Lent 4A Trinity Cathedral.
Before I begin my remarks this morning, let me say that I was able to spend some time this last week with Bishop Zache Duracin of the Diocese of Haiti while I was at the House of Bishops’ meeting in N.C. I told him of our efforts here, and across this Diocese, to assist in “Rebuilding our Church in Haiti” and he asked me specifically to thank you and to let you know that you are in his prayers…as he remains in ours. So, thank you and if you have not made a contribution in one of our pew envelopes or the glass jar in the Great Hall, I invite you to do so today.
Now to the sermon: Even though we are in the “year of Matthew” in our Sunday lectionary this year, during Lent we have had selections from the Gospel of St. John and we have today the story of the healing of the man born blind – the sixth of Jesus’ seven “signs” or miracles as recorded in this 4th Gospel. There is not time in one sermon (or even one seminary-level class!) to explore all the symbolism in this account of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind.
There is almost nothing in St. John’s Gospel that does not have at least two or three levels of meaning! All the Gospel writers use symbolism, of course, but John was the most intentional about that and you are nearly always reading on a couple of levels at one time. This story is a perfect example. Before the symbolism starts in earnest, however, Jesus once again comes out against a common “theology of the times” which taught that illness and suffering are punishments from God. You still hear that taught sometimes even today. And sometimes, in our weaker moments, when we are suffering we may even think that: “what did I do to deserve this?”
But, as they come across this blind man, Jesus’ disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” but his blindness can be an occasion for God’s works to be revealed! (John 9:1-3) In this answer, Jesus doesn’t attempt to address all the issues involved in human suffering. We don’t know why “bad things happen to good people” but we know that it is not punishment for their sins or the sins of the parents!
Bad things happen to good people because the world we live in is not a perfect world. There is a fundamental brokenness or incompleteness in Creation, which is where accidents and disease and seemingly unjust suffering come from. We often say of such things, “It’s not fair.” But unfortunately “fairness” is not a feature of this fallen and broken world – some people are born in poverty, some of us are born in affluence; some people live in the path of tsunamis, others don’t; some people contract vicious and death-dealing illnesses, and some of us don’t. Life is not fair!
We don’t have the answers as to “why.” But we DO know that God’s grace can be powerfully at work in those situations – leading the rich to share with the poor; providing relief efforts after natural disasters; ministering to the sick and suffering and to their families and bringing such as healing into those situations as we can! And that is precisely what Jesus moved to do as he spat on the ground and made mud, spread the mud on the man’s eyes, and ordered him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. “Then he went and washed,” the text tells us, “and came back able to see.”
Now, to the various levels in this story: The most obvious level is that Jesus was a healer and that, on more than one occasion, he restored sight to the blind. That gave the Apostles, and gives us in today’s Church, our mandate to pray for healing and to exercise a healing ministry such as we are engaged in in this parish.
The second level of symbolism, which could not possibly have been missed by the first readers of John’s Gospel, is that this is a story about Baptism! The Greek word for “spread” as when Jesus “spread” mud on the man’s eyes is the same as the word for “anoint.” In the early Church the baptismal candidates were anointed several times with oil, both before and after they were baptized. Just as King David was anointed with oil by Samuel in today’s Old Testament Lesson and Jesus is called the “anointed one” or “the Christ.” In this story, the man is “anointed,” then “washed” with water, and his eyes were opened!
Right after that, he and his whole family were pursued and harassed by the Pharisees and finally “driven out” of the synagogue. And that was precisely the experience of those early Christians who were reading John’s Gospel for the first time! They had been anointed, baptized, given “new sight” as they were born again in Holy Baptism, and then they – and often their whole families – suffered persecution both at the hands of the Jewish establishment and the Roman government, until finally the separation between synagogue and church became complete sometime early in the second century. They were “driven out.”
And there is yet a third kind of symbolism, which has to do with Jesus bringing light into darkness on every possible level. That is best described by the Epistle to the Ephesians this morning: The author writes, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, wake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:8-14)
It is that profound sense of Jesus bringing light into our dark and fallen world that led Kathleen Thomerson to write the words to one of our most moving contemporary hymns, “I want to walk as a child of the light.” The refrain goes like this, “in him there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike; the Lamb is the light of the city of God; Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”
Shine in our hearts indeed, Lord. Shine in our hearts throughout this Lenten season. Shine in our hearts as we walk the Way of the Cross on Good Friday (and in our individual lives). Shine in our hearts as we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Day. And shine in our hearts on that last Great Day when we shall finally see that “the Lamb is the light of the city of God.”
Shine in our hearts…Lord Jesus!