Monday, February 1, 2010

Two Groups

Two Groups

During a recent retreat, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a few colleagues reflecting on  the first fifteen verses of John 5 -- the story of Jesus healing a man by a pool at Bethesda.  

As I thought about the story, it occurred to me that the setting would in many ways have been beautiful - Greco-Roman architecture with five covered colonnades surrounding a pool that had once been a site for the worship of the Greek god of medicine.  The story also tells us that large numbers of disabled people gathered there awaiting the stirring of the water.  The belief was that the first one into the pool when the water was stirred would be healed.

Admittedly, there is much about the group that gathered there that we do not know.  Some may have been on their own and barely surviving.  Others may have had others to help them, perhaps supplying food or assisting them in coming and going to the gathering place around the pool.  Some may have had to learn to be fiercely independent to survive.  Others may have become accustomed to having others wait upon them and assist them as they waited.  One might also wonder, especially among those most desperate for healing, whether or not some would have resorted to aggression or even become ruthless in their pursuit of healing, while others resigned themselves to a place on the sidelines, in the realization of how unlikely it would be that they would ever be able to get into the water in time.  This was a race that had only one winner.

It is in the midst of the group of people that we find Jesus, approaching a man who had been suffering with his condition for thirty eight years (what for many in that day was a lifetime) with a startling question, "Do you want to get well?"

You would think that the answer to the question would be obvious, but what was intriguing to me as I reflected on this story, is the extent to which I found myself resonating with the man's response.  When the question is raised, instead of contemplating the possibilities of what healing might actually mean for him, he gravitates toward explanations of why it was not likely to happen to him --much of which focused on the reality that he was not in the midst of a community of people who were likely to put his interests ahead of their own.  In fact, what he was in the midst of, was not so much a community of people who saw themselves as supporting and being there for each other, as a group that was bound together primarily by the realization that they all wanted the same thing - the group itself was somewhat optional, the goal was individual and personal.  

The picture that began to emerge for me was that of a group of people gathered together, perhaps even working together to some extent, but motivated largely by self- interest.   Now while that may be an over-characterization (in the sense that there may well have been many in and around the group that were much more altruistically motivated than the basic configuration of the situation would imply), unless human nature has changed drastically in the last 2,000 years, it is probably not an overly unfair one.  

I found myself thinking about groups like this . . . of people gathered together, often in beautiful settings . . . bound loosely together by a sense of their need, and perhaps even in competition with each other as they seek healing, primarily, for themselves . . . and how in the midst of this situation, healing was not as frequent an occurrence as we would like.  In such situations, it is not difficult to understand why one's first thoughts when confronted with the prospect of getting well, might turn first to the many reasons whey this is unlikely to happen.

It was not long after this that I found myself in a different passage of scripture -- one that presented an image of people together in community in which the contrast was so sharp as to be almost jarring.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the community of believers that Jesus creates through the presence of the Spirit with the metaphor of the body.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ . . .
If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of th body . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!"  And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!"  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor . . . God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it . . .

Here is a picture of a group of people who are not gathered together in common self-interest, each looking out for themselves together, but a group of people gathered in common interest with a common purpose, each looking out for the interests of the other.  Here the concern is not how do I get in ahead of someone else, or even the futility of trying because only the very few can win anyway, but the sense that we are all moving together as Jesus' body,  seeking to live out His interests in the world.  It is in the midst of a community like this that healing is not so much sought, as healing happens as we respond to Christ Who is the head.  

Struck with the starkness of the contrast, I found myself contemplating the question, "So which community do I want to be a part of?"  "Which community do I actually live in and belong to?"  But what I finally realized, is that I was framing the question inappropriately.  The reality is that I, perhaps I might even be so bold as to say we, belong to both in them.  As C.S. Lewis puts it in one of his volumes in the Chronicles of Narnia series (and I am paraphrasing here)  we are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, and that is glory enough to lift the head of the lowliest servant, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest monarch.

The good news, is that Jesus is very much in the midst of both communities.  He walks among us asking if would like to get well, and works within us to help us become the fully functioning parts of His body - a body that longs to walk without a limp through our world.

No comments: