"Do you want to be healed?"
"Take up your mat and walk"
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Clippesby) Acts 16 9-15 John 5 1-9
Just prior to the beginning of this text in Acts we find Paul and his companions Silas and Timothy and they seem to be at a loss for where to go next with the gospel. The Holy Spirit had turned them back from their planned route and then Paul receives his vision in the night. A man from Macedonia asking for help, and Paul sets sail.
As soon as they land it is worth noticing that Paul and his companions immediately head for Philippi. This is where the Roman Empire was powerful and popular, a place that lived like an extended section of Rome itself.
Luke writes they were there for “some days” but we don’t know for how long. The appeal of the man in the vision is urgent, and Paul’s response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away. When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to respond to the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and interestingly a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east. Any simple expectations about God’s mission are clearly going to be wrong. How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia, where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi and hears the gospel. It is God working in mysterious
We know her name is Lydia and she is a dealer in purple cloth. This is actually a modern; the translation from the Greek says that Lydia is a seller of purple. To identify someone as the seller of purple may strike us as odd, we are able to get any colour that we want, don’t think that it hasn’t always been like that. The purple dye mentioned in today’s story was produced from the mucus of a certain marine mollusc. It took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye which made about a yard or two of very expensive purple cloth, worth its weight in silver. Wearing purple was a statement of status and wealth and Lydia was selling this fabulous commodity! Purple could only be sold by special permission, by a royal decree, so when Luke tells us that Lydia is a seller of purple, he is letting us know that this is not just your average trader; this a wealthy prestigious person and a woman!
We read, Lydia listens, but it is the Lord who opens her heart to believe. At this crucial point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the vicar or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this text stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.
Lydia’s faith becomes immediately active: she is baptized along with her whole household, and she opens her home. Social and cultural barriers crumble, and this corner of the empire is beginning to be changed by God’s grace. The author says that Lydia “prevailed upon” Paul and his companions to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used: in Emmaus on Easter evening, as the two traveling disciples urged the risen Jesus to stay with them that night.
Perhaps the verbal echo is not accidental; by lives transformed and opened up in faithful discipleship, the fellowship of the risen Lord continues to extend into the world. Here near the end of the Easter season, we continue to experience and to live out that fellowship, “prevailing upon” the world to hear, and see, and know the mercy of God in the risen Christ.
We pick up the theme of the mercy of God seen in Jesus in the second reading from the gospel of John.
Jesus went up to Jerusalem, not to the temple or a synagogue but to a pool by the sheep gate, where the sheep would be washed before taking them to the temple for sacrifice. It was a pool with a division in the middle one end for sheep the other for people. The pool with its five porticoes (or covered porches) was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1871, and may be visited today. It may very well have been a spring-fed pool with medicinal qualities, like some of the famous spas of Europe, or Lourdes. The porticos were filled with people with disabilities, lame, blind and paralysed. In the culture of the time children born with a handicap were seen as a punishment from God and disability often seen as a sign of evil. According to the values of the world, these people were to be shunned and despised. Yet it is to these people that Jesus goes to first with his disciples, reinforcing for them that their calling will be towards those who are the broken, despised and the rejected of the world. As Steven talked about last week those often seen as outcasts.
We can imagine Jesus going from one person to another, possibly talking or touching them with compassion, giving words of peace and encouragement until he comes to one man.
A paralysed man who had been there for thirty-eight years. Jesus is moved by this man who appears to be crushed by despair, and asks him a seemingly silly question. ‘Do you want to be healed?’
Instead of saying yes, the man responds from a place of despair, ‘Sir I have no one’ his is the cry of loneliness and desperation. Jesus is obviously moved and tells him to ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’. Many people are overwhelmed by despair, paralysed with fear and doubt and have lost hope. This passage of John’s Gospel shows how Jesus comes to us in those place of despair where we are paralysed by our own need and weakness and he still says to each of us – ‘ Do you want to be healed.’ Some certainly don’t – like this man for 38 years he had learned to survive how he was. Now all of a sudden he has choices to make. Now he has to rise up, find a home, find friends, find work – no longer could he lie about and beg for a living. No longer could he blame others for not helping him into the water. The man faced the challenge, changed his attitude, and stood up and walked away, and as Jesus instructed he took his mat with him. The mat was the symbol of his illness. In other words get rid of that as well. Don’t leave it lying there, a temptation to return to your old ways.
We have to be honest and acknowledge that life is very hard for some folk, and some days it feels very hard for us as well. It is not always a bed of roses.
But here is the good news of our faith: When people can't make it on their own, when we are at the end of the rope - God reaches in to help. As the Psalmist says ‘He is a very present help in times of trouble.
But note the work HELP – we do have to do something. Like Lydia we need to listen to the word of God not let the words flow over us, we need to let God open our hearts to receive the word and act upon it. Like the paralysed man we have to be willing to change when challenged willing to leave our security symbols, willing to stand up and walk away, and just like these two people we will receive God’s love and mercy for it is all around us .