Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 30 March 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
On Thursday evening, I had supper with Abbot Stuart and another monk from Mucknall Abbey in Worcestershire, – that’s the monastery which makes our incense. They were in London to attend a conference with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace on the renewal of the religious life. Brother Liam said they had seen us on television in the documentary “The Bible Hunters” and they wondered: Why us?
I told them that, that as well as our obvious telegenic qualities, the fact that the director used to worship here when he was a student, and our proximity to the BBC, probably had something to do with it. I suspect we were also meant to represent traditional Christians who might be disturbed by the discovery of manuscripts which cast doubt on the way the scriptures had been understood as history, or the accuracy of the documents on which existing translations were based.
In fact, we all looked so calmly prayerful, that we probably gave a good impression of people whose faith would not be rocked by such discoveries because it is grounded in a richer tradition of scriptural interpretation and a deeper appreciation of reason and scholarship than biblical literalism. Our forebears, led by Bishop Charles Gore – who in retirement lived at No.6 Margaret Street – played a significant role in a creative synthesis between orthodox Christianity and biblical scholarship. Those who conduct worship in leisurewear are more likely to be disturbed!
Which brings me to today’s Gospel. Let’s pause the story at the point where the disciples see a man born blind and ask Jesus about the reasons for his condition. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This question will recur throughout the episode and it highlights the issue of how we read and interpret the Bible.
Last Sunday evening, we read at Evensong, the first chapter of the book of Joshua, with its arresting text “Moses my servant is dead,” and the appointment of his assistant Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land. The book deals with the conquest of Canaan. In my sermon, I spoke of how this is a difficult book for Christians to read today because it not only describes a campaign of what we would call “ethnic cleansing,” but suggests that this is God’s will.
Afterwards, someone said to me that they believed every word in the Bible and if these people were killed it must have been right, because it’s in the Bible. Well, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of God it is that would inflict punishment upon innocent children because of the behaviour of their parents? To say, as some have, that he is God and so can do as he likes, leaves us with a vision of a God who might be all-powerful, but who would in moral terms be inferior to any decent human parent, and certainly not be worthy of worship. When I suggested this, I was clearly regarded as a bit of a theological wimp.
So, I was glad to be reminded shortly afterwards that I was in good company. This was when I began reading Bishop Rowan Williams’ new book “Being Christian.” This is based on lectures he gave in Holy Week at Canterbury Cathedral when he was archbishop. He explores four practices which mark Christians: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer. I recommend it to you.
In the chapter on the Bible, he discusses the problem presented to us by the more blood-stained passages in the Old Testament.
After speaking of how we need to take seriously the nature of scripture as story into which we are drawn, he continues:
‘If…we find accounts of the responses of Israel to God that are shocking or hard to accept, we do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses. For example, many of the early Israelites in the Old Testament clearly thought it was God’s will they should engage in “ethnic cleansing” – that they should slaughter without mercy the inhabitants of the Promised Land into which they had been led. And for centuries, people have asked, “Does that mean that God orders or approves of genocide?” If he did, that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole says about God. But if we understand that response as simply part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at the time.’
He goes on: ‘One of the great tragedies and errors of the way people have understood the Bible has been the assumption that what people did in the Old Testament must have been right, “because it’s in the Bible.” It has justified violent enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people, it has justified all manner of things we cannot but as Christians now regard as evil. But they are not there in the Bible because God us telling us, “That’s good.” They are there because God is telling us, “You need to know that that is how some people responded. You need to know that when I speak to human beings things can go very wrong as well as very wonderfully.” “You need to know that when I speak, it isn’t always simple to hear, because of what human beings are like.” We need, in other words, to guard against the temptation to take just a bit of the whole story and take it as a model for our own behaviour.’
When we gather to celebrate the Easter Vigil in a few weeks, after the new fire has been kindled and the great Paschal Candle lit and placed in its stand here by the pulpit, we will then hear from this pulpit, a series of readings from the Old Testament; a sort of summary of God’s work in creating both world and people. The order in which we do this is important. We listen to the Old Testament in the light of Christ.
