Sermon for Lent 4 – Year A – Sunday March 30th 2014
‘Without humility no-one will see God’
Lord Jesus Christ, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.
What does it mean to love God with all our mind?
When I was in the process of considering the call to come here to St John’s – as any person might do I checked the parish website. And there I saw the comment ‘St John’s not a church where you need to leave your brain at the door . . .’ I must admit at first I was quietly pleased, it would be disingenuous of me to say that I am not interested in the life of the mind. But I have to say that as I typed these words out they made me shudder . . . I will pass over my objections for now, to an obvious objection to my taking issue with it. For as we have hear every Sunday, Jesus in calling Israel to remembrance of who She is recites the Shema – ‘Hear O Israel, The Lord thy God, The Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength’. There it is!! Love God with All of your mind!! What’s my problem? Well simply this – What does it mean to Love God with our minds?? Because just Using our minds is not necessarily loving God with them. (Although we would like to think so) For our minds can obviously be put to many uses that have nothing to do with loving God. And even thinking about God is not necessarily to love him with our minds – esepcially if we consider God to be some sort of ‘problem’ – as if we were thinking about the ocean, or the news, or what to have to dinner tonight. To think about someone you love is not the same, and this is to love God with our minds. And, to make matters worse, the better our minds, the better we are at deluding ourselves that we are loving God with our minds.
To Love is to Give. God so Loved the world, that He Gave. Love is a giving over of what we have for others. To love God with our minds is to surrender our minds to God. Now the very phrase ‘To Surrender our minds to God’ may well cause us to shudder. I struggle with it. Yet without that First step, we cannot be enlightened – we cannot by our own self serving processes of Reason come to the Truth. But if we Surrender our minds to God, Trusting in his Love then He will lead us deep into the Truth of who he is. We Must acknowledge that we are utterly dependent on God to know the truth of God. Theology as the doctors of the church tell us is ‘Faith seeking understanding’ What is faith? Faith is the surrender of our lives to God. In other words we begin by saying Yes to God. And the rest of our thinking is predicated on that unreserved ‘Yes’
All too often the phrase ‘we don’t check our brains in at the door’ leaves us in effect putting ‘God in the Dock’ – as if our pitiful powers of reason could elucidate the truth. To hear our own St John – if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the Truth is not in us. To as it were put God on trial, to put him to the test is to assume we are without Sin, that our eyes are completely clear. That We See. But Jesus destroys our illusions “I came into this world for judgment 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. If we start from the assumption that we see, then we all we admit is our blindness. That is why long hours of loving prayer – of spending time with God is the prerequisite for any thinking about God. Without Love for God, no thinking about him can be truthful. For to Love IS to Know. To do otherwise is to assume that we are greater than God, in practise, if we would never acknowledge that in theory.
I recounted to the Lent group a week ago how I had been revealed as someone smug, superior and arrogant and dreadfully sinful by my Spiritual Director some years ago. How she had listened carefully to me and then asked ‘Eric, would you prefer it if you were right and God were wrong?’ And facing the state of my wicked heart I admitted that that was the case. She dismissed me with the words, “I think you have some serious work to do!’’ I don’t think that ever, before or since I have so felt the fires of hell licking at my heels. For we cannot love God with our minds if we will not surrender our need to be right . . . and that battle for the love of our minds is right at the heart of our Gospel today. As is the whole Gospel – the encounter with Jesus, the lover of our souls, the one who confronts us with terrible truths about ourselves, that we might turn from our wickedness and live. I had assumed that I was greater than God – although if you were to put it to me I would have said ‘Never!!’. But the Truth of my life was revealed by a skilled and holy director.
So as my director revealed My Sin – so our Gospel also reveals Sin. As I said to put God on trial it is first necessary is to assume We have not sinned, however we might protest otherwise. Our Gospel reading hones right in on this, God in the person of Jesus is on trial, and the occassion of this is the healing of the man born blind, and notice how Sin is a thread running through the whole story.
First there is the question of why he is blind. ‘Did he sin or was it his parents?’ – Jesus declares that the straightforward connection between suffering and sin is wrong. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” You are wrong to make this connection – but then Jesus adds a somewhat mysterious phrase ‘he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’ I’ll come back to that at the end. “4We” ( Jesus is here including the disciples in His work) “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This healing is a Sign of Who Jesus is, ‘the true light who enlightens everyone.
So Jesus dismisses sin from the equation concerning the man’s blindness – but that does not mean that he is dismissing sin as we shall see.
Secondly, the man in obedience to Jesus goes and washes in the pool. Note Jesus does not say ‘go and wash the mud off’ – just ‘Go! Wash!’ Surely we are right to see here an allusion to Baptism. He went and washed and came back able to see. And as he comes from the pool more astonishingly he is not easily recognised – the mud takes us to the thought of the creation of Adam, from Mud. The Man is a New Creation – not readily recognisable, as of course neither was Jesus after his Resurrection, The New Creation. He has been born again. His parents without realising what they are saying tell the Pharisees, ‘Ask him yourself, He has come of age’ They say ‘he is no longer our child’, by their refusal to defend him – and in truth he is not – for now he is God’s child.
And notice also that Jesus is not in the picture. The man stands alone before the Pharisees. As the confusion over sin and his blindness reveals, health was seen as a spiritual matter. If he is healed, this is religiously important. So as the healed lepers are sent by Jesus to the Priests as a testimony to them, so also the man is Sent, to the waters of new Birth, then sent before the Pharisees, to witness.
