There was an item of great news this week, (amongst all the bad news!) which I feel we should celebrate. Africa has been declared free of wild polio virus! Those of my generation will remember what a dreaded scourge this infectious disease was before the advent of vaccines; I recall, as a child, having to stop swimming lessons, in case of infection, during what must have been the last outbreak of polio in our area. We saw children who had been paralysed, and became acquainted with the words ‘iron lung’. So, especially in the present time, it is good to remember this victory over human suffering, to thank God for the skill of the scientists and the dedication of the field workers, and to pray for the safety of fieldworkers in remote areas of the world where the disease is still active, and where ignorance and prejudice have cost the lives of those who seek to make the vaccine available to vulnerable children.

Call to Worship

With you, O God, is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Ps. 36:9)

Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. (St John 5: 21)

So let us come to God in worship.

Hymn CH3 354

Glory be to God the Father,

Glory be to God the Son,

Glory be to God the Spirit –

Great Jehovah, Three in One!

Glory, glory, glory, glory,

While eternal ages run!

Glory be to him who loved us,

Washed us from each spot and stain!

Glory be to him who bought us,

Made us kings with him to reign!

Glory, glory, glory, glory

To the Lamb that once was slain!

Glory to the King of angels,

Glory to the Church’s King,

Glory to the King of nations!

Heaven and earth, your praises bring;

Glory, glory, glory, glory

To the King of glory bring!

‘Glory, blessing, praise eternal!’

Thus the choir of angels sings;

‘Honour, riches, power, dominion!’

Thus its praise creation brings;

Glory, glory, glory, glory,

Glory to the King of Kings!

Prayer

God of eternity, Lord of the ages, you are beyond our imagining or our understanding; yet you are nearer to us than breathing. You know our strengths and our weaknesses, our joys and our sorrows;

In Christ you came to us in holy humility, living our life here below, sharing the human experience of hardship and want, trouble and suffering, grief and loneliness, pain and death.

We rejoice in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and in His promise to be always with us, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Holy God, you call us to be holy, but time and again we fail.

Hear us now as we confess our failures to you. and grant us your forgiveness, through our Lord Jesus Christ…Pause

A prayer of St Augustine:

O God, from whom to turn is to fall,

To whom to turn is to rise,

And with whom to stand is to abide forever;

Grant us in all our duties your help,

In all our perplexities your guidance,

In all our dangers your protection,

And in all our sorrows your peace;

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil;

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Reading: St John 5: 19-30

Today’s reading follows on from last week’s lesson, continuing Jesus’ words to the Jewish authorities who had complained about his healing, on the sabbath, of the invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda.

Jesus gave them this answer: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming, and has now come, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to life, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgement is just, for I seek not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.

Hymn CH3 130

Lord, thy word abideth,

And our footsteps guideth;

Who its truth believeth,

Light and joy receiveth.

When the storms are o’er us,

And dark clouds before us,

Then its light directeth,

And our way protecteth.

Word of mercy, giving

Succour to the living;

Word of life, supplying,

Comfort to the dying!

O that we, discerning

Its most holy learning,

Lord, may love and fear thee,

Evermore be near thee!

Reflection

In this passage, Jesus has been justifying his actions in healing on the sabbath to Jewish religious authorities. He continues this theme by making unique claims about his own authority, and its source in his special relationship with God the Father. His complete dependence on his Father is emphasised; he has learned his calling by watching his Father at work (as the boy Jesus would have learned carpentry from Joseph, we may think). He does only what his Father does, and can do nothing without the Father.

The work with which Jesus claims to be entrusted by God the Father – giving life, judging humanity – would be seen by the rabbis as further proof that Jesus was claiming to be equal with God, since these actions in Jewish Scripture belong to God alone; and this is confirmed by Jesus’ statement that the Son is to be honoured in the same way that the Father is honoured.

By the Father’s gift the Son has life in himself – as we read in the Prologue, chapter 1: 4 – In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. So, just as the Father can give life to the dead, so can the Son. His hearers have witnessed the restoration to active life of the man at the Bethesda pool – and greater marvels are in store.

The Gospels often operate on two or more levels or timescales at once. So, in this passage in John’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks of giving life to the dead, he speaks both of those who are physically dead, and of those who are spiritually dead; and this raising of the dead to life occurs both in Judea in Jesus’ life-time, and in the end times, at what we call the Day of Judgement.

The promise, that those who have died physically will be raised, looks forward to the raising of Lazarus, and, shortly thereafter, to the resurrection of Christ himself. But what of the spiritually dead?