If we ask how we discern truth from falsehood, good from bad interpretation, the Christian answer is in terms of Jesus Christ. As we read the Bible, the story converges on him. The full meaning of what has gone before is unveiled in him. The agenda for what follows is set in him. The Christian can only read these Jewish scriptures as moving towards the point at which a new depth of meaning is laid bare in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
All these stories of God’s initiative and human response pivot around one central fact. In the story of Jesus, we see what complete obedience and love look like. Here, is the story where we see a response to God so complete, that it reflects perfectly the act of God that draws it out. It is the response of love not violence.
In terms of today’s Gospel, Jesus is the one who opens our eyes to see the light. If the whole Bible is about the speaking of God and the responding of human beings, then it is by looking at the story of Jesus, the luminous centre, that we discover how to read the rest of it: Jesus, living, dying, raised from the dead, breathing his Spirit on the Church – it is in his light that we read the rest of the Bible.
We should remember Michael Ramsey’s words, “There is no un-Christlike thing in God.”
Can we imagine the Christ who blessed children ordering their murder?
This process, says Bishop Rowan, is not some 21st century invention. We find it going on already on the Bible, even in the Old Testament.
He speaks about Jehu’s massacres of Ahab and Jezebel and their entire family. There is no question that Ahab and Jezebel were a bad lot, but even within the Old Testament, the morality of this act is questioned. So the prophet Hosea, a few generations later, looks back on that story and sees it as one of shame not triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to change the perspective and Hosea’s revision of it. Hosea has been led more deeply into the loving nature of God.
And this is no isolated example. Some books in the Old Testament are very exclusive. They see clear boundaries as the only hope for survival – so the returning exiles Ezra and Nehemiah force their stay-behind fellow- countrymen to get rid of the foreign wives they have married. (We are still arguing about the boundaries of marriage all these years later, you may have noticed!)
Yet in the Old Testament, we have stories like that of Jonah, preaching, very reluctantly to Nineveh, and that pagan city repenting and being spared by God; rather to Jonah’s annoyance. Then there is Ruth, the foreign widow of a Jew, who returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to the land of Israel, saying those words which have lost none of their capacity to move us as an expression of human love: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God, where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” In the story Ruth goes on to marry Boaz and becomes the ancestor of David. As such she figures in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
There is a debate and a growth in understanding, an enlightenment, in the scriptures,
And if we turn to our gospel and Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question, we see the same thing. There was biblical warrant for thinking that a person could suffer because of the sin of his parents. God warned in Exodus that he would visit “the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation” of those who hated him (Exodus 20.5). Some Jewish scholars had even concluded that it was possible for a child to sin, even in the womb.
But, then we find the prophet Ezekiel insisting that God would not make children suffer for the sins of the parents. Each would be punished only for their own sins. (Ezekiel 18.20).
We can see that there is an element of truth in both these positions. We know that our sins, of commission or omission, have consequences for others which we cannot always foresee. These consequences might well continue long beyond our lifetime. They will suffer as a result of our actions or inaction.
But we should not interpret this to mean that God punishes our children for our sins. Ezekiel makes is clear that he does not, and Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question reinforces that.
He responds by looking at it from another angle. He switches their attention from speculating about the cause of blindness to what might be done with it. They want to know what has caused the man’s condition, but Jesus refuses to pursue that line of questioning. Jesus did not categorically reject the idea that God would ever punish someone for sin, and John does assume that sinners are subject to judgement. (John 3.36; 5.29) Jesus also does not deny that human actions might bring negative consequences, since people do perform actions that injure themselves and their children. Jesus’ point is that suffering is not always the result of some particular transgression.
Instead of trying to look back to determine what lay behind the blindness, Jesus looks ahead to what he might do with the blindness. The Greek is difficult and some translations imply that God caused the blindness so that Jesus could use it to reveal divine glory.
A better way to approach the passage is to follow the Greek wording, recognizing that the sentence begins in one verse (9.3) and continues in the next: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the work of his who sent me while it day.”
In the scenes which follow, the interrogations by neighbours and Pharisees and Jesus, we see a progressive unveiling of whom Jesus is: “a prophet;” “The Son of Man,” to be worshipped as Lord.”
We see too, a refusal, by those who consider Jesus a “sinner,” to move beyond the confines of their own understanding. Thinking that they “see,” that they know the things of God, it is they and not Jesus, who are the real sinners.