Jesus says to those who follow him, ‘As the Father sent me, so I have sent you!’ The Man is one of the Sent ones, as Jesus the firstborn from above was sent.
Jesus as the Judge – the one who brings into Light things hidden
Now the story really hots up. It is at this point in John’s gospel that the narrative of conflict between Light and Dark is brought right to the forefront. Previously it is alluded to – Nicodemus comes by night and leaves in the dark – the woman at the well comes in broad daylight and receives Life from Christ. But now it is exposed. Jesus words from the end of the story “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” are enacted as the man bears witness to Jesus. This is what faithful witness to Jesus does, it reveals Light and Dark. His presence Is judgement. We blithely think that Judgement is something for the end of our lives, but it is Now, wherever Jesus is present – the Spirit separates the Light from the Dark, the Day from the Night, and Yes, there is more to the Creation story than a story of origins . . . Jesus is made present in the testimony of the man, as he simply declares what happens. The man testifies to what Jesus has done for him . . . as all those who are baptised are called to. We bear witness to Jesus, not primarily by talking about him in the Objective sense, but by bearing witness to what he has done for us – in this sense our words and actions can be understood as one, for our lives are renewed in all dimensions. And the Light breaks in exposing the darkness of the Pharisees. And they are angry
“Give glory to God! (On Oath – ‘Tell the Truth!!’ and the man does) “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know (Again the pride – that same pride that Nicodemus came to Jesus with ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God) ‘We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 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. 32 (There is that Creation theme laid bare) Not since the Beginning has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. In the blind eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus is a sinner for healing on the Sabbath, and the man is a sinner because he was blind. So Light and dark are separated. the darkness cannot abide the light and seeks to drive it away.
The Pharisees and Us
The Pharisees had a very highly developed theological system of which they were judge and jury. They were at the centre of things, however much they said God was – they had things arranged so that they could have a very comfortable life and still worship God. Life entirely on their own terms. I have no doubt that they would have said ‘this is how we worship God with our minds’. They were not about to surrender their way of thinking to God. They were not about to accept that this man whom all their training said must be a sinner, had been healed by Jesus, whom they Also they saw as a Sinner for he healed on the Sabbath. Their whole way of life was under assault, and they were not about to admit that they were Wrong, for that would cost them Everything! As Faith in Jesus does. Jesus and his sent ones find themselves rejected by those who think that they are the centre of everything. They are ‘outside the camp’ Jesus will be crucified outside the city. There is no place for obedience to Jesus in the Pharisees system. Light has come in Jesus – their darkness is revealed. ‘You were born blind!! You were steeped in sin at your birth!! – How dare you try and lecture us!! The Action of Jesus has threatened them to their very core. If what the man says is true then their whole way of life has come under judgement in Jesus . . . and it is the same for us.
Indeed they weren’t about to surrender their way of thinking and indeed they weren’t about to surrender anything!
But what of us? The man hears the command of Jesus to go and wash and he does. In Obedience he is reborn. In obedience to the Son of Man, he is revealed to be a child of God. Every time we hear the words of Jesus, so plain in their command, it is Judgement. The words of Jesus reveal light and dark. Every time we respond in obedience to Jesus we are revealed as children of Light.
But if with the Pharisees we to use our thinking to adapt his command to our lives, rather than obey their plain meaning – we are revealed as children of the darkness. Take for example the command to love our neighbour as ourself, for many people the epitome of Jesus’ teaching. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. What would you do if you were hungry? Is your neighbour hungry? What would you do if you were cold? Is your neighbour cold? Etc. Etc. Yet how readily do we modify this word of Light, to one of darkness, namely Love your neighbour insofar as it is convenient to you – insofar as you can continue to live the life you want to have. And therein is found the heart of it – which life DO we want?? But the life of faith is not life on our terms, it is the Only life there is, the life of God, the life of alignment to the purposes of God, the life of simple obedience.
And such obedience, apart from staring it in the face and counting the cost of it, requires not much thought. Obedience does not require brain power. In truth some of the greatest of Saints have been the simplest of people. Loving nothing more than to love God with their lives.
Every time we take the plain words of Jesus and use our minds to change their meaning we are doing exactly what the Pharisees did
Who are the recipients of mercy
The man who witnesses to what Jesus has done for him is thrown out – he suffers the rejection of Jesus. Jesus comes to him outside and the man worships him. Two weeks ago we heard of Nicodemus – coming by night. A Pharisee with too much to lose . . . although as his story unwinds we see that there is even hope for Nicodemus . . . Then last week Jesus seeks the woman in the Light – the woman who is an outcast finds life in the Truth about her life being brought into the Light – The man who is born blind – the man who is a beggar – born thus that he might be the ground of God’s New Creation – receives New Life from Jesus. These people with nothing, the humble poor, the poor in Spirit of The beatitude see the Kingdom of heaven. The people with nothing to lose receive the Life of God. Next week we see this brought to a dramatic climax with the raising of Lazarus. The epitome of someone who has lost his, and so might gain it
Thus humility is the prerequisite for our Life in Christ. Thinking much of ourselves is always an error – Thinking much of Christ is always the way to Life. As St Benedict has it ‘The first degree of humility is obedience, and that without delay.’ And only one whose mind is surrendered to God, one who has laid down their Pride can live in such obedience.
Perhaps rather than ‘St John’s not a church where you need to leave your brain at the door . . .’ We might say, ‘St John’s is a church where we seek to support one another in the apparently foolish, very difficult yet life giving path of surrendered obedience of our minds to Jesus Christ – Our Life.’