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Sermon for Last Sunday after Trinity – HIGH MASS Sunday 25 October 2015

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

Last after Trinity

‘What do you want me to do for you?

..let me see..’

Intentionally, on this last Sunday of the Trinity season, Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus brings to a conclusion the journey towards Jerusalem we’ve been following for several weeks. It has been a journey from Bethsaida, after the healing of a blind man there, to Caesarea Philippi, where Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and on to Jericho (just 10 miles from Jerusalem) where the blind beggar Bartimaeus hails him as ‘Son of David’, anticipating the Messianic accolades of Palm Sunday (which follow directly as Jesus enters Jerusalem in the following chapter). On the journey we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly teaching his followers how broad is the kingdom which he announces while also noticing obstacles which slow our progress into it.

For early Christians, there would have been many verbal clues in today’s encounter suggesting new life by conversion and baptism (which was often called ‘illumination’ by early Christians).

Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, lacks a crucial tool of perception and is in dire need. His condition is symbolized by his location – ‘by the roadside’ (or ‘way’ – the same word is used as for the seed which fell by the ‘path’ in 4, but also a shorthand for the faith itself The Way). The recent or potential convert could easily identify with him. The crowd’s call to him to ‘get up’ (v. 49) is the same as the word used of resurrection (again baptism is tied to resurrection, by Paul). Bartimaeus ‘throws off’ his cloak; the removal of one’s old clothing and the donning of the new was one of the best attested baptismal customs, [v.50; (& again echoing Paul [Gal. 3.27] ‘you have clothed yourselves with Christ’). The man’s desire is to ‘see again’: this word also means ‘be enlightened’ or ‘illuminated (.51&  .52). Jesus’ pronouncement to Bartimaeus that ‘your faith has made you well’ can equally be translated as ‘has saved you’. 

Just before Peter’s recognition of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, back in chapter 8, we heard of the healing of a previous blind man at Bethsaida. This was the man on whose eyes Jesus put saliva; he saw at first indistinctly (‘I can see people, but they look like trees walking’) then, after a further laying-on of hands, he saw clearly. This journey to Jerusalem has been neatly enclosed between these two healings of sight,

… as if to say that this is the necessary journey for those who would ‘see’ and be ‘saved’.                    Houlden

At Caesarea Philippi, in response to the statement of recognition by Peter (“You are the Messiah.”), Jesus says,

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ 

Following, we learn, involves seeing with intent, changing, dying with Christ and being raised with him (of which Baptism is the sacramental means and pledge), in order to be ‘saved’, made safe, made whole, perfected by God.

This is also the final healing miracle in Mark’s gospel: it describes the ability of those who have faith in Jesus to see the truth, and points forward to the meaning of Jesus’ Messianic status, about to be enacted prophetically in the events of Palm Sunday. It is no accident that Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus as ‘Son of David’ just before the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem and what follows there: the true identity of Jesus, or perhaps the true meaning of that identity, becomes clearer the closer we move to the cross.

The last potential recruit we met was an admirable, devout and wealthy man, ‘the rich young man’ we heard about two weeks ago: to the disciples’ consternation, the upshot of that encounter was that he went away. He was not beyond God’s grace, Jesus said (‘for with God all things are possible’), but not yet of their number. Today we have met a man at the other end of the scale of social acceptability, a blind beggar, by the road, on the margin. It is he, rather than the rich man, who is ready to follow Jesus ‘on the way’, with his sight restored, whereas the rich man has gone away ‘blind’, at least for now. Bartimaeus has nothing to lose, nothing to sell, and his commitment is immediate and complete. Jesus’ extended teaching on the inclusive and apparently upside-down values of the kingdom is summed up in the recruitment of the least likely disciple, the ‘little one’ who is welcomed, the last who becomes first. The rich man is not excluded, but the marginal man sees it more clearly and responds more quickly.

This is commentary rather than predictable moralism or class war: Jesus repeatedly points out many things, excuses, which get in the way of our relationship with God and our full participation in the kingdom (think of the parable of the banquet and the excuses made by those invited: ‘I have bought a piece of land’, I have just bought five oxen’, ‘I’ve just got married’ ([Luke 14]). He offers illustrations of morally neutral (or even good things) which lead us off the path rather than making value judgements about them per se.

The warning is not primarily against acquiring wealth, though he certainly implies that we make it almost impossible for ourselves if wealth as central in our lives (a camel through the eye of a needle). But the stern warning is against disregarding those who lack wealth, whatever that means to us: it might also be education, sporting ability, cultural sophistication, manners, or looks. Jesus is against cults of celebrity and self-importance rather than wealth. If we see him clearly we will see others differently, looking at them as he does, ‘with love’ (the rich young man, two weeks ago).

There’s one more thing. Mark records the man’s name and his father’s name.  Bartimaeus is the only person healed in this gospel who is named, which further enhances his significance and probably indicates that he was a familiar character in the early church: the listeners know who he is. As he joins Jesus ‘on the way’ he functions as an example of discipleship, following: Mark encourages the listener to identify with him and to notice how easy it is for him to follow, because nothing holds him back or weighs him down.

This story is Mark’s final challenge to his listeners to join in following Jesus on the road or ‘way’ of discipleship, even though that road leads to Jerusalem and all that happens there. Jesus is typically careful not to take the credit: he ascribes the access of sight, of enlightened vision, to the man’s faith, indicating that this vision is open to us all. Like the seed scattered by the sower, the challenge to us is to be fertile ground, to catch the vision and grow it.

‘Vision statements’ are a bane of our age, and they are an etiolated mimicry of the Gospel, so we don’t need to be writing any new ones. Our vision statement is the content of the Gospel. It is the kingship of God in our lives and the recognition of it in others’ lives: what Jesus preached as the true values of creation, the true worth of life which is eternal, godly: the Kingdom of God.

‘What do you want me to do for you?

..let me see..’