Lectionary Sermon, 22 March 2020 Lent 4, Year A, on John 9:1-41

Bishop Brian Tamaki, the founder of one of the local mega-churches in South Auckland, is quoted as saying that if his parishioners turn to God and pay their tithes, God will protect them from Coronavirus (N-COVID19).

To me, this represents a curious regression to a version of religion that comes from an age when miracle and magic ruled and primitive science struggled for acceptance. At first impression this morning’s gospel similarly takes us back to that same world, yet since my sister- in- law in Christchurch has just undergone a cataract operation to restore her sight, I have to ask the question if our modern world somehow calls for a rethink even on the gospel account of miracle.

Here in John’s gospel we have a miracle story which may well raise a question for many educated Church goers. And yes, they have reason for caution in that, at least as far as the modern mind is concerned, in the real world, nature is just not like that.

Blind people may be helped by corneal transplants, or replacing cataract damaged lenses with plastic, or using lasers to fuse detached retinas – but curing blind people with a word, or by what must seem to non Christians to be mumbo jumbo actions, is outside our normal experience. No doubt some will respond with “Of course it happened. It is in the Bible. The Bible is inspired. Therefore it must have happened as written”. Yet if you were put on the spot what would be your honest view? What do you believe happened?

I guess if we are just seeing it as a familiar Bible story we might even question if it should matter to us whether this should be questioned as literal miracle, or alternately for that matter, even whether any of the recorded Bible miracles actually happened in the physical sense.

For me, coming to the story from a science background, it is no longer reasonable to suggest faith should have nothing to do with what we know about our modern world. If it comes to that, if our Bible beliefs are to affect how we actually live, without an accompanying reference to what we now know from our world of science, how could pretending that Jesus was so very different help make his self-claimed followers better people?

Perhaps part of the answer is to look at the way the gospel for today hurries us past the miracle to what the lesson is really about.

The Pharisees got cross at Jesus for healing the blind man in a way that they did not understand. When he dismisses their assumptions, saying that those who now see will turn out to be blind, they finally lose patience with him. “Do you think we are blind?” they ask, no doubt expecting him to treat this as a rhetorical question. His reply paraphrased. “Your sin is there because you claim to see”. In other words they are in darkness because they think they are in light without having understood the Spirit of the law.

May I suggest we have to be rather careful with today’s Gospel passage. History tells us that on hearing that Jesus called the Pharisees blind, many self-claimed Christians in the next few hundred years used this as one of the scriptures that might be used to support persecution of the Jews. A more thoughtful reading suggests that there is a way that anyone (including us) can be blind not so much in a physical sense, but in the sense that they miss what John would have us know as the light of the world.

This should remind us that John’s focus in telling the story is not on Jesus as healer – but rather on Jesus as the dispeller of darkness in the wider sense – or – using the term that John repeats in a number of places – the light of the World.

As to our own ability to see, it then follows that what becomes most important to us in practice will reveal if we are in the metaphorical light or alternately to wonder if we are in the dark as a result of blinkered attitudes.

If we look beyond today’s gospel to other places where Jesus finds emphasis in his teaching, we may have noticed that the “Pharisees” Jesus takes issue with are really stereotypes which move far beyond the confines of the Jewish faith. The stereotypes work just as well for us today. Jesus’ teaching may have emerged from the law, yet his real focus was always on taking his listeners away from a focus on the rules and turning instead to a care for their fellow beings.

Time after time through history we see that wherever the insistence is on following rules blindly instead of responding to the people in their need, it is then we lose sight of what our faith is supposed to be. Belief without charity is a parody of faith.

Early Church history may seem a strange topic to read for recreation, but it just happens that recently I have been checking up on some of the key early Church leaders who shaped the Church beliefs.

Let me tell you about St Cyril. St Cyril was bright, he could sway a group of bishops to come to his way of thinking – and he just happened to be very nasty with it. He was very good at sorting out creeds, what people should say for example about the Virgin Mary, about how Jesus was the God bearer – in fact according to St Cyril, Jesus was God in human form – and so on and so forth. Some of his statements still influence the belief sets of some Christians today. The only trouble was anyone who disagreed was fired or worse. After seeing how many people were fingered as heretics by St Cyril of Alexandria, when St Cyril finally died in the year 444 AD, one of his fellow Bishops wrote feelingly: “At last the villain has gone. I hope his gravestone is very heavy, for I fear that Cyril will vex the dead so much that they will try to send him back to us.

