St Paul’s Anglican Church, Byron Bay
St Oswald’s Church, Broken Head
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
26 March 2017
Well, that was a long reading: all 41 verses of John chapter 9!
It is part of a series of readings from John during these central weeks of Lent. All of them are lengthy readings, and there will be another long one next week:
- Lent 2 – Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus under cover of darkness
- Lent 3 – the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at Jacob’s well
- Lent 4 – Jesus heals a man born blind
- Lent 5 – Jesus raises Lazarus to life
In these readings, we see John’s art as a storyteller on display. He begins with a simple event: a late-night visitor, a chance encounter at a village well, healing of a blind beggar, the death of a close friend. John then describes some form of confusion or misunderstanding which Jesus seeks to resolve by further explanation, often in the form of a lengthy speech. In this case, we do not have the lengthy speech, but we do have a very elaborate account of the conflict that followed Jesus healing the man born blind.
At first sight this is a very simple story. But—as we discovered when we teased it out during the Bible study on Wednesday morning—it is a rather more complex story that can be quite challenging when we pay close attention.
John offers us a story that invites us to ask the question: Who is the blind person here? Who are the ones lacking the capacity to see what God is doing right in front of them?
Let’s review the story and then reflect on the sacred wisdom that God is offering us today.
The story begins with a chance encounter of Jesus and his disciples with a blind beggar. Nothing unusual about that. Beggars were a common sight in the streets of first-century Palestine.
The disciples travelling with Jesus demonstrate their profound lack of spiritual wisdom when they respond to the sight of the blind beggar. They ask,”Who sinned, this man or his parents, to cause this blindness?” That is very bad theology, and Jesus simply brushes it aside. The victims are not to be blamed. He was born blind. Our obligation is to do God’s work, not to add to their pain by heartless speculation about them being to blame for their predicament.
Jesus heals the blind man.
Well we expected that! This is, after all, the New Testament. But notice how Jesus went about this healing.
In the other Gospels, Jesus often prefers for his miracles not to be widely reported. At times the beneficiary is sent home and told to remain silent.
Not so in this story.
Jesus goes out of his way to ensure his actions are noticed and that conflict with the local religious authorities (represented in this story by the Pharisees) is provoked.
- No private healing out of the public eye.
- A paste made of saliva and dirt is applied to the man’s eyes.
- He is sent to the Pool of Siloam, a very conspicuous location.
- All this happens on Shabbat.
As the story unfolds the Pharisees react to this provocation. The extended middle section of chapter 9 is a series of interrogations as the healed man and his parents experience the hostility of Jesus’ opponents.
- The healed man is interrogated.
- His parents are summoned but refuse to cooperate.
- The man is subjected to further questioning and then expelled from the Jewish community.
Finally, as the story concludes, Jesus catches up with the guy he had healed earlier in the day. Their conversation brings the story to a close, and it ends with a remarkable—and highly confronting—statement by Jesus:
I came so those who are blind may see,
and so those who do see may become blind.
What is John up to here? Why has he chosen to finish this healing story with such a statement?
If we can engage with that question we may well stumble on the wisdom this text has to offer.
As I reflected on this passage during the past week, I found myself thinking of the ancient English aphorism:
There is none so blind
as those who will not see.
When I was searching for the history of this saying, one web website suggested that the lines were first used by the American singer, Ray Stevens in his 1970 song, ‘Everything is beautiful’.
But in searching further I found that these words have a much longer pedigree, with the earliest known version of this saying found in the writings of John Heywood in 1546:
Who is so deafe, or so blynde, as is hee,
That wilfully will nother here nor see.
In John 9 there are none so blind as the Pharisees who simply do not wish to see what has happened in the experience of this man born blind. They are masters of the tradition, and this event lies outside their sacred knowledge.
The temptation for us is to sit back with a sense of spiritual complacency.
We are not like them. We can discern God at work in our midst. We can see clearly what is happening in our own lives.
