During the 50 days of Pascha, from Pascha to Pentecost, the readings in the Church are from the book of Acts of the Apostles and from the Gospel according to St. John. There are two exceptions to this. One is the reading from the Tuesday of Bright Week, where you have the reading about the disciples going to Emmaus. The reason for that is, according to St. Luke’s gospel, Luke and Cleopas walked to Emmaus where the risen Lord came to walk with them, and then they ran back to Jerusalem after encountering the risen Lord and knowing him in the breaking of the bread, and when he explained to him that the Messiah had to suffer to enter into his glory, according to St. Luke’s gospel that took place on the third day after the Pascha Sunday, after the day of resurrection. So on that third day after the resurrection, that particular gospel is read. Then on the third Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, the gospel is from St. Mark because it’s about the women, primarily about the women.
So you have those two exceptions, but all the other gospels are from the Gospel according to St. John. Virtually all of them are from St. John’s gospel from what is called by the scholars and the Tradition the Book of Signs. St. John’s gospel begins with the prologue; that’s read on Pascha night. Then you have the kind of recapitulation of the entire gospel, kind of the antithesis of the prologue, the antipascha on the second Sunday of Pascha, the Sunday of Thomas, where you have the reading in church on Sunday of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ.
Then, after the prologue in St. John’s gospel, you have a series of encounters of Jesus with the people, various people, various sorts of people, very selective from the life of Christ, but also very detailed in the narration of events and in the discussion about the events. In general, those first eleven chapters of St. John’s gospel, called the Book of Signs, have seven miraculous signs, miraculous events that are called in the gospel “signs, [simeia].” They’re not called miracles; they’re called signs.
Then you have very extended conversations of Jesus with, for example, Nicodemus; Jesus with the Samaritan woman. Jesus has a long discourse after he feeds the people in the wilderness about his being the bread of life, the living bread that comes down from heaven. Then you have a very long description of the man who was born blind and the conversation of Jesus with him, with his parents, with the leaders of the people. Then, of course, the ultimate sign is the raising of Lazarus, which is also a very detailed event. It actually is done on Lazarus Saturday, of course, in the Church. And then a conversation with Martha and Mary about his being the Resurrection and the Life.
Now, in this Book of Signs, when you have actually these miraculous signs of Jesus’ Messiah-hood, there are seven of them. The first of them, the very first sign that Jesus performs is at Cana in Galilee, where he goes to the wedding and he changes the water into wine at the request of his mother. And that is the first sign, and it says his disciples began to believe on him. That particular event, that sign is read in the Church’s liturgy on Monday of the second week of Pascha. Then the second of the great signs, the messianic signs of the seven, is when Jesus heals and brings back to life the dying son of the official of the synagogue in Capernaum, where he says, “Your son will live,” and the moment that he says that, from that moment the son was healed. That particular sign is read on Monday of the third week.
Then the third of the great signs is the healing of the paralytic at the sheep-gate pool called Bethesda in Jerusalem. That particular gospel is read on the fourth Sunday of Pascha, and that is what we will be reflecting on in a minute or two. But just to continue, just to see the whole picture, the fourth of the great messianic signs of Jesus is when he feeds the people in the wilderness, that he multiplies the loaves and he feeds the people in the wilderness. Then that particular sign is followed by about 60 verses of explanation about how he himself is the bread of life: he is the living bread that comes down from heaven; he is the bread that, if you eat it, you never die; his flesh is food indeed; his blood is drink indeed, and unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God, you have no life in you. Actually, that particular event of the loaves and the multiplication of the loaves and the feeding of the people and Jesus’ discourse about being, himself, the bread of life, that is read on four or five days during the third week of Pascha. When you’d go every day during that week, you would hear that story broken up into parts at the readings at the liturgy.
