On the Sundays after Easter, our First Reading comes from the book of Acts, the history of the early Church as it presents the spread of the Gospel/ the Church from worldly-insignificant Jerusalem to Rome, the capital of the great and mighty Roman Empire. Through it all, we can hear Jesus’ word and promise [Mt. 16.18]: I will build My Church. Our First Reading has us jump into the middle of the account. It actually begins a few verses before where we read: Paul and his co-workers had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia. [T]hey were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. And then begins our text. Far from being a travel log, we see the work of Jesus building His Church; we see the Holy Spirit working when and where it pleases Him. Paul and his workers, using their God-given gift of reason thought it would be good to go to these places, but the Holy Spirit did not let them. He had different ideas of where the Gospel was to go. By this we clearly see that the Lord is guiding and leading His Church; like the wind that blows where it wishes, the Holy Spirit brings the Gospel to where He wants it to go. That’s vital for us to remember in our mission work.
Finally our First Reading begins: A vision appeared to Paul during the night. A Macedonian man was standing there, urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” As soon as he had seen the vision we immediately made plans to proceed to Macedonia, because we concluded that God had called us to preach the good news to them. The Lord planned the Gospel to go to Macedonia next: I will build My Church. And with the definite divine leading, were there great crowds that welcomed St. Paul and the rest; were there huge numbers coming to faith like on the day of Pentecost? Hardly! What did Paul find when they came? On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate alongside the river, where we thought there was a place of prayer. We sat down and began to talk to the women who had gathered there. A small group of women were all that heard St. Paul that day. And St. Luke then records: A woman named Lydia, who worshiped God, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to pay close attention…She and her household were baptized… A small beginning? Yes! But that’s how the Holy Spirit so often works. What makes Lydia so significant is that she is the first European convert to Christianity on European soil. When St. Paul and the other missionaries came to Macedonia, they left the Asian continent and entered the continent of Europe. Lydia was the first of many millions of European converts to the holy faith down through the centuries. Not only was this event monumental for Lydia and her family personally, it was also monumental in the history of Europe and the world. Christianity had a huge cultural impact on Europe, making Europe what it was, and thus a huge impact on the rest of the world influenced by Europe. The influence of Christianity on Europe was significant and positive. To help imagine what the world would be like without Christianity’s impact, think of what life is like in places where Christianity has no or little impact–Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, North Korea. And now look at the western world that once was Christian, but is increasingly turning away from the faith: you have the debris of a formerly Christian society; you have what Christianity influenced and what flowed from faith trying to be maintained where there is no Christian faith; with the increasing demise of Christianity in the west, the foundation of the society/ the glue of the society is gone and so we are left with aberrations and social and moral upheaval.
In our First Reading we have the beautiful description of Lydia’s conversion: The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay close attention to what Paul was saying. When she and her household were baptized… But our Gospel, Jesus healing the man who was lame for 38 years, also gives us a beautiful image of conversion. Although this account is an account of Jesus physically healing a man, showing His divine power and authority, showing that He is the Lord of the Sabbath, we also see marvelous parallels with conversion so we can get a good idea of what conversion really is.
Our text begins: Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Aramaic, which has five colonnades. Within these lay a large number of sick people–blind, lame, or paralyzed–who were waiting for the movement of the water. For an angel would go down at certain times into the pool and stir up the water. Whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. Here, simply put, is a picture of misery. All these sick and paralyzed people were all gathered here in the hopes of being made well. God had placed special powers in the water of this pool to heal. Maybe God began this as the time approached for the Savior to come in order to remind the people that soon the Messiah who would bring true spiritual health would be here. But in any case, here is a whole gathering of people in their various sufferings and miseries. Isn’t that really what it must be like for God when He looks out over the world? He sees a sea of unconverted people, just laying there in their misery of sin and death. We get a bit of a glimpse of this when we read about Jesus [Mt. 9.36]: But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered like sheep having no shepherd. How our Lord’s holy heart of mercy must be full of sorrow at what He sees before Him!
The thing that makes it even worse for the great mass of unbelievers that just lay there in their sin and misery is that they don’t even know their misery. So many think things are just fine between them and God; don’t think they earn death and hell for their sins; so many don’t–or try not to–think about sin, death, hell.
Here is the great call for us to examine our own hearts and consciences: do I recognize my sin? Do I recognize that by my sin I have a great spiritual misery now and that if left unrepented I will be misery forever in hell–and then I truly will know it? Do I put my trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin and righteousness? May you and I not be part of that great crowd of the unrepentant, that sea of humanity our Lord sees lying there in misery.
