The first half of the Gospel of John is often called “The Book of Signs” because of the large role that Jesus’ miraculous signs play in the story. And Jesus is clear as to why he performs them – that we may believe, not just that Jesus is a powerful guy, but that God himself is powerfully present and active in the world. One of these is the healing of a lame man at the pool of Bethesda. This man hasn’t been able to walk in thirty-eight years. Jesus sees him and knows his whole situation. To be seen by Jesus is to be understood by Jesus. “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus says to him. And just like that, it happens. The man immediately stands up with full use of his legs. Sometimes in John people respond to these signs as if they’re nothing more than a fun magic trick. But sometimes these signs produce exactly the faith that Jesus wants them to. Belief grows in the hearts of those who see and hear about the miraculous things Jesus is doing.
But all is not well. See, this healing happens on a Sabbath. So the Jewish authorities feel they must find Jesus and discipline him for such a violation. With this story John is letting us know that the opposition is gearing up and will make every effort to discredit and even kill Jesus.
The Gospel of John looks something like a spy thriller – the story of a lonesome, vulnerable protagonist swept up in controversy and conspiracy. This thriller has distrust (John 2:23-25; it’s a hallmark of the genre for the protagonist to say “I don’t know who to trust!”), arrest attempts (7:30), secrecy (7:10), betrayals (from Judas, of course, but also from the man healed by Jesus here in John 5! In an act he hasn’t fully thought through, he tells the Jewish authorities where to find Jesus!) There are secret meetings held by authorities behind closed doors that result in a formal conspiracy to have Jesus killed (11:47-53). There are even those within the conspiracy who defect from it, including Nicodemus (7:45-52).
Why is there so much opposition to Jesus? One layer of the answer is articulated by Jesus himself. “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.” (7:7) It’s simply who Jesus is to call out hypocrisy and injustice where he sees it. That will always win him some enemies. Jesus will always be more loving, forgiving and merciful than the world wants him to be. He will always heal and embrace people that the rest of the world is eager to ignore. And he will always make himself a nuisance to those who misuse power and wealth.
The “world” isn’t the only one who will oppose Jesus for this. The Church will too. Jesus’ opposition comes from those inside the religious structures, those who ought to be his greatest allies. While we worship and pray and study (as we absolutely should be doing), Jesus is loving and forgiving and healing people that we may not be ready to love and forgive and heal. And so the only way for Jesus to exist in our world is as a lonesome, vulnerable protagonist swept up in controversy and conspiracy.
Jesus is too much for this world, and he’s too much for the Church. He will never play by all the rules we think he should. He will always cause trouble and make enemies. Those who are really following him will cause trouble and make enemies too. To be a follower of Jesus is to sign up for a lot of headaches, and as ones belonging to him, we wouldn’t have it any other way.