The fifth sign that Jesus performs in St. John’s gospel is when he walks on the water in the storm. After he multiplies the loaves and feeds the people in the wilderness and then they go over to the other side and the people chase after him, wanting to be fed, and he said, “You’re coming only because I fed you. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but the food that I will give you, that if you eat it, you’ll never die; you’ll live forever.” But after the multiplication of the loaves and before he has that long discourse about being the bread of life, he does the sign of walking on the water, calming the winds and walking upon the water. That’s read on the Saturday of the second week of this Paschal season, that particular sign.
Then the sixth sign is the healing of the man born blind, and that’s the gospel reading for the sixth Sunday of the Paschal season. Then the final sign is the raising of Lazarus, in the Book of Signs. So you have those seven signs. The seventh is the raising of Lazarus, which is not read during this period, because it’s already been read before the Entry into Jerusalem on Lazarus Saturday. But on the Monday of that sixth week, you have references to the raising of Lazarus and to all the signs which Jesus did.
It says he did so many signs among the people, and then the question is always raised why they don’t believe in him, why they don’t accept him. Simply put, Jesus says a couple of times in this part of his Gospel why that is so. He says if any person’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether or not he is from God and his signs are from God. That particular gospel is actually read on the feast of Mid-Pentecost, the middle day between Pascha and Pentecost: “If any man’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether or not I am of God. He will know whether or not I am the Messiah.”
But then he chides the people several times when he says things like, “How can you believe, when you seek glory from one another and not the glory that is from God alone?” So the teaching of Jesus is that if we’re seeking to give glory to God, then we will believe. We will come to believe; we will have the gift of faith. If our will is to do his will, then we will know that this is the truth. But if we’re seeking the glory of men and seeking the glory of each other and wanting to do our own will, then we will never believe, we will never see, and we will never come to know.
So this is the kind of content of the gospel readings from St. John’s gospel during this Paschal season. What we should notice is that in virtually every one of these signs in the Book of Signs, and all of the conversation that accompanies these signs, virtually all of them have to do with what we could call now sacramental themes: themes that are connected primarily to baptism, to having our old life end and new life begin, radical change, radical transformation. They have to do with washing, very often. Almost all of them have to do with water, water as washing, and water also as drinking. Indeed, the one Sunday gospel during this period which is not a miraculous sign but is still a messianic sign is the reading for the fifth Sunday of the Paschal season, and that is the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. In due time, of course, we will comment on that as well as on the blind man.
But there’s water involved in all of them: washing in the water, walking on the water—calming the waves, showing that the Lord has power over the nature and cosmos—feeding people—he feeds them at the wedding in Cana; actually, he gives them the wine to drink; he feeds them in the wilderness, giving himself then as the bread of life, and speaks about eating and drinking. In the blind man, he washes him; he anoints him so that he can see. So these are all kind of sacramental signs involving water: being put into the water, being cleansed with the water, being washed by the water, drinking the water, drinking at the wedding the wine, eating the bread of life, drinking the blood which is our drink at the holy Eucharist. So these signs are all baptismal and eucharistic, and they are actually, we believe, written for people who have just been baptized, who have been illumined, whose eyes have been opened, whose paralysis has been healed, who are now able to walk and to talk and to see and to hear and to know and to perceive and to understand and to be cleansed and to be forgiven, and therefore to believe and to come to know and—most important of all—to live. People who have been given life and are fed life, that they eat and drink his body and blood for life. They drink the living water, that if you drink of it you can’t die again.
These are all the themes that run through these eleven chapters of St. John’s gospel that are read during this season. We should pay attention. We should pay attention: how the first sign is at a wedding. The Bible will end with a wedding. It will end with the wedding supper of the Lamb, and the New Jerusalem, shining, will come down from heaven, and we will all eat and drink in the kingdom of God. We will eat and drink, and Christ will be our food. So the very first messianic sign is at a wedding, and it’s giving good wine to drink. So that’s very important, and of course the ultimate sign is raising Lazarus from the dead, giving life.
Now on this fourth Sunday of Pascha, we have at the Sunday gospel the reading of the third great messianic sign in St. John’s gospel. This is how it goes.
