Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bearing the Light

A Sermon preached at St. Augustine's Church, Wiesbaden on Sunday 30th March, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41, Psalm 23

This week’s gospel reading continues our series of surprising encounters. After Nicodemus at night and the Woman at the Well at high noon we now meet the man born blind, a man who has known only darkness until he meets the Christ.

When John recounts events in Jesus’ life, we need to listen to and understand the stories and the speeches at more than one level. Firstly there is what we might call the literal level – what actually happens. In the stories we have been hearing something good happens to people, a deep and often unexpressed need they have is satisfied. Nicodemus, the seeker after the truth, finds a lot more truth than he had expected. The Samaritan woman, an outcast, finds new hope and new life, and is reintegrated into her society. A man born blind, with no hope of seeing again, is healed of his physical ailment and discovers a renewed faith and courage. If this Good News was all we took from the reading, then it would be enough. Jesus’ whole life, especially his acts of love and compassion as well as his words of teaching, are how the Good News of God’s love was and is proclaimed. But there is more!

Jesus often also makes a moral or ethical point. Here it is a very important point indeed – it was not as a result of sin, neither the man’s nor his parents’, that the man was born blind. Disabilities, illnesses, disasters, and tragedies are not divine punishments for sin. Bad things also happen to good people. Jesus makes a similar point in Luke’s gospel - the eighteen people who had been killed when a tower, the tower of Siloam, fell on them were no “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:4) That’s why I really have a problem with preachers who see a disease like AIDS as God’s punishment or a natural catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina as divine retribution. They seem to be wilfully ignoring Jesus’ teaching. I would call that spiritual blindness and while physical blindness is never caused by sin, spiritual blindness is sinful. What Jesus does say however is that tragedies and suffering, while not caused by God, can still be an opportunity to reveal God’s works of love – as Jesus does in healing the man born blind, or as many good and faithful people do when they take care of the sick or help those severely affected by a natural or man-made disaster.

Each event is however also a sign of who Jesus is, a demonstration of his power and authority, and proof of where this power comes from. He is the Messiah, he is sent from God, and he has the power even to heal a man blind from birth. As the man born blind says: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” According to the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah will be “given … as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.” (Isaiah 42:6-7) Jesus’ actions in this passage are the visible and tangible fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – the proof that he is the light of the world.

Then finally, in the reactions of the people Jesus meets and talks to, we are taught something about faith. In today’s narrative John compares and contrasts the reactions of the man born blind with the reactions of the Pharisees. The man born blind just goes from strength to strength. He knows little yet learns much. With each questioning and hostile interrogation his faith and understanding deepen and grow: it is as if the light he has received is getting brighter and brighter. After his healing Jesus is first simply “the man called Jesus” who had healed him. When the Pharisees question him the first time he calls Jesus a prophet, so someone sent by God. Finally he acknowledges Jesus as the Son of Man, as his Lord, whom he worships.
The man born blind, previously a beggar and wholly dependent on others’ good will, finds new depths of courage. He stands up for Jesus although as a result he is disowned by his parents and rejected by the religious leaders. Thanks to the love he has received, he knows no fear. Reflecting Christ’s light, he has become a light himself, demonstrating faith, courage, love, and hope.

The Pharisees by contrast exhibit very different qualities: doubt, arrogance, rejection, and fear. They may have full physical sight, but in the course of the narrative they see less and less, they become blinder and blinder. They are learned, they have studied scripture intensely, and unfortunately feel therefore that they know everything, which makes them so unwilling to be taught anything new, especially by a formerly blind beggar. They are also fearful, they perceive – rightly - Jesus as a threat to the status quo and to their positions of power. So it is not so much that they cannot see, but that they simply will not see. They actively resist seeing God’s love in Jesus’ actions. The questions they ask both the man born blind and his parents are not questions aimed at understanding, because they know their answer before they ask their question. Instead their intention is to find a reason not to believe and not to learn from this experience.

You will be glad to hear that your vestry is not made up of Pharisees, whatever you may have thought, and that its members are not blind and that they are willing to learn from experience. Last Saturday we took some time out together. We spent time getting to know one another better, studying our role as church leaders, and also trying to learn from recent experience, both bad and good, and from our own mistakes and wrong behavior – because that is what we can change. One thing we worked on was a mutual agreement on how we want to work together and communicate with one another and the parish in the future. We hope this will enable us to be “an example … in speech, life, love, faith and purity,” (1 Timothy 4:12) and allow us to show better than in the past that we “love one another, as Jesus loves us.” (John 15:11) We will publish this once it has been finalized at the next vestry meeting.

We all have this choice. Do we behave like the man born blind or like the Pharisees? Are we willing to learn from experience, to correct our impressions and assumptions, to be willing to see God in others, to marvel at God’s actions, and to trust in God’s love and power even in difficult and dangerous situations?  Or do we think we already know all the answers, are determined not to change, and do not want to see what God is calling us to do and to be? Where do we stand? Do we stand with “the man born blind, in his new found faith and openness to God’s light” or “beside the Pharisees, certain of their own rightness but locked in a darkness of their own devising?”[1]

I am the light of the world, Jesus tells us. According to Genesis, creation, the first creation began with light: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:3-4) Jesus’ light is the beginning of the new or re-Creation of the world that we also call the kingdom of God or heaven. Its purpose is the transformation of this world into one of light, love, and wholeness. The man born blind was given new light by the light of the world and became himself a bearer of that light. Similarly in the letter to the Ephesians the author tells the Christians in Ephesus that “once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”

That is God’s call to us, to live as children of light, and to behave as bearers of Christ’s light. Like the man born blind we were all in darkness until we met Christ. The powers of evil tried to extinguish Christ’s light on the Cross, instead it came back stronger than before. The Pharisees also try and extinguish the light the man born blind bears for Christ; instead his witness and faith become stronger than before. As Christians we have seen the light. Many of us will have received a candle at our Baptism as a symbol of the light. Our calling is to allow Christ’s light to shine through us into the world, to shine in our faith, in our courage and hope, and in our acts of love and generosity for one another and for all the world.

[1] Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1, 146

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