But not only is there great spiritual misery before conversion/ before a person is brought to faith in Jesus but there is also great helplessness; we can’t save/ rescue ourselves from our condition, from our misery. That, too, we see pictured in our text of this very real scene of this large number of sick people. Our text: One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been sick a long time, He asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the sick man answered, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up. While I’m going, someone else goes down ahead of me.” This man was utterly helpless to help himself out of his situation/ to do anything about it–physically. That, too, is a picture of each person spiritually before conversion. Left to ourselves and our own devices, we cannot save ourselves/ do anything to bring us spiritual life, to reconcile ourselves to God. We are before conversion unable to do anything to help ourselves spiritually, just like this man was unable to do anything to help himself physically. Luther puts it very well in the catechism: I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. This is why conversion and faith is such a great grace and gift of God. It’s something we, on our own, could never accomplish. We would be in our misery and helplessness far longer than this man with his 38 years. Dear Christian, treasure your conversion and daily thank God that He has brought you to faith. And treasure your faith by daily feeding it with the word and here in church with the word and sacrament; exercise your faith by a life of regular prayer. By recognizing our spiritual helplessness, we then see God’s great grace to us and give Him all praise!
Notice another thing about conversion in our text–who goes to whom first? Do we go to Jesus or does He come to us? What’s the beginning of our conversion–us going to Jesus first or His coming to us first? See the man in the Gospel: One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. He was unable to walk. How could He go to Jesus for healing? But what do we see in our text? –Jesus goes to him! That’s exactly what happens at conversion–Jesus comes to us. We who, left to ourselves, are spiritually like this lame man in the Gospel, on our own we cannot come to Jesus. We cannot “decide to come to Jesus/ decide to follow Him.” But Jesus comes to us and works faith in Him in our hearts; He works in us that spiritual health and healing, just like He works in this lame man physical healing. Jesus comes to us, who cannot go to Him first, in His holy word and sacrament and gives us the gift of faith–just like He came first to this lame man who could not go to Him for health and healing. Are you a Christian? Do you have faith in Jesus as your Savior? Do you love Jesus? –That’s because He came to you!! What grace/ what joy is ours! Our joy, our praise certainly cannot be less than this man’s that Jesus healed that day.
Our text: When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been sick a long time, He asked him, “Do you want to get well?” Notice here, another picture of conversion– who asks the question: Jesus or the lame man? Jesus did! Do you want to get well? As we find out a verses after our text: when the Jews asked this man who healed him, St. John reports: But the one who was healed did not know who it was [who healed him]. That’s conversion–before conversion, we don’t know who Jesus is–the true God and Savior of the world, my Savior from sin, death, devil and hell. A person may know things about Jesus, historical facts, before conversion. But conversion is to know Him rightly. So, like He did here with this man, Jesus comes to us in grace, in His word, and offers us help: Do you want to get well? He doesn’t force us to faith/ force His grace upon us but invites us to receive Him and His grace and gifts.
The very faith that Jesus demands of us/ the very faith that conversion demands, Jesus Himself works by His holy word and sacrament. This, too, is pictured in this healing account. Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Instantly the man was healed. He picked up his mat and walked. What a glorious declaration of Jesus’ almighty power! With Jesus’ command, Get up!, Jesus confers the cure. The man is completely cured. Not only could/ did he get up, but the man picking up the mat and walking shows the completeness of His cure. When Jesus asked the man, Do you want to get well? it increased the man’s desire to be cured–perhaps something he had long given up on. And that question/word aroused that longing, which is the beginning of faith/ which is faith that lays hold on Jesus’ help. Because Jesus aroused longing for healing in the lame man, Do you want to get well?, the man , in simple but true faith, took Jesus at His word believing His word/ command and was healed.
The same happens at conversion! By His word of Law, Jesus works in a person the knowledge of our sin and our spiritual misery; then Jesus comes with His saving word of forgiveness in the Gospel, Do you want to get well?! That word of forgiveness of sins in Jesus, works a longing that is the beginning of faith that then knows and loves Jesus and receives His saving work. And that faith, be it ever so weak and humble at first, is still saving faith that receives the forgiveness of sin and every blessing of Jesus. And that faith will be active in love and good works, striving to do the Lord’s will: Pick up your mat and walk.” Instantly the man was healed. He picked up his mat and walked. The same Lord who loved us and came to us in our misery and helplessness and gave us a new life, will strengthen us spiritually into a life of faith and good works. Our conversion/ our spiritual healing is gloriously pictured by Jesus’ healing this lame man. INJ Amen.