A story about the crossing of boundaries
Peter Seal, 26 May 2019
Acts 16: 9–15; John 5: 1–9
It’s not often that we watch someone as they sleep. A baby perhaps; such a beautiful and welcome sight for a tired parent. However, we rarely watch an adult as they sleep. But that’s what we’re doing today. We’re watching a man tossing and turning in his sleep. If we bend over him, we can probably see his eyes moving rapidly under closed eyelids. He is dreaming.
This is one of the most important dreams a human being will ever have, because it will change the course of western civilisation. In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we are watching Paul as he lies asleep, on the eastern edge of Asia in the port city of Troas.
For all we know, Paul may have spent the previous evening pacing on the beach near the city. If he did, he would have seen the sunset across the Aegean Sea and, perhaps, wondered about the world that lay across the water. Over there was the edge of Europe. And this is very significant for us, because this dream of Paul will bring the gospel of Jesus Christ across those gold-flecked waters to Europe. That eventually will take it to the rest of the world.
Paul is dreaming. In his dream he’s confronted by a man who says, ‘Come over to Macedonia (that is, Greece) and help us’. Paul’s response is typical: ‘Immediately … we set sail’ (that is, Paul, Silas and perhaps Luke).
When they arrive in Philippi, described as a leading city in the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony, they don’t meet the man of Paul’s dream, but an independent businesswoman, described as ‘a worshipper of God’. Lydia, as she’s called, is a wealthy dealer in purple cloth (dyed with madder root, found near Thyatira).
She was not a Jew, but was interested enough to join the women gathered by a river – a traditional meeting place for Jews where there was no synagogue. Paul went there. Lydia heard him speak: ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly’, and she responded to his message. She and her household were baptised.
So what we have here is a story about the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ, after his resurrection. A story about the crossing of boundaries. Part of its significance is that Paul has crossed from Asia into Europe – where our forebears were – and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
One last thing about Lydia: she said to Paul and his companions, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home’. Her instinct was to offer hospitality. It may be that the gift for making people welcome was instrumental in the foundation of the Philippian church, which was particularly dear to Paul’s heart. She might also have been involved in the church at Thyatira which is commended for its life-giving love and service. We know that hospitality is central to the welcome we want to offer to everyone.
And so, to today’s gospel reading. What do we find here? We find Jesus in Jerusalem, and he’s by the Sheep Gate, where there’s a pool called Beth-zatha. The pool had five alcoves, and what we have to imagine – and it’s hard to imagine – is hundreds of people, blind, paralysed and crippled. The pool is known to have healing properties. Every so often the waters become ‘disturbed’ (we’re not told how). This disturbance signalled a rush to those nearby to be first into the water because, it seems, the curative powers of the water were operative for only one sick person after each disturbance.
Jesus sees a man and discovers that he has been waiting, hoping that someone will help him into the pool at the right time. But no one does, and others always get into the water first. He’s been there a long time; we’re told 38 years … just imagine!
This man, it seems, is utterly friendless. You may remember a very different story in Mark’s gospel, where four people carry their disabled friend on a stretcher and lower him through the roof, in order for him to be with Jesus and be healed.
What happens in today’s story is interesting: Jesus asks what seems like an odd question. It appears to come out of the blue, and is addressed to this lonely man who has been begging for help for nearly four decades. Jesus asks, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ What lies behind this question is a deeper question: ‘Do you want to begin a new life, in place of your resignation to sad hopelessness?’
Jesus asks, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ What lies behind this question is a deeper question: ‘Do you want to begin a new life, in place of your resignation to sad hopelessness?’
This sick man is, quite reasonably, unable to conceive of another way of life. He explains the practical difficulty of getting into the water at the right time. Jesus cuts through this understandable evasion. He’s able to do this, of course, because he is the life giver. Jesus says, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’.
This sort of healing story raises many questions, but they’re for another day. The main point for us is that it is this sort of story that shaped the life of the early Church. It led to the conversion of St Paul, and in due course his missionary journeys, of which we heard in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
I leave you with a question that has stayed with me, and may well relate to each of us at different times.
At those times when it feels as though we’re stuck and that life really can’t change (even though we hope, deep down, that it might); at times when, maybe, we’ve become resigned to our lot and even feel hopeless; Jesus speaks to us, saying something like, ‘Do you want to be made well, do you want things to be different?’
And depending on how we respond, we hear the Lord saying something like, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk’.