All Saints Margaret Street


4th Sunday in Lent (Laetare)

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

Lent 4 HM

A long gospel calls for a short sermon, as we were reminded last week. 

This long Gospel is a short story. It observe how the Gospel works as story: a first step to understanding the Gospel which we honour as also the narrative of Salvation.

There’s a deeper point lurking in there: scripture, the Church's book, is most importantly narrative. Jesus doesn't just give us a list of principles or rules in isolation from a lived life. The Sermon on the Mount, presented by Matthew as Jesus, the new Moses, proclaiming the New Law, delivers something very different from the Ten Commandments. Jesus' teaching is about the fabric of life and behaviour in relationship, rather than a code of laws. When on Maundy Thursday we hear him giving us a 'new commandment', it is that we love one another as he has loved us, echoing his summary of the law elsewhere as Love – of God, neighbour & self.

It is narrative that engages us, and so saves us. That's one reason why, in the liturgy, we treat the Gospels with greater reverence than any other part of scripture: they are the narrative of salvation. Everything else is commentary.

Another time I'll analyse the comic elements of this story, in the encounters of the man who is healed, and his parents, with the religious authorities; today you may like to read John 9 again for yourself later and find them. My favourite moment is the parents' exasperation:

20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’

This story is a narrative of humanity in collision with cold theology, a theology which leads, Jesus says, to spiritual blindess, an inability to see God, or indeed to see anything at all, in those who insist they know theological niceties:

39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Jesus' healing of the man is offered in response to a cold-blooded theological question from his own followers:

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Jesus' answer might also seem a little cold:

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

But he's really saying 'stop analysing the question like that and look for the glory that comes from God'. Precisely what the man's questioners fail to see even as they say to him: 'Give glory to God!''

There's something else that strikes me in this story. I well remember at University hearing a lecturer saying something I did not remember any of my teachers saying before: she said 'I don't know', in answer to a slightly self-promoting smart question. The comedy of this very human story turns on people not knowing things and saying so.

Too often those of us who are called to any sort of teaching or leadership in the Church fall into the trap of the Pharisees, that they must always be seen to know or they will somehow lose their status.

That professional certainty of the Pharisees is beautifully undercut in this story by the parents:

‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’

And the man himself repeatedly says 'I do not know' – 'but I know that I can see'; you tell me how that can be a bad thing:

30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.

We don't know everything: only God knows like that. But we do know that Jesus came among us, 'God in man made manifest'; that his whole life as well as his teaching were a parable of God's Kingdom, of how things truly are; that he died on the cross and rose again that we might see, see that horizon of hope that we reach for in faith and work for with love. And, seeing, that we may truly live. Live eternal life.

On this Refreshment Sunday, even in these strange and unsettling times, let us thank God for that light as we affirm our faith.