Sermon for High Mass – Lent 4 Sunday 26 March 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9
Last Sunday morning, after I had chanted my way through a marathon 40 verses of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, Fr. Michael described it as a “short novel.” Well, this morning we have reversed roles and he has had to chant his way through another 41 verses of St. John’s Gospel; the story of the healing of the man born blind. And next week we have the raising of Lazarus.
Recipients of that mine of useful information, the Parish Email, may have read my explanation of why we have these long readings during Lent. They go back to the practice of preparing converts for baptism at Easter during Lent. At stages in their instruction, they heard these gospel passages with their echoes of baptism: water, anointing, enlightenment, profession of faith, dying and rising with Christ. We hear them as we prepare for the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter.
Today’s gospel is not so much a novella, more a short play. In writing a play or the screenplay of a film or TV series, the dramatist sets out to involve us in the drama; to get us to identify with one or other of the characters in it. And if they do their job well, we will – usually, of course with the hero, the good guy, sometimes with the victim, rarely, however, with the villain. We will also be drawn into the movement of the drama; not just in action but in understanding.
St. Augustine, preaching to his North African congregation around the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries, told them that the man born blind represents us all. So, too, can the other characters in the drama.
We see him not only healed, but taken on a journey of enlightenment, of illumination, by Jesus. We are also invited to that journey, that movement from darkness to light.
First of all, when they see this man, the disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This question reflects the belief, common at the time, that physical disability or infirmity were the direct consequences of sin. Some even suggested that it was possible for an unborn child to sin in the womb. While this seems bizarre to us, any priest has heard people ask in such cases, “Why? What have I, what has he or she, done to deserve this?”
Jesus rejects this explanation. The man was born blind in order to play a part in the revelation of the works of God. Jesus responds in a way which both answers this question and doesn’t: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” but he goes on to say something which seems rather puzzling to us: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Picking up what he had said in 8.12 and alluding to his approaching death, Jesus declares that he is the light of the world as long as he is in the world and so must act accordingly (3-4). “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day, night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This initial dialogue signals that more than physical sight is involved here. Jesus’ “signs” in John always point to something deeper; something about who he is: “I am the light of the world.”
He does not engage in a theological debate about the problem of evil, which may disappoint some. Instead, he gets on and does something about it. After anointing the man’s eyes with a paste of saliva and mud, he tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, which was used for ritual purification by worshippers at the Temple. Its name, John tells us, means “sent”. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is repeatedly referred to as the one who is “sent,” sent from God to do God’s works. By means of an encounter with the one who has been sent, the man born blind receives his sight. By means of an encounter of faith with Christ, who has taken our human flesh, born from the dust of the earth, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, human eyes are opened to the light of truth.
How do people respond to this extraordinary event? First of all, they can’t quite believe the evidence of their own eyes. Is this really the man born blind who used to sit begging or is uit someone else? He insists, “I am the man.” So they demand to know how this change has happened. All he can tell them is what “the man called Jesus” has done to him. More than that, as to Jesus’ whereabouts, he says, “I do not know.”
So, the onlookers turn to the religious experts, the Pharisees. They interrogate the poor chap who suddenly finds himself at the centre of a furious theological debate. His healing sparks a division among them.
For some, Jesus must be a sinner because he has broken the law of God by performing a healing which involved physical work on the sabbath. Hebrew slaves in Egypt had to work with clay to make bricks for Pharaoh’s building projects, so kneading clay could be justly classified as menial work forbidden on the Sabbath. But those who made that classification had scarcely thought of someone mixing a scrap of mud with saliva to open a blind man’s eyes.
But for others, Jesus cannot be sinful: “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”
For John, an encounter with Jesus or his work forces people to decide and align themselves with one side or the other.
Refusing to accept his evidence, and his deepening awareness that Jesus is “a prophet,” the religious authorities turn to his parents; hoping for evidence that it was all a fraud, that the man had not been blind. They confirm that he was, but beyond that they refuse to answer. They sense trouble and want to stay clear. Their fear that they will be expelled from the synagogue reflects the situation of John’s church in the 80s when Christians were being ejected. They pass the buck to their son: “Ask him, he is of age.”
So they question the man born blind a second time. The man has probably had more theological controversy in one day than in the rest of his life. He makes no claims to be a theologian, to understand the things of God: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see?”
In the dialogue between them, we see him growing both in his understanding of who Jesus is and his confidence in expressing it: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
This gets them really annoyed and they respond angrily, as you may have noticed people sometimes do when theology is debated: “You are his disciple. We are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
Their insistence that they do not know where Jesus is from is ironic, for that is the crux of the problem. If they had recognized his divine origin, they would have been open to his message.
The man’s increasing confidence is heard in his response: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
This only increases their fury. How dare this uneducated nobody try to teach them? “And they drove him out.”
When Jesus hears of this, he seeks the man out. He asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man born blind, who has probably had more theological discussion in one day than the whole of his life, but is still open to learn, says, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
“He said. ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”
Jesus then says to him, and to us, “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
We all hope that our response to Jesus would be positive; that we would always recognize good when we see it and acknowledge that it comes from God. But do we always, when it does not fit with our preconceptions of what is good or holy or true?
Might we not find ourselves judging along similar lines if someone violated what we have been taught as a traditional interpretation of God’s will? Any of us can fail to recognize that all human interpretations of God’s will are historically conditioned. Just because something has never been done before, does not mean that it cannot be of God.
Might we find ourselves numbered among those who, because they claim to see, to have insight, to understand, but turn out in fact to be blind? That is the occupational hazard of religious people.
Or might our response to being questioned about our faith be like that of the man’s parents? Might we fearful of being seen by our sophisticated contemporaries as ignorant or simple, odd or just plain bonkers? In an age of angry religious voices, might we prefer just to remain silent; keep out of arguments, keep our heads down?
Might we fail to see that, just as the man born blind was taken on a journey of deepening faith, just as he grow in understanding through a process of questioning and testing, until he reached the point where he was able to say, “I believe” and worship, so we too are called to a challenging journey of deepening faith?
And in our mission, as those who in our turn are “sent” by Jesus as he was “sent” by God, we need both to go on being disciples who are led into the light of truth by him and to be willing to learn from those who may not look or sound much like us but may be further along the road than we are.