Easter 6(C): Holy Mischief
By: Ryan Young
In this Scripture, we see two connected instances of Jesus upsetting the established order in order to witness to the Kingdom.
In the first, Jesus speaks to a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. We are told that he has no support structure, no advocates, and every time he tries to enter the healing waters of Bethsaida, someone (presumably less in need of healing from the narrative clues) jumps in front of him to take the healing for themselves. I imagine that Jesus’ question, “Do you want to get well?” fell heavy on his ears. The system is stacked against him. He has been left behind by his community. So it is little surprise that his response is defensive and frustrated. Of course he wants to get well, but how is that possible for someone like him in this system?
And so, Jesus heals him. He simply tells the man to pick up his mat and walk, and he does so without precondition (though there is an expectation of holiness after he has been healed in v. 14). This witnesses both to the validity of the healed man’s frustrations and to the reality of the “preferential option for the poor” –that Jesus is first and foremost on the side of the poor and powerless members of society.
The second instance is the reaction of the Jewish leaders to this healing. In ministering to this man, Jesus broke the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. This is not a small issue. This is one of the ten commandments handed to Moses at Sinai. The Jewish leaders understand this to be foundational to the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. For them, not only is Jesus acting unrighteously by healing on the Sabbath, he is also causing the healed man to act unrighteously by instructing him to carry his mat on the Sabbath. Exodus 20:8-11 notes that the Sabbath is a commemoration of God resting from work, and so the people of God ought also to rest from work on the seventh day. Jesus attempts to reframe their understanding of the fourth (or third depending on your numbering system) commandment—God is in fact always continuing the work of redeeming creation, and so the people of God should likewise always be working with God toward that aim, even on the Sabbath.
This is too much for the Jewish leaders. Jesus was attempting to overturn a widely-held, longstanding traditional understanding of Law. Jesus was blaspheming by taking onto himself authority that belonged to God alone. The irony of this viewpoint should not be lost on us since we readers understand that Jesus was in fact God incarnate and was using authority that was rightfully his to overturn traditional understandings of how God relates to humanity to bring about a new, freer expression.
Over the past few months, I have been teaching a class on church history for members of my congregation. What has struck me is how the Church is always undergoing reformation. How the church is always dealing with this same conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders—the tension between the desire for an established way of holiness and the freedom of the Spirit which is always calling the Church beyond its status quo into deeper understandings of God and fresher expressions of faith. I saw this in Basil the Great and his sister Macrina as they gathered hermetical ascetics who were greatly concerned with personal holiness and ordered their lives in monastic communities, channeling their zeal to meaningful work for the poor. I saw it in Martin Luther, who said of his younger days struggling to find grace in monastic requirements of holiness that, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” I saw it this year in my beloved United Methodist Church as we held a general conference where, as graciously as I can put it, the tension between concerns for traditional holiness and a moving with the Spirit toward a fresh, more inclusive understanding of faith were on full display.
As a soon-to-be-Provisional Deacon in the UMC, my calling is to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, but there is a phrase that has been floating around that might better encapsulate both my work: holy mischief. This is what I see Jesus calling me towards in this Scripture. To engage in holy mischief is to follow Jesus’ lead to challenge and overturn social structures that are stacked against the vulnerable. To minister to people feeling left behind and invite them to be empowered by Christ—to get up and walk with me on the march to justice. To engage in holy mischief is to name those actions of the church which make it harder for the Spirit to reframe our understandings and call us into deeper and fresher expressions of faith. It is to proclaim the Kingdom that we are for, and not just the evils that we are against.
God is still working. Join us in some holy mischief.
Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is looking forward to being commissioned as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church in June. When he is not engaging in holy mischief, he can be found sampling craft beers with friends at local breweries, reading, or singing Baby Shark with his wife Rachael to the delighted squeals of their toddler Iris.