Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
1412 W. Illinois, Midland, Texas 79701
May 5 2013: 6th Sunday of Easter
After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, 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.
Philosophers spend a great deal of time asking questions such as ‘why be good?’ Theologians have spent even more time asking what is arguably the more fundamental question: is it actually possible for humans to be good in the first place? There are optimists and there are pessimists. The optimists are those who go straight to Genesis 1:26f and point out that humanity is said to be made in the image and likeness of God. Animals are driven by instinct and passion, but human beings are different. How different? Many answers have been given, but perhaps the most popular idea is that humans, unlike animals, share with God a capacity to think. It is reason which gives them an ability to make choices, to choose between good and evil.
Meanwhile, the pessimists nod sadly, and say ‘yes…but’. Yes human beings are certainly made in the image of God, but they have made a total mess of things. One of the consequences of the Fall is that human reason is now hopelessly corrupted. We are so trapped in sin that we have lost the freedom to choose between good and evil; left to our devices, we will only ever choose to misbehave.
In practice there are many stations in between. The fifth century monk Pelagius, for example, seems to have been a pessimistic optimist: pessimistic in the sense that he thought Christians had to fight hard to overcome sin; but optimistic in the sense that he thought Christians still had the resources needed to make a free moral choice. Although it is far from clear, Pelagius may have been British, so perhaps he was responsible for the original idea of the stiff upper lip: all you really need to do, he seems to have thought, is pull yourself together, put in a bit of moral effort and start behaving properly.
Dream on, says the more pessimistic Augustine. There is no way any human being can ever behave properly: being good requires nothing less than complete moral regeneration and that is the work of God, not human beings. We are so enslaved by sin that only God has the power to set us free.
Luther took this further and argued that we are so sinful that we can only be put right by the direct action of God—or to use the language of later theologians, we are justified by trust (faith) not by human effort (works). Even so, Luther expected this trust to have some moral effect, as the power of God works through the believer to produce the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace and all the other qualities Paul expects his congregations to display (Galatians 5:22-26). So, justification leads to good works; but these are God’s good works, not our own.
So why be good? If most of us are already doomed to failure, what is the point of making any effort? You might as well just wallow in corruption and enjoy it while you can. Any attempt to change is not only pointless; it is an idolatrous waste of effort. Depravity is inevitable.
No it is not, insists Aquinas. Aquinas agrees with Augustine that the Fall has deeply damaged the human capacity to think clearly. But Aquinas would have disagreed profoundly with Luther about the extent of the damage. For Aquinas, humanity is corrupt but never a total disaster. The wound is deep, but the grace of God is greater. It is therefore possible for human beings to cooperate with the transforming power of the Spirit to bring about moral transformation. The good life is once again in the agenda, not because of the lone heroic effort fondly imagined by Pelagius, but through a unique partnership between God and humanity. Redemption, it would seem, is a shared enterprise
All three of the readings today pick on this theme one way or another. The famous vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel is set in the aftermath of the exile. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and the land is devastated by the economic consequences of conquest. It would be easy to despair. ‘Can these dry bones live?’ Ezekiel is asked. ‘You alone know, Lord’ is the faithful reply. ‘Prophesy,’ comes the command; ‘prophesy that these dry bones might live’. So restoration becomes a partnership, a joint enterprise. To be sure, it takes the creative power of the Lord. Ezekiel cannot restore broken Israel alone. But neither does the Lord choose to go it alone: the miracle needs human participation. Ezekiel must prophesy and only then can the transformation take place.
This is even clear in the Gospel from John 5. Set in the midst of a narrative of growing controversy, Jesus confronts a paralytic who has been waiting 38 years for a miracle. So far, so good: the scene is set for another one of those extraordinary signs which in John betray the presence of God. But first something extraordinary happens: Jesus asks the paralytic ‘do you want to be healed?’ The man answers with a diversionary comment: ‘I have no one to help me’, he protests. Could it be that he has simply settled into bad habits, got stuck in a rut? Or has he perhaps made a lifestyle choice, living comfortably on the charity of others? The shock of the question is enough. Healing, transformation, is a participatory activity: the miracle requires this man’s cooperation. ‘Get up and go’, says Jesus; allow the reign of God to break through into our broken lives.
And then there is Lydia. Most commentators on this passage seem to get excited mostly about the ‘we’ in verse 9 which sets the scene for this stage of Paul’s mission: the first of the so-called ‘we’ passages in Acts. But all the argument about whether or not this is the signature of an eye-witness is little more than a distraction. What is really important in this brief vignette is Lydia, the one who quietly demonstrates that women were not the passive domestic angels so many (male) readers of the Bible have tried to make them. She is an independent woman, away from home on business. She is with the Jewish women in Philippi, though it is not clear that she is herself a Jew; perhaps she was simply a God-fearer, someone attracted to the Jewish community out of respect for their faith and ethical commitment. But she is in the right place at the right time. Paul and his colleagues wait until the Jewish Sabbath to start the process of preaching the gospel, and they go to the most likely spot to find the faithful people of God. They find Lydia ready to listen. Once again, transformation becomes a partnership between the grace of God who brings the players together, and the readiness of Paul and Lydia to be taken by surprise. God’s work is done, and the result is hospitality—an ethical outcome from a spiritual encounter. Encounter with God through the risen Christ, as Paul would put it, expects to lead to newness of life (Romans 6:4).
Can I be good? Yes: but as the traditional Collect puts it so clearly, only with a lot of help from God:
Almighty God who through your only begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: we humbly beseech you that, as by your special grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect: Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.