Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
March 26, 2017
The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year A
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5: 8-14
John 9: 1-41
You are probably familiar with the old saw that “there are none so blind as those who fail to see.” Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint John is an obvious case in point. The whole lection turns on the irony that the man born blind sees and understands Jesus’ true identity as the “Son of Man” and the “light of the world,” while Jesus’ sighted opponents, “blind guides,” completely fail to grasp the obvious power and sanctity of this man of God. Even if they were unwilling to go as far as the blind man in asserting that Jesus is indeed the “Messiah,” the “Christ” of God, they know that their own tradition is not lacking in “signs and wonders” performed by the many prophets of God. And Jesus seems to anticipate his opponents’ willful ignorance because he goes to the trouble of mixing his saliva with mud and applying it to the blind man’s eyes. He could have simply commanded the restoration of his sight, as he does on other occasions in the Gospels, but, because the folk medicine of Jesus’ time invested saliva with medicinal qualities, he goes to the extra trouble of making the special poultice. Then he orders the blind man to rinse his eyes in the pool of Siloam, the collecting pond for the waters of the holy city Jerusalem, originating in the “living waters” of the Gihon Spring and passing through the Temple precincts—all highly symbolic places of special holiness in Second-Temple Judaism. And for those with “eyes to see” among St. John the Evangelist’s community of Jewish-Christians approximately seventy years later, the anticipation of the “illumination” that comes with Holy Baptism would have been obvious as well. Jesus gives the blind man not just his physical sight; he gives him spiritual vision as well. The “Christ” is the “light” by which we see light; the primordial light of the Creation that enters the cosmos even before the celestial bodies in the Genesis story of creation. In a culture so steeped in Temple and Torah, the failure to understand the meaning and import of Jesus’ “signs and wonders” can only be described as obtuseness at best, and incorrigible ignorance at worst.
Now, before we succumb to the all-too-familiar Christian bashing of the Pharisees as a sect—and the Jewish people as a whole—let’s pause to consider our own unwillingness at times to confront the obvious—especially in matters of religion and politics. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that “this world is the reality of the spirit in a state of trance. The manifestation of Mystery is partly suspended, with ourselves living in lethargy. Our normal consciousness is a state of stupor….” Besides, we have had more than enough of the shameful tradition in Christianity of portraying the synagogue as literally broken, blind, and darkened, and the Church as all glory, sighted, and light. And although I truly admire the rich symbolism of St. John’s Gospel, and the real value of the great school of Christian spirituality originating from it, I must also admit that this same Gospel, wrested from its historical context, has given rise to centuries of thoughtless Christian anti-Judaism and cruel anti-Semitism. While a quick and superficial reading of this morning’s passage might seem to support the canards of the so-called perfidious Jews and the “synagogue of Satan,” a more careful reading, informed by attention to the stresses and strains of the intra-Jewish controversy swirling around the Johannine community in 100 CE, when this Gospel was written, simply does not allow for such misrepresentation and prejudice.
The narrative itself this morning clearly tells us that, “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided.” We know from the rich traditions of the Oral Torah, later committed to writing, that the ancient rabbis held widely divergent views on what constituted “work” on the Sabbath. And rabbi Jesus in today’s Gospel deliberately uses the word “work” several times to describe his healing of the blind man on this particular Sabbath. Because Jesus, “Son of Man” and “Son of God,” has come into the world as the “light of the world,” the messianic era, the great redemption, has now dawned, and the healing of the blind man is a graced opportunity “that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In Jesus of Nazareth, the “Day of the Lord” has come; night will return soon enough “when no one can work.” And so Jesus tells his own disciples before he heals the blind man, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” The man born blind has not sinned; according to Jesus, he is there on this particular Sabbath “that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In other words, with the blind man’s healing, we are witnessing, in a brief flash of light and glory, what the world will look like when the “kingdom of God” has come in its fullness and God will be “all in all.” The messianic healing of the blind man is a foretaste of the world redeemed, reconciled, and restored to God, “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting,” in the words of the Prayer Book’s burial liturgy.
So, here we are this morning, gathered together in a midnight world of deep darkness, still stumbling and groping in our spiritual blindness toward the glory that a loving God has always intended for us from the first moment of the Creation when God uttered those fateful words: “Let there be light.” The “old Adam” is still sleeping the terrible sleep of death in his tomb, awaiting the final and definitive resurrection of Christ, the “new Adam.” And we, people of the one Covenant, are returned to the ministrations of our nighttime world: observant Jews to keeping the Sabbath rest in thanksgiving for a “very good” creation, and in remembrance of their deliverance by God from Egyptian slavery, in the words of the “Kiddush,” the Sabbath blessing over the wine; and we Christians to gathering around the Eucharistic table for a foretaste of the “heavenly banquet” in the “life of the world to come,” offering “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (BCP) for the gift of incorporation into Christ and the definitive victory of God over sin and death. In the meanwhile, we take up our sacred work as partners with God in a still unfinished and evolving redemption of the world from its enslavement to the forces of evil and darkness—a darkness with no independent substance save for the absence of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We, the baptized and the baptizing community, are privileged to share in Christ’s suffering love “for the sake of the whole world” by engaging in what the Jewish tradition calls “tikkun olam,” the “repair of the cosmos,” as free, moral agents who must choose between good and evil, light and darkness, vision and willful blindness, life and death. As Father Thomas Keating has written, “The love of God is not a feeling; it is a choice”!
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Laetare Sunday,” marks the midpoint of our preparation to celebrate the great Paschal Mystery of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. When we began this forty-day sojourn on Ash Wednesday, we pledged ourselves to the observance of a holy Lent through prayer, fasting, and special works of “tzedekah,” “charity.” We do these things “in secret” not as ends in themselves, but as means to repentance and conversion of life. And just as the people of Jesus’ own time “were divided” about the meaning and the mission of the Christ, so people still are today. Let us pray, then, for the true gift of spiritual discernment, upon which everything in the spiritual life depends. Then, we might say—along with the nameless blind man whose sight is restored in this morning’s Gospel—“Lord, I have faith.” May we not find ourselves on Easter morning among Jesus’ sighted opponents who have eyes, but will not see; ears, but will not hear. Because, as Jesus said to them, “If you were [truly] blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘we see,’ your sin remains.” In a world of “night and fog,” let us pray to be found on the great Day of Resurrection—now and at the close of the age—among those who truly see and those who readily do!