BIBLE READING: John 5:1-11
Our church runs Playtime and English Classes. These are for people and families in our area who are new to Australia or who live in the Apartments and want some space for their children to play.
The Uniting Church in Australia is the largest provider of aged care, preschool care and family care after the government. The Christian church across denominations throughout the world, provides more financial, material and personnel support to developing nations than any country on earth.
Why do we bother? What are we supposed to be doing anyway? I don’t think we have a very clear understanding of what it means to be in ministry to others. Today I want to explore what it means to be in ministry to others. I want to explore our motives and our responses to meeting people’s needs. For it seems to me that we have got hung up trying to help people, and have become more and more influenced by economic rationalism.
Let me introduce you to Ray Ligus - an average sort of bloke / blokess, who has been following Jesus. Ray is very impressed with Jesus and has been travelling with him and his disciples. One day, Ray notices that Jesus slips away from the disciples and enters Jerusalem. Ray decides to follow him. Soon they are approaching Bethesda - a place of sickness and despair, tempered by the hope that the waters will be stirred.
Ray is impressed with the pillars that provide shade for the sick and disabled. The pillars at Bethesda “the house of mercy” were built by some well-meaning rich man to protect those in need from heatstroke.
Is that your response? It is surely the response of many well-meaning people. They would give a hat to a man dying of thirst in the desert to save him from sunstroke. Another image is of people who arrange for Ambulances at the bottom of a cliff, rather than place a fence at the top. It is an issue of symptoms and illness. You can treat the symptoms till the cows come home, but until the illness is treated there will be no long term benefits.
Ray, while impressed by the shelter provided, is slightly cynical about who this benefits - the rich man who donated the porticoes or the sick. Rather than treat the symptoms, Ray decides to look around and see whom he can help. “Let’s be logical,” thinks Ray, “I better be careful to make my time count.”
Have you ever watched MASH? They are always talking about Triage - a French term that has become common in reviewing medical emergencies. All the sick and injured are categorised into one of three types. Those who will probably survive, without immediate medical attention; those who will probably survive if given immediate medical attention; and those who will probably not survive, even if given immediate medical attention.
Ray being an avid watcher of Roman medical soapies, sorts out the sick into the three groupings. There is someone who has some scabs, there is a lady with arthritis and over there is a 38yr no-hoper. Ray makes a bee-line to the lady, someone he feels he can help.
Is that your response? I have a friend who cannot understand why Mother Theresa of Calcutta bothered with terminally ill lepers. There are many others she could have been helping - her time could have been better spent.
We have become influenced by the world’s belief that there needs to be some balance between return and effort. This is the economic rationalist approach to human misery. Our Federal Government is being driven by such thinking as it examines where to cut funding. It is the first and third groupings that are cut from budget considerations. Aborigines, refugees, the aged and frail lose out when returns for effort or investment are considered.
Here is a test - Who would you rather witness too? A prostitute or the housewife next door? A big tough, swearing, beer swilling wharfie or the mild mannered guy who’s been asking questions about religion? Don’t get me wrong, we are called to witness to all the world! My concern is that we seem to only cope with those needs and problems or people we feel able to help. This is not what God wants us to do.
Whether we can cope with the problem or not is not an issue with God; it’s whether we allow HIM to cope with it, instead of doing it in our own power.
Now le’ts get back to Bethesda.
Ray notices that Jesus has gone over to the 38yr no-hoper. Ray decides to follow him and listen in on the conversation. And he hears Jesus ask the man who had been ill for 38 years - “Do you want to be healed?” Ray can’t believe his ears - what a ridiculous question - of course the bloke wants to be healed - wouldn’t anyone suffering pain and illness, discomfort and privation for 38 years?
Poor Ray - he hasn’t got on God’s wave length at all! Jesus knew that you can help a person all you like, but if they don’t want to change, then all your love and ministry to them is useless. Think about this - a man incapacitated for 38 years, just to still be alive, means that he was successful at begging - if he is cured, he loses his living.
When I was a chaplain at Gladesville Psychiatric Hospital I was doing the rounds with another chaplain, when we encountered this woman - Mary. On seeing the little crosses on my friends collar, she fell to the floor at his feet and cried out “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” My friends, quick as a flash, said, “Mary, in Jesus name, your sins are forgiven.” Mary looked confused for a moment, then wandered off and repeated the process with one of the nurses. Mary could not accept the forgiveness offered to her, because if she did her whole way of life and lifestyle would have had to change. To do that would be risky - at least she knew how to cope as she was.
So getting back to Jesus question, how does the 38 year no-hoper respond? He has misunderstood what Jesus has said - he thinks Jesus has said can I help you? But at least his heart is in the right place - we can infer from what he says that he wants to be healed.
Ray, who has been listening, thinks - “You Beaut! To help this bloke all I’ve got to do is wait till the water bubbles, dip him in and bingo - he’s cured!”
We can be like Ray - we can rush around meetings someone’s wants and never face up to their real needs. It’s again the problem of symptom and illness. It’s so easy to treat symptoms - the “take two disprin and call me in the morning” approach - and never get near the actual problem. Jesus never just treated symptoms. He seemed to be able to face the need or problem a person had face on - no nibbling around the edges.
“Do you want to be healed?” If the answer is positive - he heals. We can ask that question - “do you want to be healed?” but then go and waste our time and theirs treating symptoms.
Like Ray and the 38 year no-hoper we limit the power of God to what we think is possible. If we limit the power of God in our own lives, we will never see God’s power at work in the lives of those around us. Jesus says to the man - “rise, take up your mat and walk,” and he took up his bed and walked - we will never see this while we limit God. We will be like Ray running around on the sidelines, wanting to help, well-meaning, eager to please. But until we put our trust completely in God and obey him as the sick man obeyed Jesus, our ministry will be second rate - we will work to make sure things don’t get any worse. Rather than seeing people healed of their hurts we will stand with the world and look on with pity but no power. Let us put our trust and faith in our God, let us minister to others as he has ministered to us. To God be all honour, Glory and power. Amen.