There was a feast of the Jews, and it’s interesting to note that almost all of these events in St. John’s gospel and all of these long discourses take place at a feast: there was a feast, it was the middle of the feast, it was the fullness of the feast, it was the last day of the feast, Jesus went up to the feast, it was the feast of Passover, it was the feast of tabernacles—because you have also this festal character of these gospels, because the great Feast of Feasts and the Holy Day of Holy Days is the Pascha of Christ; it’s the resurrection of Christ from the dead. So you have this festal character.
So there was a feast of the Jews, and during that feast Jesus goes up to Jerusalem. Now, the first of the messianic signs and the second take place in Galilee. The first in Cana; the second is in Capernaum. Now the third takes place in Jerusalem: he goes up to Jerusalem. Then it says that in Jerusalem, by the sheep-gate, there was a pool that in Hebrew was called Bethesda or Bezatha or Bethsaida, depending on how it’s translated. It says that at this pool there was this five porticoes, and then in these places there lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, paralyzed—and there was at that time a kind of a healing center there.
In fact, one Polish Orthodox priest, Fr. Klinger, he once wrote a very learned essay about how this probably, strangely enough, was a place of Gentile healing, not only Jewish healing; everybody would come there because they knew it was a healing center, not only Jews, but Gentiles. And they would wait for what was called the moving of the waters. The understanding was that at certain times the waters had healing powers. It says when the waters were troubled. One of the readings even adds that an ancient part of this, which is sometimes in this text and sometimes not, speaks about the angel of God descending, a messenger of God, a power of God would come into this water, and the people who entered would be healed.
So according to this particular event in St. John’s gospel, there was a man who had been ill and paralyzed for 38 years, and he was lying there, waiting somehow to be healed. Then it says in this narrative that Jesus comes there, and he sees this man lying there, and he says to him, “Do you want to be healed?” Now when we hear Jesus saying that, it can sound very strange to us. In fact, I can remember myself preaching at this particular liturgy in the past where I would actually—once I even said in a sermon—I hadn’t intended to say it, but it came out in a sermon that I was giving—that sounds like a very silly question. It’s almost as if Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?” and if you were being very facetious and very rude, the man would have said to Jesus, “Well, what do you think I’m lying here for? Of course I want to be healed. That’s why I’m here.” If you were really very rude to the point of almost of sacrilege or of blasphemy, you could have said to him, “Who are you? You should know everything, especially if you are the Son of God. I mean, you should know what I’m doing here.”
But if we take it as it’s given, Jesus says to him, “Do you want to be healed?” Now that’s a very important question; it’s not a silly question at all. In fact, it’s a critical question; it’s a crucial question—because all of this is addressed to us. All of these signs are for us. We are somehow the persons in the dramatic events of all these stories. We have to identify ourselves with them. In fact our teachers would say we don’t put ourselves into those stories; we take those stories and put those stories into our life. We put those gospel events into our life as we live it here and now. So it can be that we could hear ourselves, the Lord saying to us, “Do you want to be healed?”
Now if we had just been recently baptized and we were hearing this, we might even dare say for the first time and going through all of this, we would say, “Yes, I want to be healed, and I’ve already been healed. I’ve been healed by you, Christ. I’ve been washed by you. I have been submerged into the waters myself, the waters of baptism. And I have been raised with you and I am now no longer paralyzed; I am no longer walking.” So we could answer back very forcefully: Yes, we want to be healed.
It’s interesting that the kontakion, the main hymn for this feast in church on this fourth Sunday, it’s what it says. This is how it goes:
By your divine intercession, your action, O Lord, as you raised up the paralytic of old, so raise up my life, raise up my soul, paralyzed by sins and thoughtless acts, so that, being saved, I may sing to you: Glory to your majesty, O merciful Christ!
