Lent 4 April 3, 2011, The Rev. Kate Ekrem
Scripture of the day is here.
Early Christians took baptismal preparation very seriously. Today, at our most perfunctory it can be just a quick meeting in the pastor’s study, but in those days it was three years of study and learning. All leading up to baptism at Easter, almost always at the Easter Vigil, the crown and pinnacle of the church year. The scripture passages we read on the Sundays of Lent were their textbook. And this story of the healing of the man born blind was one of the most important of the texts they studied. We know this because it appears more than 7 times in early catacomb art, generally as an illustration of baptism.
In those days, and through the Middle Ages, this lesson was read at the most important of the three scrutinies, or examinations, of the baptized as they were getting ready, usually on the 3rd, 4th and 5th Sunday of Lent. We don’t scrutinize and exorcise people before baptism anymore, but those scrutinies are now summarized in our baptismal service as the three questions: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?, Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?, Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? (Extra credit if you know which page of the prayer book I’m on). And also the three affirmations: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? The story of the man born blind is sort of an object lesson about these renunciations and affirmations, about our baptismal journeys.
All the symbols of baptism are present. The man is anointed by Jesus, just as we anoint with chrism those who are baptized. He’s cleansed and washed in water. And he receives the light of Christ both literally in being healed from blindness and spiritually in seeing Jesus as sent from God. In baptism we get healed, we wash in the living waters, we are healed and given new life, just like this man.
His story, his journey is an interesting one because he doesn't believe in Jesus and then get his new lease on life. He is healed, washed, and restored to life, then he stumbles around wondering what’s going on for a while -- when people first ask him who healed him, his answer is along the lines of, I think it was some guy named... Jesus, maybe? Not exactly a declaration of faith. Then he becomes increasingly sure Jesus is a prophet, and from God, then he gets chased out of town, then Jesus finds him all alone and in that moment, in that personal encounter with Jesus, then and only then does he say, Lord, I believe. And worships Jesus, the only person in this Gospel to do so. Sounds like real life to me. Sounds like our spiritual journeys, our baptismal journeys, with ups and downs and backs and forths punctuated, hopefully, by encounters with Jesus in our life that help us believe, help us make those baptismal affirmations.
The formerly blind man may not have huge amounts of faith, especially in the beginning, but what he does have is openness, willingness, he’s willing to do what this guy whose name he’s not quite sure of asks him to do, and see what happens. And he also has honesty, refusing to deny the reality of what has happened to him, even in the face of authorities telling him he’s wrong. His faith really happens when Jesus seeks him out.
And what about those authorities? Just as significant to this story, this lesson in baptism, are the Pharisees. As the blind man gets more and more sight, they seem to get less and less. At the first hearing, they argue about the healing, and ask the blind man to explain what happened. Then they start trying to prove he was never blind in the first place, this isn’t the same guy as the man born blind. In the end, they are completely convinced that this miraculous healing proves that Jesus is a sinner. The historical tensions between the early church and the Jewish synagogue are very evident in this passage, and the passage doesn't point out what the readers would have known -- those followers of Jesus who were officially declared no longer Jewish by the authorities would be subject to Roman persecution as members of an illegal religion. However, knowing that historical context helps us look past it and when reading John’s Gospel I often think the modern day Pharisees are us, anyone who comes to church each Sunday and is active member of a parish probably has more in common with these guys who were debating if Jesus was following the prayer book rubrics properly than with the down-and-outs that Jesus spend most of his time with.
So it’s a pretty strong warning about what our state of mind needs to be as we approach baptism, or renewal of our commitment to our baptism vows, and what we are really renouncing. The Pharisees have a pretty complete world view. God doesn't work on the Sabbath, the Bible says so. but even our most cherished and deeply held ideas and assumptions of our old life are part of what we must renounce in taking on the new life God offers. What deeply held ideas and assumptions of your old life do you need to give up? Self-examination is one of the key parts of Lent. Where can God’s light shine some healing for you?
This passage begins with Jesus saying he is the light of the world. And in the early church, baptism was sometimes called enlightenment. Here Jesus brings the light of sight to the blind man, brings him out of darkness. Light that helps him see the truth. That light also shines, somewhat more harshly, on the Pharisees, illuminating their blindness, their not wanting to see what they don't control or understand.
This passage also begins with a question about the purpose of the life of the man born blind. The Pharisees assume his blindness is some kind of sign of his parent’s sin. But Jesus says he has a much different purpose: his life is about God’s works, God’s love, God’s salvation, God’s healing, God’s reconciliation being revealed in him. Jesus says, forget whose fault it is. That’s not the point. The point is that God is not done working here yet, not done with this person, and God has a holy and important purpose for his life. And for us, too, that’s true. God is not done working on us yet. God’s purposes are working out in our lives, if we are willing to open our ears and our eyes.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Words to ponder as we get ever closer to the great baptismal feast of Easter.