Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of the Paralytic 

John 5:1-15

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

My dear Father, brothers and sisters, I greet you on this Fourth Sunday of Holy Pascha, the Sunday of the Paralytic. In today’s Gospel reading, we see a distinct shift from the readings we have heard these past two Sundays as we turn from the events which occurred in the days immediately following Christ’s holy Resurrection to the events in the Gospel which happened during the fifty days up to the Jewish feast of Pentecost. This coming Wednesday will be the feast of Mid-Pentecost the mid-point between the Resurrection of the Son at Holy Pascha and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. From this Sunday we thus begin to orientate ourselves towards the forthcoming Feasts of the Ascension of Christ and the Descent of the Comforter at Pentecost. To interpret today’s Gospel reading, let us turn to the only extant homily we have of St Cyril of Jerusalem, that great 4th century hierarch and teacher, whose catechetical lectures – bursting with biblical insight – will be familiar, or become familiar, to our catechumens.

After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

Let’s start with understanding a little about the context of our Gospel reading. Modern biblical archaeologists have identified the location of the Pool of Bethesda to be what is now the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, north of the Temple Mount and about 50 meters inside St Stephen’s or Lions’ Gate. In the time when our Lord was in Jerusalem this gate was called the Sheep Gate, because this was where sheep were driven into city, from the surrounding fields, in order to be washed and cleansed before being taken and sacrificed in the Temple.

St Cyril, as bishop of Jerusalem was of course intimately familiar with the built environment of the Holy City and thus speaks directly to his hearers, and fellow residents of Jerusalem, reminding them that,

by the Sheep Market in Jerusalem there used to be a pool with five colonnades, four of which enclosed the pool, while the fifth spanned it midway.

This would have been an architecturally impressive place, both in terms of the monumental scale of the baths, as well as the engineering behind bringing the water itself down into the pool.   

Wherever Jesus appears, there is salvation … when as now, He visits the public baths, it is not out of interest for the architecture, but to heal the sick.

Something that many of the Fathers highlight in their commentaries, is the constant activity of our Loving and Long-suffering Lord. There is nothing dilettantish about our Saviour. Each and every day of His short Life in the Flesh, and especially of His intensive 3 year ministry is lived fully in obedience to the Father, doing at each and every moment, in every encounter the saving work of the Kingdom of God. There is never a wasted moment, an idle or distracted afternoon.

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

From the final troparion of each ode of the canon of the Feast, we learn that the angel that comes to stir the waters is the Archangel Michael who only once per year would stir the water up for the healing of just one person. At this time, our compassionate Lord comes to the Sheep Pool and sees this great multitude of sick, disabled, diseased and broken people. What a moving and pitiable sight this must have been. All of these people, sat, hunched before the waters, waiting and waiting for this chance of healing and restoration. All of these people, in their infirmity, would have been considered ritually unclean and too impure to enter the Temple. Instead they were to remain firmly in the shadow and penumbra of the Temple, with its huge walls towering above them just a stone’s throw away. Yet it is exactly here, and to these abandoned sheep of the House of Israel, that our Lord the Great Shepherd comes. Whilst unable, physically or ritually, to enter the sacred precincts of the Great Temple of Solomon, the Temple of the Law, how beautiful it is that the One Who was Himself, the Great Temple of the Holy Spirit, comes to them in their need and in their exclusion and abandonment.

And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

St Cyril comments on the justice of our Lord selecting this man to heal owing to the long, long time he had been in this weakened and pathetic state. Moreover, with regards to the wider impact of this healing, Jesus was also aware that by curing one that had been known to be a paralytic for such a long time would make the healing of this man all the more impactful – for the paralytic, St Cyril says, was known to all by reason of the length of time.  

When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case,

The bishop of Jerusalem picks up on the way in which Jesus could know without asking. Whereas we would just see a paralysed man, our Lord as God, the Divine Knower of hearts, would have known everything.

As He walked round the pool, “He saw”. He did not elicit the information by asking questions, for His divine power obviated any such need. Not ‘asking’ but ‘seeing’ how long the invalid had lain there … He knew indeed He knew before He saw.

he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

Can we imagine ourselves into the place of the paralytic – having been paralysed for 38 years – and then hearing this remarkable, strange and almost absurd question: ‘wilt thou be made whole’? As if, that whole time, the possibility of healing was simply a question of the will, of wanting. Here we must remember that Jesus is no ordinary physician of the body and his proposed treatment is not simply addressed to the body, but also to the soul of this poor man.

Wilt thou be healed? Not a word more; He left him with the question half spoken. For he question was ambiguous; it was because he was sick not only in body but also in soul.

Jesus saw, as St Cyril says –

A bedridden man weighed down by a sore sickness; for the paralytic’s heavy load of sins aggravated the long-drawn agony of the disease.

Of course, in the Holy Gospel we are not given a full medical diagnostic, and other than that he is a paralytic, we know nothing more about this unfortunate man. Perhaps, his physical paralysis was in some way related or even directly caused by some serious sin he had committed in his youth. Again whereas our sight so often stops as the surface, at the physical, the fleshly, the material – our Saviour could see so much more, beneath the physical to the far deeper, spiritual condition of a person beneath and within.