So we’re still praying to be delivered from the paralysis of our sins and our thoughtless deeds, our mindless acts. But when we were baptized, the power of that baptism was to release us from this paralysis, to make us walk, to make us live, to heal us, to save us. Very often in the Gospel when it says “your faith has healed you” or “your faith has made you well” or “made you whole,” in Greek it uses the word “save”: “your faith has saved you.”
In any case, coming back to this particular event, Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?’ and that’s that question that is asked to us all the time, because, we must remember, some folks don’t want to be healed. Some folks actually prefer their sickness; they prefer their madness; they prefer their blindness; they prefer their paralysis—for whatever reasons. They find some pleasure in it, or they prefer to be sick so they don’t have to take responsibility. They don’t have to walk, they don’t have to live, they don’t have to act. They say, “Oh, I’m sick.” People can pity them. People can come and give something. You might say, “Gee, that’s strange. Of course everybody wants to be well. Everybody wants to be active.” But, you know, that may not always be that true.
Of course, no one wants pain and suffering, but a lot of our sickness, a lot of our paralysis may not be even that painful. For example, this man lying here for 38 years, paralyzed, unable to walk, he may not have been in any particular pain. He may have been paralyzed, but he’s lying there, waiting to be put into the water. So in this gospel narrative, the man wants to be healed. He does want to be healed, but not all people want to be healed. That’s why Jesus has to ask him: Do you want to be healed? Are you ready to take the responsibility of healing, of health? Do you want to stand up and walk? Do you want to live? Or are you content just lying there, feeling sorry for yourself, having other people feel sorry for you, being taken of to some extent?—because the man was there for 38 years and he remained alive. Good people must have been taking care of him; they must have been feeding him, clothing him somehow, taking care of him. So it’s worth thinking about. We should all think about that. Do I want to be healed?
Now the man answers Jesus when he asks him that question—Do you want to be healed? The sick man answers and said, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. And when I am going, another steps down before me.” So he said: I can’t get to the water. I can’t get to the healing water, and I have no one who will help me into that water. Now, the minute you hear about being put into water, you can’t help but think about baptism. In the Orthodox Church, according to the ancient traditions, baptism is done by immersion in water. The very word, vaptizma in Greek, it means immersion, or submersion. It certainly means being cleansed by water. Actually, the word also means not only immersion; it means simply cleansing. For example, in the Gospel where it says the people were eating with unwashed hands, when Jesus is chided that his disciples are eating with unwashed hands, the verb in Greek is “unbaptized”: the hands that have not gone through vaptizma. But that means to go into the water.
So if we hear that these people were put into the water, if we had just been baptized, we would vividly remember that we had just gone down into the waters. And we should remember that every day of our life, that we were submerged in the baptismal waters, that we died with Christ in baptism, we were raised with Christ in baptism. And that’s what we celebrate on Pascha and on the whole Paschal season. Indeed, the readings of the Paschal vigil are Romans, where it says, “Do you not know that everyone who was baptized into Christ was baptized into his death? We were buried with him in baptism, and we are raised with him in everlasting life, to walk in newness of life.” To walk: that’s a biblical way of speaking, too. Deuteronomy always speaks about walking with God, walking according to commandments, how do you walk? It’s a kind of synonym for living; the verb “to walk” is a synonym for the verb “to live, to act, to move.”
So it says “to walk in newness of life.” That’s what’s read on the great Paschal Vigil, when the people were baptized, and we read it every year on that day. Then the gospel reading at the Paschal Vigil of Great and Holy Saturday, the St. Basil Liturgy, it’s about: “Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded,” Christ says. “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I used to joke with the students when I was teaching at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I would ask them about the reading of the epistle and the gospel at the Paschal Vigil Liturgy, the evening Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on Great and Holy Saturday evening, which is in fact the great Paschal Liturgy. The students used to say, “Oh, Fr. Tom, that’s an easy question. At that particular Liturgy, we read the readings from baptism. It’s the readings from baptism that are read at that Liturgy.” And I would joke with the students and say, “No, that’s not true; that’s not right.” It is right, but it isn’t right. It’s not that the baptism readings are read at the Paschal Vigil; it’s that the Paschal Vigil eucharistic Liturgy readings are read at baptisms. It’s not that we read that readings for baptism on Pascha; we read the Pascha readings at baptisms. It’s just the opposite. But baptism and Pascha are so connected because we die and rise with Christ in baptism. That’s why we even sing at the Paschal canon, “Yesterday I died with you; today I live with you. Yesterday I went down with you into the tomb; today I am raised up with you.” Well, that refers to baptism.