And so we return to the miracle in today’s gospel, the healing of the blind man. Well as it happens that was only part of the story. In fact if you read the passage carefully you may have noticed that not only was the passage not simply about healing the blind man, the blind man was not entirely healed in that he could not see where Jesus was. In history we discover it is not only nasty people like St Cyril who were judgmental. In his day Jesus suggested that the “rules first” Pharisees who were being judgmental, were actually acting blind.

Way back in Jesus’ day they were also saying the sorts of things that we still occasionally hear today. When a friend’s daughter fell sick with the debilitating disease I was concerned to hear a conservative Christian acquaintance explaining this was no doubt a consequence of sin somewhere in the family.

Over recent times I have heard instances of Church folk claiming that children born with disability are only born that way because the parents or their wider family have displeased God. Similarly the Japan Earthquake was explained by saying that most Japanese were not Christian, and the Christchurch Earthquake was because of the immorality of the people of Christchurch. In that context it is helpful to hear Jesus insisting there is no causal link between disability and sin.

I have also encountered the obverse where people will tell you that those faithful to God will prosper in terms of health and good fortune, and just as the blessed are good, those who are visited by disease and misfortune are bad. What is more, believers in the prosperity Gospel can find Bible verses to back up what seems outrageous when case studies are investigated. If the truth be known, I need to confess a weakness. I take secret pleasure in hearing when someone who spreads such a claim, then encounters a  reversal in fortune.

It is a purely personal reaction, yet to me when I hear someone like Bishop Brian Tamaki claiming if people pray and give their tithe to his Church that God will protect them from Coronavirus, I don’t quite see that this is following Christ. Surely when we are confronted with what appears to be a global crisis the need is to stand and support those affected by the crisis. And there are many who need such help – those who have been laid off and are now facing personal ruin, those whose households are is sudden chaos, and those who are frightened and alone and that is just the start.

The other thing about Jesus’ act of bringing light to the blind man is that in the last analysis the basics are quite simple. For all their wisdom and complex questioning the Pharisees didn’t get it. The Pharisees today might represent unfeeling Church leaders who try to bully and manipulate themselves through to a position of control. On the other hand, for the once blind man, the bullying and complexity of the Pharisees’ questions were irrelevant. “I was blind and now I see”.

Someone had cared and helped. That was all that counted.

We too have to decide what sense we might make of this strange Jesus figure, the one who is portrayed doing strange acts and who asks disturbing questions. Yet John also reminds us that the way those Pharisees responded to Jesus carried with it its own judgment. Rules first, or people first? This is a dilemma which can’t be answered with reciting a creed, even one partly shaped by clever St Cyril. The key issue is not then about how to accept or explain away a miracle. Our choice is one of darkness or light. Which will others see in our lives?

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2 Responses to Lectionary Sermon, 22 March 2020 Lent 4, Year A, on John 9:1-41

  1. Erica Marsden says:

    We have all met versions of St. Cyril! Have you read a book by Alan Kreider? The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). I think we could all learn much from a better understanding of the very early church. The book made me think long and hard about how we ‘do’ church and practise our faith. BTW, why do you think the media give Tamaki such publicity? We so seldom hear about the quiet, patient people who do so much in our communities in the name of the Jesus we profess to love?
    Erica M

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I haven’t seen the book you refer to but I certainly agree we can all learn from a better understanding of the early Church.

      I think characters like Brian Tamaki seem to have an attraction to the media – and to their followers – because their claims are striking in their extremes. Fortunately for the most part their Churches tend to self destruct when the “chosen ones” overreach and make firm prophecies which fail to materialize. (think failed doomsday prognostications). At the same time when I think about the nonsense peddled by some of the nuttier of Tamaki’s predecessors, the more important issue to me is to wonder why there is so little interest from the followers in checking the plausibility of the claims. Since they claim to represent Jesus, at the very least one simple touchstone is that of assessing the claims of these self-appointed religious gurus against the teachings of Jesus cf the Sermon on the Mount.

      Others may care to add their comments. You raise interesting issues. Drop by again!

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