4TH SUNDAY IN LENT — 3 April 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.
1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Last Sunday over at Trinity in Iowa City, Fr. Schlachter began his sermon on the Gospel reading — which, as you recall, was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well — by noting that that Gospel reading was the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday). St. John tends to tell very long stories in his Gospel, as you may have noticed just now!
Well, I sat there in the pew and thought, “Oh, I’m not so sure about that!” (You may have noticed over the years that I’m not too good about taking people’s words for things! Especially when I’m sitting in the pew!) So I checked when I got home. My basis was counting the number of lines in the Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament. Sure enough, the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels) is the reading today, about the healing of the man born blind. The second longest is the reading next week, the raising of Lazarus. (I’m not trying to scare you off from church next week!) The Samaritan woman at the well is only number three!
There now! If anyone asks you if you learned anything in the sermon this morning, you can say Yes! (And does this enrich your spiritual life? No!)
There is a point to this bit of introductory silliness, however, I think. It reminds us of something that we all know, but maybe haven’t really paid much attention to: The Gospel of John contains a lot of long stories. Not stories that Jesus himself tells, like the parables in the first three Gospels, but narratives, some of them quite substantial, about things Jesus does and says. In one case, of course, as you recall, in what we usually call the Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus goes on for over four chapters!
What I’m trying to get at is that the four Gospels are not simply four variants on the Jesus story. As I think we all know, the first three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — are very similar in many ways. First of all, Mark is the initial framework for all three of them. Matthew and Luke then add further material, some of which, mostly sayings of Jesus, they share between themselves, and then some other sayings and episodes that are unique to each of them. Even with all they have in common, each of these three Gospels has its own distinct “flavor.” But you can line them up side by side and compare them, you can look at them together, and so (because we never use an English word when a Greek one will do!) we call them the Synoptic Gospels — syn-optic, from the Greek words for “see together.” (In fact, you can buy a book that does just that — go to the Amazon website and search for “synoptic gospels” or “gospel parallels.”)
But the Gospel of John really is very different. And because all the Gospels are so familiar to us, we may not always notice how different the Fourth Gospel really is.
First of all, none of the Gospels are news stories that were written at the time of the events. Nobody was taking notes. The three synoptic Gospels especially drew on the memories of the communities of the followers who had been with Jesus during his ministry and in the first years following. I don’t suggest that these memories were not reliable — people then were generally at least basically literate, but they did not have notepads, much less iPads, and they had to be able to remember things, a skill that most of us have lost. But the way they told their recollections about Jesus was shaped by who they were and where they lived.
I think the stories in the Fourth Gospel, St. John, are based upon real events in the ministry of Jesus. But John, whose Gospel was the last of the four to be written, is not primarily interested in just telling stories about Jesus. By his time everyone already knew the stories. (There is no evidence that John knows the actual written texts of any of the synoptic Gospels, but his community already had long known the stories and traditions on which those Gospels were also based.) John’s purpose is telling what these stories mean and who Jesus really is — after decades of praying and reflecting on the stories themselves, those same stories that we know primarily through the synoptic Gospels. And, as you no doubt have long since noticed, what John does with these stories is very sophisticated from a literary point of view, and he operates on multiple levels. And we see that very much going on in this story of the healing of the man born blind.
Well, since we all would like to be home before lunch, I won’t work through all of the stuff that’s going on in the Gospel reading today, but it would take that long, or longer. It starts with the healing of the man (which presumably is a genuine story; Jesus was well-known for healing, including of blind people, and there are several instances in the synoptic Gospels), but then John starts to spin out the implications he sees in this event. To start right up front, Jesus is asked, “Being born blind is a terrible curse, obviously a punishment for sin: So who do we blame for this, the man himself? Or maybe his parents?” And Jesus says, “You people obviously Just Don’t Get It. Haven’t you read the Book of Job? (Although to be candid, that really doesn’t help very much; the author weasels out at the end!) Afflictions like this are not God’s punishment for sin” (— do we really Get This? Even today, among good Christian folks, there is still this notion that Bad Stuff happens to us because somehow we Deserve It) — “Afflictions are not God’s punishment for sin, but they may be an occasion in which the grace and power of God may be revealed.” Okay, there’s the beginning point. And Jesus now goes on to talk about light and darkness, and how he himself is the Light of the World (a statement which he has made before [John 8:12] and will make again [John 12:46; see also 1:4-9]). There’s another sermon for another time! And then Jesus spits on the ground and makes a clay of the earth (there’s another sermon in that), anoints the man’s eyes (still another sermon), and instructs him to go wash in the water of the Pool of Siloam (at least two more sermons; the Fathers saw this as a baptismal theme).
The story then goes on with a series of interviews between the Pharisees and the man (and his parents), in which the man by stages comes to realize who Jesus really is and what has been given to him (and there’s yet another sermon in that). The story then closes with Jesus addressing some Pharisees with the concluding point: if we confess our blindness we can seek the opening of our eyes and be empowered to walk in the light; but if we insist that we can see, we admit our blindness and remain in darkness.
And there are some more sermons! But not today!