Now, at this particular gospel, this being put into the water also creates that memory of baptism. The man could have said, “Yes, I desire to be healed, but I have no one to baptize me. I have no one to put me into the water when that water heals and I can be made well.” It’s interesting that Jesus, in St. John’s gospel, he doesn’t put the man into the water. He does not. He simply says to him, “Stand up, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once, the man was healed, and he took up his pallet, and he walked.
So Jesus effects the healing of that man by his word alone. It’s the Word that accompanies baptism that saves us. Sure, it’s the water; sure, it’s the immersion, but it’s the words that accompany them. There are plenty of baptisms all over the place, and there still are. The Jews baptize; the Essenes baptize. Hindus and Buddhists have libation ceremonies. People wash in the Ganges River and so on. But there’s only one baptism that heals. There’s only one baptism that gives everlasting life, and that’s the baptism into Christ. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Nicene Creed says, “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” That means I confess that there’s only one baptism that really works, that works forever, that works everlastingly, that does not and cannot be repeated. It’s something once and for all. As Christ died on the cross once and for all and is raised once and for all, so those who have been baptized with faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in Christ that is their once-and-for-all resurrection together with Jesus. So it’s the Word.
Once in our seminary chapel we were baptizing a grown woman, a 28-year-old woman. She had been a Nazarene missionary in Romania where she was sent to convert the people, namely, the Orthodox. She went there and got converted herself to Orthodoxy, and then she came to St. Vladimir’s, but she had never been baptized. She was a Nazarene missionary, but she had never been baptized. So on the day that she was baptized in our chapel, Fr. Paul Lazar, Dean of Students at the time, gave the sermon where he said: Some of Holly’s—that was her name, Michaela in the Church—friends were videotaping this baptism, and he said: If they had the videotape with no sound, with no word, this could have been practically any religious rite on the face of the earth. You bring a person in, you put him in a white robe, they get immersed in water, then you put oils on them, then you cut their hair, then they hold a candle, then they make a procession, then they’re fed something to eat in a holy meal. He said this exists in a lot of cultures, but what makes this what it is for us are the words, that it’s Christ, the Word of God. It’s the fulfillment of all the desires and all the baptisms of all religions on planet earth. This is the one that’s real; this is the one that works. The baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the baptism into Christ.
So Jesus here doesn’t even have to use the water, and Jesus did not baptize. His disciples did, John did, but he didn’t. But here he simply says, “Rise up, stand up, take your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man is healed by the word of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he takes up his pallet and he walks.
Now in this sign, as in many others, certainly about the man born blind, this takes place on the sabbath. So it was not only a feast, but it was sabbath.
Now that day was the sabbath (it says). So the leaders of the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath. It is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.”
They might have even said, “It is not lawful for you to be healed on this day. Choose another day to be healed.” How many times did they say that to Jesus in the four gospels? In fact, in St. Mark’s gospel, one of the first miracles Jesus does is to heal a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. They tell him, “Don’t get healed on the sabbath. This is not right.” And it says that Jesus looked at them, grieving, with anger, and he said, “How can you say such a thing? The sabbath is made for man, not man for the sabbath, and it is not unlawful to do good on the sabbath.” So he does this on the sabbath, on purpose, and he tells the man to walk and to carry the bed on purpose. So the man says, “He who healed me said: Take up your pallet and walk.” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you: Take up your pallet and walk?”