It is no accident that this teaching on the life-giving powers of the Son is linked with the miracle at the pool of Bethesda. This miracle can be read both literally and as an allegory – it is not an either / or! The man whom Jesus has just healed had lain at the side of that pool for thirty-eight years. To be suddenly raised up, to be able to walk, and to take an independent part in society, was indeed like being given new life. We receive an impression, when Jesus asks the man if he wants to be cured, that he is resigned to things as they are; that he has ‘given up’. He can conceive of only the difficulties, not the possibilities, of change. His plight can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual death, and his cure by Jesus as a demonstration of the power of the Son to bring new life to both the physically, and the spiritually, crippled.

The late Rev. William Barclay – whom some of us can still recall teaching on BBC Television on Sunday evenings in the late nineteen-fifties, when he drew huge audiences despite wearing an academic gown, and using blackboard and chalk as his only visual aids – (wouldn’t today’s TV executives have a fit at the very idea!) – Barclay, in his commentary on the fourth gospel, describes four signs of spiritual death: having stopped repenting, stopped feeling, stopped thinking, and stopped trying.

The inability to repent implies being able to sin without that warning prick of conscience; to shrug one’s shoulders and move on without regret, and without that fresh start which characterises repentance.

The death of feeling includes an inability to empathise with suffering, or to deplore what is evil, or to rejoice in what is good.

Loss of the ability to think implies the closed mind – contentment with the spiritual status quo; a refusal to enquire, and to learn, and to grow.

To have stopped trying seems to me to include the other three, and to be the condition which bars a return to spiritual health.

We can all, I’m sure, be guilty from time to time of failing to repent – shoving a fault or a failure to the back of our minds. We can all sometimes be guilty of a failure to empathise – to truly imagine the suffering of another, especially of a stranger; while we can become so used to wickedness portrayed in the media that it fails to evoke the sense of outrage we ought to feel. And we are all tempted – especially as we grow older – to settle for what we know and are used to; for the comfort of the old ways, rather than the challenge of the new idea.

But it is when we give up trying altogether – give up trying to pray more regularly and to read the Bible more attentively; give up trying to follow Christ more closely day by day, despite the inevitable set-backs; give up trying to respond to the fresh wind of the Spirit when we would really prefer to stay put– it is when we give up trying that we risk setting our feet on a broad road from which there may be no turning back.

For those stuck in the depths of this spiritual death there would indeed be no turning back –were it not for Christ, who came that we might have life – life in all its fullness (10:10); Christ the Son, to whom the Father has granted to have life in himself, and who gives that life freely to whoever he wills. Even the spiritually dead can hear his voice – and those who hear him will live. Thanks be to God.

Prayer of Intercession

Loving heavenly Father, we bring to you our prayers of intercession, prayers for other people.

We bring to you our prayers for brothers and sisters in Christ whose faith is severely tried, or wavering, or lost.

We pray for those who are persecuted and who suffer for the name of Christ.

And we pray for all who are without Christian hope or belief, asking that you will revive your Church where she is weak, so that through her the light of Christ may be shed abroad upon a darkened world.

We remember before you all who today suffer injury or bereavement because of illness, human violence, or natural disaster.

We give thanks for all who seek to combat disease and suffering, asking for them your protection and your guidance.

We pray for all peoples who live under oppressive regimes, thanking you for the courage of those who peacefully resist tyranny.

We pray that you will bring forward the time when the world’s nations may live together without fear, in freedom, friendship and safety.

We pray for our own country, asking for our leaders, and for all our people, wisdom, resilience, and a passion for justice; that in these difficult times burdens may be shared, and a spirit of understanding and cooperation may continue to grow and spread throughout our society.

In moments of silence we name before you now all those known to us in special need of your blessing. …….Pause

Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Hymn MP 77

Christ triumphant, ever reigning,

Saviour, Master, King,

Lord of heaven, our lives sustaining,

Hear us as we sing:

Yours the glory and the crown,

The high renown, the eternal name.

Word incarnate, truth revealing,

Son of Man on earth!

Power and majesty concealing

By your humble birth:

Yours the glory ….

Suffering servant, scorned, ill-treated,

Victim crucified!

Death is through the cross defeated,

Sinners justified.

Yours the glory …

Priestly King, enthroned for ever

High in heaven above!

Sin and death and hell shall never

Stifle hymns of love.

Yours the glory …

So, our hearts and voices raising

Through the ages long,

Ceaselessly upon you gazing,

This shall be our song:

Yours the glory and the crown,

The high renown, the eternal name.

Benediction

May grace, mercy and peace, from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, rest and remain on each one of us, and on all for whom we pray, now and always. Amen.