The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

There is something deeply moving and deeply pitiable about the tragic scene that the paralytic paints, of him waiting for this yearly movement of the waters, but when the moment comes, despite him being poised and ready, there is no one, no one at all to help him. So, instead he must look-on and gaze as another person, perhaps aided by a friend or family member, goes down into the pool. Yet, whilst this was the past, the paralytic’s present is now transformed by the One who now talks to him beside the pool of water. St Cyril imagines our Lord addressing the poor paralytic in two different ways. First of all, St Cyril has our Lord correct the reference the Paralytic makes to having ‘no man’ to help him –

Do not lose heart, my good fellow, because you ‘have no man’; God you have standing by you.

It is thus true that the paralytic continues to have no man, no mere man, that is to help him, even with the Lord standing next to him, as our Lord was not merely a man, but the God-man, God Incarnate.

Then St Cyril has our Lord take issue with the paralytic’s thought that his only way of becoming whole again was to have support to enter this pool of water.

‘Wilt thou be healed’ ‘Yes, Lord, but I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.’ No, but you have the spring itself. ‘For with thee is the fountain of life’, the fountainhead of all fountains … Jesus is the wellspring of all blessings.

In St John’s Gospel Jesus is the Bread of Life and the ‘Living Water’. Rather than going into the Water, the Living Water has Risen up and come to him.

Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked:

How powerful does this one imperative – ‘Rise’ – sound when we hear it in the wake of the Empty Tomb? As again St Cyril imagines Christ saying to the awe-struck paralytic –

Why set such narrow bounds to hope, intent on some poor water-cure? Arise: He who commands it is the Resurrection.

38 years of misery and suffering was lifted and transformed in just a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

The disease was long-standing, the remedy swift. The paralysis has lasted for years; the strengthening of the sinews was instantaneous.

and on the same day was the sabbath.

Without needing to complete this verse, we can immediately guess what the unfortunate concern and obsession of some of those who followed Him might be –  

The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.

Yes, yet again in the wake of something truly extraordinary, truly miraculous and wonderful, the Scribes and Pharisees can only split hairs and find fault.

Yet as marvellous as the sight was, it was the faithlessness of the onlookers that was really strange. A years-old disease is healed, but an obstinate incredulity was not healed. Instead the Jews’ malady persisted; they did not want a cure.

So often we see in the Gospel narratives this stark juxtaposition between the one who Jesus’ sought out and those that followed our Lord out of malice and only to accuse Him. Whilst seeing and witnessing everything, they also show their complete blindness to the Reality which is in their midst, under their very noses. As St Cyril says –

The Lawgiver was present and another says, ‘It is not lawful for thee’.

He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.

We can well imagine the utter astonishment of the paralytic at this particular forensic line of questioning in the wake of such a dramatic and irrefutable miracle. The miracle itself they do not mention or dispute, but at some abstract level, the apparent legality of the miracle is what totally and completely preoccupies them. St Cyril again imagines the paralytic addressing them in this way –

My long-standing sickness and the long years I was bedridden, my destitution in my distress. Not one of you ever took pity on me, taking me and putting me first into the pool that I might be cured. Yet, when then you showed no pity, how have you now assumed the office of lawgivers … However, little account you make of me, yet the deed should impress you.

Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

St Cyril then comments on the humility of our Saviour.

For after working the cure He turned aside to avoid receiving recognition for the cure. We do just the opposite. If we are fortunate enough to have a vision in a dream or to succor someone by the imposition of hands … so far are we from hiding our little triumph that, even unprompted, we boast about it.

We can see in this again the proof of our Lord’s whole and healthy human nature. Unlike us He is not paralysed with pride. He has no continuous need of human praise and affirmation. In terms of Jesus’ saying to the man – ‘sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee’, St Cyril sees in this individual comment something that is addressed to us all –

For the warning is addressed not alone to the man in the Gospel, but to all of us …. ‘Sin no more’. Great is God’s forebearance and lavish Grace. But let not his exceeding patience breed contempt. Do not make God’s long-suffering a pretext for continuing to sin.

The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

The final verse of our reading, shows that the former paralytic was a martyr – a witness for Christ and despite the shame and hatred he knew he would undoubtedly provoke, yet he still confesses all the same.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: in my secular employment as a social worker, I have had the privilege to know many paralytics, those who are entirely immobile and dependent upon carers for their every need and most basic of tasks. They too, like the paralytic by the Sheep Pool, so often have to sit and stare whilst the rest of the world walks and moves with ease around them. Whilst their flesh may be paralysed some of these people have been angelic in their humility, patience and resilient cheerfulness, worn smooth by years of suffering. Yet we who do not have anywhere near these same physical struggles and indignities are in actual fact more paralysed than the paralytic by the Sheep pool. Sometimes, indeed, we can feel stuck fast in our sins and bad habits, incapable of moving, of turning, of changing, yet with any spiritual sickness, the reality is that we are not as stuck fast, as paralysed as the demons would have us believe. Rather, through Christ’s Holy Resurrection we should know and believe that change, that movement on our sinful traits and tendencies is possible, if we will it. Let us, therefore, seek to obey the word of the Saviour which is also addressed to each one of us, let us Rise and in the power of the Risen Lord and realise that with Christ we can find that we are not stuck in our sins, that healing and wholeness is possible, if we will it.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!