Now the paralyzed man who had been healed, he didn’t know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn and there was a big crowd there. But afterwards, Jesus found that same man in the Temple, because usually when a person was healed, they had to go to the Temple and offer proper thanksgiving and proper sacrifice as Moses commanded when they were healed. So the man did go to the Temple and Jesus saw him, and he said, “Behold, you are now well. You have been saved. Don’t sin any more.” And that could be said to us. After we’re baptized, don’t sin any more! “Sin no more. You are well. Lest something worse befall you.”
Of course, if we sin after we’re baptized, really something worse does befall us. In fact, in the letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle says if we sin unto death after we’re baptized, there’s no more redemption for us, only the prospect of fiery ordeal, that if we betray our baptism into Christ, if we apostatize from him, then we are lost. In the early Church there was a huge controversy about whether apostates could be saved, whether they could have holy Communion again if they had been baptized and then denied Christ, even in times of persecution. Happily, and hopefully under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it was decided in the Church, yes, a person could repent even of apostasy, but then they would get communion only one time on their death bed when they were dying; they had to live a life of total penance.
But baptism was serious. If you’ve been healed, by baptism, then you’d better “go and sin no more,” is what the Christ says to us. Of course, we’re still praying, because we’re sinners after baptism: Have mercy on us! Deliver us from all of our sins and failings and paralysis, as we sang in the kontakion on this day.
So Jesus says to the man, “See, behold: you are well. You are saved. Don’t sin any more, that nothing worse befall you.” Then the man went away, and he told the leaders of the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. Then it says this is why they persecuted Jesus: because he did this on the sabbath. Now when Jesus answers to them about why he does that, he doesn’t simply say the sabbath is made for man and not man for the sabbath. He doesn’t just teach some type of spiritual freedom about doing good on sabbath day. He actually claims to himself that he has the right to work on the sabbath, because he is God’s Son. And he answers them and he says, “My Father is working still, and I am working, too.” And then it says in the gospel of John, “This is why they sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but called God his own Father, thereby making himself equal with God.”
And that’s very important, because not only in John’s gospel, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus never ever speaks about God or talks about God or talks to God in any other way but as Father, as the Father, and as my Father. Once we are baptized, God becomes our Father, and we are having the boldness and the daring to call him Abba Father together with Jesus. We do it by faith and grace; Jesus does it because he is literally, by nature, the very Son of God, and he is equal to God. He and the Father are one. Those who see him see the Father. His words are the Father’s words. His works are the Father’s works. His will is the Father’s will. Now, the Father is greater than he, because he is begotten of the Father, even in his divinity, but he and the Father are one, and his divinity is identical to that of the one God who is his Father.
So this is how the reading ends, where the man is healed on the sabbath. Jesus insists that he has the right to do it, because he is God’s Son; he is the Messiah. And he calls God his Father, making himself equal to God, and he shows that he has the power over paralysis, over blindness, over life and death. And in the other signs in the Gospel, he will show that he has power over nature: he has power over the winds; he has power over the seas. He will show that he has power to feed people in the desert, to multiply the loaves, that he himself is the bread of life, that he has the power to change the water into wine, to give everlasting life to his people, that he has the power to raise up this little boy who was dying and to say to his father: “Your son will live.” This is what Christ has the power to do, even to open the eyes of a man born blind from his birth.
So this is what these signs are showing in St. John’s gospel, and this is what we hear on the fourth Sunday of Pascha: the paralytic man, 38 years waiting to be healed, wanting to be healed, and being healed by Christ, by his word alone, on the sabbath, and being commanded: “Go and sin no more.” And this is our prayer, too. Let’s hear one last time the kontakion of this Sunday as we identify ourselves with that paralyzed man.
By your divine intercession, O Lord, as you raised up the paralytic of old, so now raise up my soul, my life, my nefesh, that is paralyzed by sins and thoughtless deeds, so that, being saved, I may sing to you: Glory to your majesty, O bountiful Christ.