Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
PLEASE READ: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and John 5:1-9
From our very first trip to Paris many years ago, the dome of Les Invalides has always impressed me. That’s the big golden dome – a magnificent triumph of French Baroque architecture - over here to the East of us. Especially at night, it is very impressive as it is lit up. In 1670 King Louis the XIV decided to build the hôtel national des Invalides for homeless veterans of war. It was originally built as a hospital and rest home for veterans, but houses a magnificent chapel where all military funerals are held… and has a church called Saint Louis des Invalides. Perhaps the most significant event was the return of Napoleon’s remains to rest there in the huge sarcophagus just under the dome. There are also three museums there. I’m told that a renovation of the dome was completed in 1999, using over 6 kilos of pure gold to give it that stunning glow. Aside from the Eiffel Tower, I think the dome of Les Invalides dominates the Parisian skyline.
I’ll admit it took me a year to learn how to pronounce it correctly. To an American, it looks like it should be pronounced “Les In-val-eds” but as it is one of the main metros near my house I finally figured out that it’s pronounced, more or less: “Lez-ahn-va-Leeds.” But the incorrect pronunciation actually gets at my point today, in that literally, les Invalides was built for invalid people: those who had been maimed or wounded by the violence of war. I find it striking how humiliating it would be to be called an invalid person!
In English, valid literally means strong or of value, coming from the Latin valere… Invalid, on the other hand, means weak, or of no value. We say you need to have a valid driver’s license, meaning that it is properly authorized. We validate another’s feelings by affirming them. Most of us only experience trivial experiences of invalidation on a regular basis. For example, when you go to the prefecture de police to get your papers… (Need I say more)?! Or when you get on the bus with your Navigo pass and confidently put it up to the little gizmo only to hear a loud “NNNN!” and red lights… the bus driver usually waves me on… Or when you have to jump the turnstiles on the metro because your ticket isn’t working? I’ve had a few embarrassing moments in a restaurant when my debit card is returned invalid… As hard as those moments are when you are not “validated,” imagine the traumatizing loss that renders one physically or socially invalid: veterans or victims of terror who lose a limb; or those who have been convicted of a crime and had to serve time; or perhaps closer to home; when you lose a job suddenly and wear the scarlet letter of “Unemployed.” Or when you go through a painful divorce… or bear the grief of childlessness. Some of you know what it’s like to be sans papiers… There are any number of ways that we experience a sense of personal failure or public humiliation through invalidation…
Imagine 38 years (13,780 days) of full time invalidation. That’s how John describes the nameless man in our gospel text today. John paints a scene at the pool of Bethzatha near the Sheep Gate where there were five porticoes, or porches, where many blind, lame or paralyzed people were crowded. Why we were all of these invalids there anyway? Did you notice a strange thing about our text today? Verse four is missing! If you look down at the footnotes, it says that the invalids were “waiting for the stirring of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” In other words, the guy in our story today was really in-valid, because in 38 years he had never quite made it into the healing pools in time! Wow. It’s one thing to be despised by the general public. It’s quite another to be considered a loser in the invalid crowd! This man seems to have settled for last place as an outsider among the outsiders.
But Jesus sees the man and “knew that he had been there a long time,” and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” It seems like an insensitive question, but perhaps Jesus knew the man’s heart better than the man himself? This guy had resigned long ago. And immediately the man started making excuses: “I have no one to help me…someone else steps down ahead of me…” I don’t know if this guy wanted to be the victim or not, but his excuse seems well rehearsed. It’s not the first time he’s had to explain why he’s still the way he is. He knows that in the first century physical impairment was thought to be related to sinfulness. In other words, there was no pity or compassion when people looked at this man. There was judgment. There was silent condemnation. “You deserve your lot in life” was the clear message this invalid received daily.
But Jesus cut through all of that with a simple command. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And John writes, “At once, the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.” It’s an incredible story of miraculous and immediate healing and restoration. The man no longer needs the healing pool of Bethzatha. He is “at once” restored. He is strong. He is authenticated once again and welcomed into the ranks of valid society again, at least for a moment. Ironically, if you keep reading, this healing turns into a religious scandal, but that’s another sermon… The main point here is that Jesus has the power and the will to heal this man, and he speaks forth into the hopelessness, the humiliation, the frustration of this man’s life and brings restoration and redemption; Jesus brings healing and wholeness to this man!
I have seen miraculous physical healing a few times in my ministry. It has never been the norm, but there are other accounts of healing in the New Testament. Later in John (in 9:3 and 11:4) we see Jesus explain how his healing power is used so that God might be glorified… Notice that today’s healing account has nothing to do with the man’s faith or his doctrinal views. It’s not that he has merited this gift, prayed harder or seen the light… Jesus clearly tells him afterwards “do not sin anymore.” Here Jesus shows God’s gracious healing power, a power that is given for a new identity, new value, and a new purpose in life...
As we read this text alongside the beautiful vision of John’s Revelation text, the vision of the “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God…” points to God’s intention for the church as an Easter new life community. We are first of all to receive God’s validating, healing power given to us by what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. Jesus’s death and resurrection is a sign that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. As Paul says in II Corinthians, if anyone is in Christ, behold, they are a new creation…!”
We are the “thin place” as the Celts used to call it, between the here and now and the new heaven and the new earth in Christ. There is no temple or special place of worship needed, because the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb! There will be no need for sun or moon, for the light of God, the lamp of the Lamb will provide all the glorious light that is needed. Notice that heaven will be a multicultural experience of glorious peace and beauty! “The nations” will all walk in God’s light and bring the best of what they have to enrich the community. There will be no unclean practices, no terror, no treachery. All who are written in the Lamb’s book of life will be welcome. We will be righteous because he is righteous! We will be worthy because he is worthy! And I love the image of the river of the water of life flowing through the city, and the tree of life on each side of the river which produces fruit year round… D o you see the connection: the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations!
This vision to me says that our life together is to be a healing presence to one another. But much more than that, our life together is to bring healing to the nations. We are to be a generative community. We are to be a life-giving community, a healing community, not just for ourselves, but for this city, and for the world.
This Wednesday we will remember V-E Day, and all of those who gave their lives in the Second World War to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. You know during the war there is the story of a German panzer tank that was rolling down the boulevard on the opposite side of the river in either late 1943 or early 1944, and when it came just opposite the American Church it stopped and the gun turret moved around slowly until the barrel pointed directly at the church. There was real fear that the tank commander was going to blow up the ACP. But after a while, the barrel turned to face forward, and it continued on down the river.
I am thankful that we are still on the banks of the river in one piece. I think God has us here for a purpose. I am thankful that we may remember how God welcomes invalidated people like you and me and validates us; redeems and restores us by the blood of the Lamb. Our validation is activated simply by faith… And as we live into the healing, redemptive power of Christ, we are called to be a life-giving healing presence to one another, to this city, and to all the nations.
So when you leave from here today, perhaps you might walk by the Invalides esplanade. Reflect how old Louis XIV had the wisdom so long ago to build a healing place along the river. And consider how that beautiful gold dome is a monument to the value and strength even for those invalidated by the ravages of war and sickness… I wonder, though our building is more humble in stature, if we don’t also have a powerful calling to be about the validating, healing, life-giving work of the Kingdom of God? If so, then may this table be for you a source of strength, a reminder of your validity, your value and strength as a beloved child of God, and your mission in the world to bear the fruit of the Lord’s healing compassion and life-giving love for all people.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.