spirit: Advocate, Helper and Comforter. Most of us can remember times when our parent or parents left us with other people, eventually our teachers at school. It was frightening at first, and it took time to trust that those other people would take good care of us. Jesus wants the disciples to know that they won’t be alone so they won’t feel abandoned but have peace about going on without him. God’s Holy Spirit will be with them, take care of them, and give them peace, just as it does for us today.
            The peace Jesus gives includes the peace that comes directly from forgiveness. Holding on to  your anger or resentment toward someone else instead of forgiving them only hurts you. They may not be around anymore or they may not care whether you’re still upset. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you forgive. It doesn’t mean that they were right. It means that you let go of it, stop letting what happened in the past steal your happiness today. Jesus said, “Love one another.” He didn’t say, “Love one another unless you’re mad at them.” William Arthur Ward said, “We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.”
            Or you may need to forgive yourself. Are you wasting the present moment caught up in regret, ruing some bad decision? Are you wishing you had a time machine so you could go back and change the past? Jesus is the king of new beginnings, of redemption. Open that gift he gave you by accepting your punishment for you. Today is a new day. He’s not asking for perfection, only obedience. He’s not mad at you. He’s not asking you to grovel, just repent of whatever sin still haunts you, then learn from your mistake, believe you’re forgiven and let the past go. His peace, joy and love will follow.
            During worship, we have the passing of the peace after the confession and absolution. Where sin is forgiven, a new community of peace emerges, one that is based on love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and thanksgiving. Our peace comes from believing that God forgives and loves us unconditionally, all the time, no matter what. That’s grace.
            Peace comes from knowing Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t create institutions or the smaller rules we enforce, sometimes out of self-importance. Jesus wants us to live in harmony, to love one another, not fight over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. His peace is bigger than our petty arguments if we let him lead. That’s the peace that passes all understanding. That’s the peace of Christ. May the peace of Christ be with you.

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