A Sermon preached on May 1st, Easter VI, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenActs 16: 9 – 15, Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22:5, John 5: 1 – 9
Happy May Day! Where Heidi and I lived before coming here to Wiesbaden, in a small town north of Munich, putting up a maypole and having a Bavarian folk dance around the maypole was and is still a very lively tradition.
Another meaning associated with the 1st May is a more political one – it is the annual holiday to celebrate workers’ rights – especially the right to a rest from their labours. Labour Day, which is I know on a different date in the US, or International Workers' Day has its origins in the labour union movement, and in their various campaigns to reduce the hours of the working day, the numbers of working days in the week, and the number of working hours in a week. Many were successful, though there are constant attempts to turn that clock back and to reduce workers’ protection and rights. So, it is quite appropriate that this year May 1st falls on a Sunday, the day of rest, the Sabbath, the day God “finished the work that he had done, and rested …. from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” (Genesis 2:2-3)
Not only that, we are also in the middle of a sort of Sabbath week entitled „Wiesbaden hält inne” or “Wiesbaden takes a break“ From April 27th until May 4th the city and the local churches have been offering all sorts of events and venues for silence, or at least a mental break. The mayor of Wiesbaden calls it a “week devoted to pausing, taking a breath, being mindful, and to a calm and peaceful encounter with ourselves and our fellows.” It is not over yet. The pavilion of silence on Schlossplatz is still open for use, and on Tuesday, there will be a quiet service of silent prayer, contemplation of icons, and Taizé chants in the chapel of the Roncalli-Haus. This is a wonderful initiative reminding us of the need for rest, focus, and silence in the midst of all our busyness. There are times when we have to take decisions quickly; there are times when we have to give a quick and immediate response. But they are rarely the best, or the most qualified ones and too often our public and political debates can just be noise without substance. There is a lot to be said for a week of silence or even just a taking a day or two. Sometimes we need quiet if we want to be able to hear the still small voice that God uses at times.
Judaism and Christianity are unusual in having a divinely ordained day of rest for all people and it is something worth defending wherever it still exists. For Jews the Sabbath is the “central, core celebration of Jewish life because is it the weekly reminder of the creation of the universe and of humankind, and of the covenant between God and the Jewish People. (It) permits each Jew to connect with God, with family, with community, with self.” That is why it is so well protected. All manner of work is prohibited. The Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, lists four specific prohibitions. The oral law of the Mishnah derived another 39 from the original four and later literature extended them even further.
While we don’t have such a long list in Christianity the Christian Sabbath, Sunday, used to be very firmly enforced in some traditions, is still strictly kept in some families and churches. When we talked about this at the Wednesday Bible Study on participant mentioned I think a friend whose father would carefully remove all the comics from the Sunday newspaper – no fun on Sundays! Another recounted his own experience of getting into trouble for not properly observing the Lord’s Day by washing his car on a Sunday.
Really, the only work we are all supposed to do today is this work. The word "liturgy" that we use to describe our Christian worship is Greek in origin and just meant, "work for the people," or "public service." It is a mutual and reciprocal service. I may be the only one officially working today – and I know some people think that I only work on Sundays, but actually you, the entire congregation, not just me, participates in and offers the liturgy to God. At the same time, it is also God's ministry or service to us, the worshippers. I see the Sabbath itself more as a gift from God, than a command. Just as God rested on the seventh day, human beings, made in God’s image, are to imitate God and rest too.
Yet if we look at today’s Gospel reading we might think that Jesus did not care about the Sabbath. Jesus sees an invalid lying near the pool and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” This man, who must be the least willing and least grateful of all the people Jesus heals in John’s Gospel does not answer the question with a resounding “yes,” but with a complaint. Nevertheless, Jesus heals him and so, as we heard, the man “took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.” (John 5:9)
And as always Jesus’ healing of someone on the Sabbath causes problems. For one thing the command to “stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8) was already a provocation, as carrying a mat or bedding was one of the specific prohibitions of the Mishnah. In the next verse after our reading, the man is told: “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” The man quickly shifts the blame, it wasn’t me officer, that man there who healed me told me to pick up and carry my mat. How does Jesus justify his actions when stopped? ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ (v. 17) In the other gospels Jesus often justifies the healing he does on the Sabbath as a humanitarian exception. The work of helping others, the work of compassion, cannot stop on the Sabbath. Nor did it, no Jew would or will not rescue or save someone in a dire need just because it is the Sabbath. And when Jesus refers to the work of his Father, compassion is certainly part of what he considers God’s work to be. Jesus heals people not for any benefits for himself in gratitude, praise or devotion, and he gets none of that from this man, but simply because it is the work of his Father.
But there is more. Jesus is making a statement about who he is and his listeners recognise that, which is why: “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” (v. 18) In Jewish tradition, God does not completely stop work on the Sabbath. God continues to give and sustain life, and God continues to judge and to forgive. When Jesus says that his “Father is still working, and I also am working,” he is equating his work – giving the man new life, forgiving him his sins – with God’s, and that did not go down well.
So no, Jesus did not teach that we should ignore the idea of Sabbath. We should just not put it above everything else. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (2:27) Sabbath days or times are made for us, and are God’s gift to us, as a time for physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation, as a time for families and friends, as a time for prayer, contemplation, and reflection, as time for the celebration of God’s goodness, as a time for God. But God’s work, God’s life-giving work never stops, nor does our role in that work, as we follow and try to imitate Jesus, the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart and in whom God is made known. (John 1:18).