Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 4 2014

1 Samuel 16.1-13
Ephesians 5.8-14
John 9.1-41
Note: I'm greatly indebted to James Alison for his treatment of John 9 in "Faith Beyond Resentment", notes and links on which are available here
In Matthew, Mark and Luke there are many stories in which Jesus heals blind people, but they are usually short and to the point. John is different. He takes a long time to tell us this story and the conversation that follows. And this is because this story is making a big point about creation and sin.
Firstly, creation. In Genesis we are told that the Lord God made Adam out of the clay of the ground. And that’s a pun because in Hebrew clay is “adamah”. In today’s story Jesus does what the creator does. The man born blind has always been without sight. He hasn’t finished being created yet. So what Jesus does is to make some clay, some “adamah”, and apply it to the man’s eyes to complete his creation.
And Jesus does this on the Sabbath, which changes its meaning. The Sabbath in Genesis was when God rested after completing creation. But Jesus is saying, creation is not yet complete, or perhaps, it has been damaged and needs to be repaired. So the creator goes on creating. As Jesus says elsewhere about healing on the Sabbath, “the Father goes on working and so do I”.
Secondly, sin. The word “sin” runs right through this story, and it’s batted back and forth like a ping pong ball between Jesus, the Pharisees, the disciples and the man who is healed. But what happens by the end of the story is that Jesus has taken that word “sin” and turned it round, changing its meaning too.
It happens like this. At the beginning, the disciples ask: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their assumption is that sin is a defect in you that causes you to be punished and excluded. So therefore this man or his parents must be sinners, for this to have happened. But Jesus says they’ve got it all wrong. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. Instead, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. That is, the work of creation.
So, Jesus heals him. And this causes the Pharisees a huge problem, because Jesus does this on the Sabbath day. To do any work on the Sabbath is a sin. This is a problem for the Pharisees because someone who works on the Sabbath is clearly a sinner, doing a bad thing – the Bible says so. But the blind man has been healed, which is a good thing. How can a sinner do something good?
The Pharisees are agitated about this because it threatens to undermine their identity. Their security as a group depends on them knowing who is a sinner – other people; and who is righteous – themselves. What Jesus has done undermines the whole basis on which they define themselves over against others. It’s significant that we are told “they were divided”; their stability has been undermined.
So what they do is to try and restore the distinction between the righteous and sinners. Firstly, they try to show that there was no miracle, the man had not in fact been blind. This would remove the problem for them. But this doesn’t work – the man keeps insisting that he was indeed blind, and his parents back him up.
So their second tactic is to try to show that what had happened, which appears to be good, is in fact evil. Jesus must be a sinner, so he must have produced this healing by evil means such as magic. The man who had been blind must be made to admit this, and all will be well. Up to now they are quite sympathetic to this man. It’s not his fault after all that Jesus played a trick on him and gave him his sight. All he has to do is agree with them, and he too can be accepted in their group, the closed group of the righteous.
But the man, in a brilliant piece of rhetoric, demolishes their argument. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
So the final tactic of the Pharisees is to get rid of the man himself. He, too, must be a sinner, like Jesus. “And they drove him out.” So here are the Pharisees definitely sticking with the idea that sin is a defect that excludes you.
But at the end of the story, Jesus talks about the blind seeing and those who see becoming blind. And the Pharisees say, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” And Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.”
With this Jesus redefines sin. Sin is not a defect that excludes you, whether it is being blind or anything else. Sin is thinking that you see, when you don’t. Or, in this story, which is about creation, it is thinking that your creation is complete and perfect, when it isn’t. Sin is when you construct your own righteousness, and think you have no need of God to touch you and heal you and make you complete. And constructing your own righteousness means defining yourself over against other people, as the Pharisees do.
So sin is not a defect that excludes you. It is, instead, participation in the mechanism that excludes. Sin is the accusing finger pointed at others, rather than the people that finger is pointing to.
Now there are many ways in which groups of the righteous try to define themselves over against other people. It is somewhat ironic that the Church gives us this gospel reading this weekend, when the first same sex marriages have been celebrated in England. Some Christian groups have been quite loud in their protest. But they have a problem. It seems to them that the Bible says that these relationships are wrong. But here are relationships that seem to embody good things like love, faithfulness and commitment.
Now, this is an issue on which Christians have different opinions. The preacher’s role is not to tell you what to think, but to help us all as we read and reflect on scripture together. Today’s reading shows us two approaches when something good happens where it is not expected. There is the approach of the Pharisees, who say that however good it appears to be that a blind person has been healed, the Bible clearly says that this was done in a sinful way – on the Sabbath – so therefore it is wrong. And there is the approach of Jesus, who says “my Father goes on working, and so do I”.
But as always there is a twist in the tale, which can catch us out if we are not wary. If sin is not a defect that excludes you, but participation in the mechanism that excludes, then we must be on our guard that we don’t fall back into it in a new way. For example, if we start defining ourselves over against people who think they are righteous because they read the Bible differently from us.
Yesterday afternoon I was coming back to church after visiting some people when I was stopped by a man in the street, waving a Bible, determined to get his message across. He told me that he had spoken to twelve people that day, and “they’re all going to hell”. And as I extricated myself from this encounter I caught myself thinking, “Oh I do wish you had gone to preach in someone else’s parish”. And then I came back to today’s Gospel reading, to finish this sermon, and realised what I had done. Which was, in my mind, to drive this man out in the same way as he was doing to people he thought were sinners.
As with so many other stories in the Gospels, we need to read this and see ourselves both as the excluded and as the people who are doing the excluding. In other words, we have to stop saying that we are not sinners, and instead recognise the need we have, in solidarity with everyone else, for God in Jesus to complete the work of our creation, and make us whole.
If we have received the grace of God, by which we are saved and made whole, then we are being freed from the need to cast anyone out. The same grace that saves us is available for everyone, which fills us with a true compassion for all humanity, for all the Pharisees and the hypocrites and the accusers and the casters out. Because they are us, and to be redeemed in Christ means to imagine them being redeemed in Christ, too. 

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