This past week we passed a rather grim reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us. Johns Hopkins University reported that 1 million Americans have died from the virus that has plagued us and changed our lives for more than two years. I am confident that everyone here, those online or those that will read these words, has been touched in one way or another. Personally, I have lost several friends to COVID, and I know of countless others who have had the virus and recovered.
Along with the physical and mental effects of COVID, there have been spiritual effects. Church buildings were closed, and we pivoted to online worship and other gatherings. The things that were once familiar were no longer available, and many of us became isolated from others. However, we are slowly emerging from our long night to see what is left.
Apart from missing out on fellowship and all the other Church associated events, not being able to receive and provide sacramental ministry was challenging. I am ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament. And not being able to offer the Sacramental part of ministry has been difficult.
I have shared my views on the nature of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper before this, so I will not go into all the details here and now, but suffice it to say, I believe that when we gather as a community around the table, we are receiving spiritual food that is designed to make us whole and make us well.
Although we may disagree on the precise theological understanding of the Sacrament, most all denominations believe that something happens, be it spiritual or memorial. We all agree that what happens around the table is a Sacrament that provides grace and healing. It was the last action and meal that Jesus shared with his friends before being taken away.
Recently, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco announced that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is not welcome to receive communion in his Archdiocese. In effect, he has excommunicated a child of God for a difference of opinion on an issue. I stand before you today as one who has faced the sentence of excommunication from a Church, and I have to say, it is not a fun place to be. Being cast out, shunned, and having people turn their backs on you is one of the vilest things that can happen, and to have it happen at the hands of your Church is just horrible and really beyond words to describe.
In today’s Gospel message from the Gospel of John, we are presented with the third miracle of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The first was the miracle at the wedding, and the second was the healing of the daughter of one of the officials.
I often shy away from these stories as we focus on the miracle, the tale’s magic, and forget that there is a meaning behind what is happening.
Jesus and his Disciples are at the place of healing. This is a pool, a spring-fed pool that has provided healing waters. People come from miles around to wade in this pool to be healed of what ails them. But the healing only takes place when the spirit moves over the water. I am unsure how often in the day this happens, but the one who is first in the water when it stirs is the one healed.
Sitting near this pool is a man who is lying on a mat. Scripture says he has been there “for a long time.” He is paralyzed and cannot get himself into the pool, and he has no one to put him in when the waters stir.
Let’s think about this for a moment. The man is sitting by the pool and has been for quite some time. He is well known to those who come; they see him every day, yet no one will help this man be made well. Some may step over this man so they can get in the pool first and claim the healing for themselves, yet this man sits and waits.
Jesus does not pick the man up and walk him into the pool; Jesus asks the man a question, “Do you wish to be made well?”
Interestingly enough, the man never answers the question. He tells Jesus why he has not been healed and that others get in before him, but he never says if he wants to be healed or not. Jesus never touches the man, perhaps he was practicing good social distancing, but he tells the man to get up, take his mat and go.
The story ends with the man getting up, taking his mat, and leaving. Then comes the line, “Now that day was a sabbath.” It seems a strange place to end the story, for what comes next is VERY important.
The man leaves the pool and encounters the authorities. They ask the man why he is carrying his mat, which is against the rules of the Sabbath. There is no work to be done on the Sabbath, and the very fact that this man is carrying his mat means he is working.
He tells them that the man who made him well told him to carry the mat. The authorities and the religious people do not fall to their knees and worship God because this man has been made well. They do not ask the man about the healing and congratulate him that he is now whole. No, the focus is on the rules. They have their noses buried so deep in the rule book that they cannot see the miracle that has just taken place before them. This man who has been suffering for years is now made well.
What the Archbishop of San Francisco has done is a modern version of this story. The focus is on the rules while laying aside the pastoral implications of his actions. Although he may feel that he is right, and I have no doubt he is basking in the sense of pious and righteous indignation, the long-term effects of what he has done are incalculable.
How many people have heard this story and have turned away from the faith? How many of the decisions do we make as church turn people away when our job is to be drawing people together? The center of the word Communion is Union, a bringing together the faithful to share a common spiritual meal to bring healing.
I have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating, At the Last Supper when we believe Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Communion, sitting around that table was the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him. Jesus provided the elements of bread and wine that he blessed with his own hands to the very person that was responsible for his death, and Jesus knew it.
The very idea that Jesus had an open table, knowing full well what those sitting there were going to do, and yet provided the Sacrament to them is a clear indication to me that the Sacrament and the grace that comes with it should be made available to EVERYONE without exception.
Are we worthy? No, none of us are. But by taking that little piece of bread and a drop of juice helps make us worthy. If I or anyone else denies another of that possibility, then I deny the grace of God to another.
John Wesley was such a believer in the potential grace provided by communion that he urged his followers to receive it every chance they could. The idea that communion is now relegated to once a month or less would be a very foreign idea to him. So concerned was he for the people in the new world not having access to clergy for communion, he went against the bishops of the Anglican Church and ordained people himself to provide the Sacrament. He risked it all so people would have access to the Sacrament’s grace.
Through the actions of this Archbishop, we have witnessed the stepping over of others to get into the pool. Rather than building walls with rules to keep people out, we should be building larger tables to accommodate all who wish to come.
The miracle of today’s story is not the man’s healing; the miracle of the story is how Jesus changed everything. No longer is healing reserved for those who have means or those who are first, but healing is available to all who wish to be healed.
Let us strive to be individuals and a community that is genuinely open to all and makes available God’s grace to all.