After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
I recently came across an article that argued that most novelists break through in middle age. The writer gave examples: John Irving, George Eliot and Gabriel García Márquez are all authors whose breakthrough novels happened in their forties and fifties. We sometimes encounter this phenomenon in other walks of life. For example, Anton Bruckner began composing in his forties, and César Franck completed his first symphony when he was fifty-six. In politics, Ronald Reagan first held public office at the age of fifty-five, and in the world of business, Colonel Sanders began deep-frying chicken in his sixties.
These late bloomers spend much of their lives waiting. There are others too, who inevitably wait in vain. The man described in the episode at the beginning of the fifth chapter of John must have imagined himself in the latter category. The gospel writer is specific. The man had been ill for thirty-eight years. We are to know that he felt the weight of every single one. We are to feel his desperation and utter hopelessness.
Upon encountering the sick man, Jesus meets the gloom head-on, and cuts through his despair with a simple question, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man – we do not know his name – resorts to his usual pattern of behavior. Instead of answering Jesus, his reply comes as a verbal tic, a well-established rant, complaining at and against anyone who is able or willing to listen.
Jesus refuses to be drawn into this web of misery. Instead, as so often in the gospel of John, Jesus uses the occasion to illumine the world with a sign of God’s glory. His command, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’, renders the paralytic speechless. And so, after thirty-eight long years, the man gives up complaining, takes up his mat, and walks.
Whose voice would render us speechless? It is sometimes difficult to figure out, bombarded as we are with fragments of information from all directions. Frequently, we get caught up in media hype or everyday gossip. More often, I suspect, the voices we listen to come from our own childhood. It is there that we grow identity, and figure out the boundaries that will eventually define the mat on which we live our adult lives. It is during childhood that we gain a sense of life’s possibilities and, more significantly, its limitations.
Jesus, however, is not interested in limitations. He is not even interested in our well-rehearsed complaining. Instead, Jesus calls us to refocus on the almost unimaginable possibility of a life without limit. He commands us to pick up the mat that would define our old life, and walk with him into limitless existence. He speaks with the supreme authority of one who will take up the ultimate mat of sin and fear – the cross. By his suffering and death, Jesus walks ahead of us through the gate of glory, and wins eternal life for all people.
This should be enough to render us silent. Only once we reach that state, are we ready to receive the divine command, ‘Take up your mat and walk’. Now can we truly write that novel, fix that friendship, go for that run, or spend time with God in prayer. Whatever our response, it will be permeated with the same glory ‘as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’.
Evening Prayer sometimes ends with a sentence taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It serves as a useful reminder of the limitations of our imagination, and of the infinite possibilities that God is prepared to reveal to us. It is both the thanksgiving of the late-bloomer, and the song of the sick man, newly restored to life:
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
May these words be for us a joyful hymn of praise this Lent, as we lay aside all that would hold us back, and journey together with confidence in Christ.