Unlike ‘them’ we do not suffer from selective, self-serving and so-very-convenient blindness.
If only that were so.
If only we were indeed free from spiritual myopia.
WISDOM FOR TODAY
How does this ancient story connect with us here in the Bay?
Right now this parish community is at a critical moment in its history. The three or four months that I shall be serving here as your locum priest provide a window during which time we have some serious work to do.
We need to glimpse a new future.
That will be real challenge for us. It always is. But before we can call a new priest to serve here, this community needs to discern what is the work to which God is calling us, and not just the new priest.
If we are able to glimpse a new future, even that will not be enough.
We shall then need to find the courage to embrace the new and different future that we have glimpsed. That may be even more challenging than discerning what to do. But even that is not the end.
We—and that really means, ‘you’—will also need the commitment required to pursue the new vision that we glimpse.
That will be a long journey into an uncertain future.
But it will begin with a new vision, the capacity to see into the future.
So the question for us this morning is whether can see? Do we have a blind spot? Are we living with a collective case of spiritual myopia?
Do we want to glimpse a different future for the Anglican Church in this community?
Do we dare to look?
That might be the blessing we seek from God as we come to the Table of Jesus for Holy Communion this morning. Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see clearly. And give us the courage to embrace that future. Not for our sake, but the sake of those people in this community—whether locals or visitors—who need us to see and embrace a different way of being church here in the Bay.
I do not yet know what that future will look like, but I am certain we shall never glimpse it unless we are willing to see what God has to show us.
[…] Read the full sermon here … […]
Good sermon. I sometimes think many parishioners have eyes in the back of their heads, and as a result they can only see the past and not the future.
A friend sent me the following message in response to the Gospel reading this Sunday:
Good morning, Greg!
Re: today’s Gospel, I don’t like Jesus’ reason the man was born blind!
Also, what kind of parents did that man have? They didn’t want to speak up and be expelled from the temple so said “Ask him!” So their son would be punished?
Happy Mothering Sunday!
I replied as follows (slightly edited for publication):
The Jesus character in the stories is a creation of the evangelist, and has very little resemblance to the historical figure, I suspect. We addressed the answer Jesus gives to the disciples’ ghastly question in the Wednesday morning Bible Study session. Even so, the gospel attributes to Jesus the idea that such a disability is intended to provide an opportunity for God’s glory to be demonstrated.
We need to remember that the Bible comes out of a world that accepted demon possession as an explanation for other forms of illness.
Of course, we can always disagree with the Bible and at times should do so. Even with Jesus.
Even so, there is one other option to consider. Since the original MSS had no spaces between words and no punctuation, we sometimes find that the traditional sentence breaks can be challenged. I am not sure if that is the case here, but I do recall hearing a preacher (many years ago) offering a different way of reading these lines:
3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, 4 we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
On balance, most editions of the Greek text and most translations still prefer the sentence break happening at the verse break, and we would normally go with that since the resulting theologically awkward statement is more likely to have been the original form.
The reaction of the parents is mostly a narrative device to accentuate the courage of the healed man in choosing to stand with Jesus rather than remain in the synagogue. The larger story, i.e. all the dialogue after the basic story of the healing, is created by the Gospel writer.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus himself calls on prospective disciples to reject normal family ties and to choose to become disciples. (“Unless someone hates their mother and father … cannot be my disciple … .”) In the lived experience of the Johannine community, following Jesus could lead to estrangement from family and exclusion from the Jewish community. This detail in the story is not about the character of the parents, but about the experience of the early followers of Jesus.
On the other hand, if we speculate about the character of the parents, as a spiritual exercise not as a historical question, they come out pretty well. Their disabled baby was not abandoned, but nurtured to adult life. He is now old enough to speak for himself. Given the infant mortality rates of the time, this individual has done very well to survive to adulthood despite being born blind. That indicates a secure and caring childhood environment.
As for Mothering Sunday, we blessed the simnel cake at both services and I spoke briefly about the different origins of Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day.