This weekend, of course, we celebrated St. Patrick's Day. And I know for most of us St. Patrick's Day is a secular holiday. But of course, you all know St. Patrick is a Catholic saint. And those of you who grew up Catholic like me, you know, we grew up with lots of saints, hundreds of saints, 1000s of saints.
There were saints for everything. Like if you lost your keys, you would pray to a certain saint to find them. If you had back trouble, you'd pray to another saint, if you were looking for a job where you needed to sell your house, there were saints for that. And then there were saints for every profession. There is the patron saint of teachers, the patron saint of doctors, the patron saint of brewers.
No kidding. A patron saint for everything. When I was a kid, I was given a book about the lives of the saints, and I loved it. Other kids would read comic books and learn about superheroes. To me, the Saints were superheroes, because you know, in order to be a saint, you had to perform miracles.
And so I was reading about people who could levitate, some saints were reported to fly. Others could walk through walls, and others could appear in two places at the same time. Miraculous! Now I know, to our 21st century sensibilities, that all sounds kind of ridiculous. But as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning that Eric read for us, the people in the ancient world expected miraculous stories in order to prove that someone was superhuman, godlike.
And that's why there were stories of Hercules and ISIS, and Pythagoras and Apollonius – stories of them, calming the seas, and healing the sick, and raising the dead. These were people who lived before Jesus. And so you can see why may be the early followers of Jesus needed to tell similar miraculous stories to prove that Jesus was the Son of God.
Now we, during the season of Lent, are reading from the Gospel of John. And the Gospel of John is very different from all of the other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, meaning all of their stories are very similar. John's Gospel is different. John's Gospel tells stories of miracles that appear nowhere else in those earlier gospels. So in the Gospel of John, we hear about Jesus healing the blind man, healing a man who was paralyzed, turning water into wine, and raising Lazarus from the dead.
Those appear nowhere in the earlier gospels.
Now, you would think if Jesus did something so amazing, like raising someone from the dead, that those earlier writers would have written about it. But John's Gospel was written last. It was written decades after Jesus died, and it was written by people who never met Jesus.
So my question for you, on the Fourth Sunday in Lent is, do you need for the miracles of Jesus to be true in order for you to believe?
If you were with us last Sunday, we heard the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was probably the foremost biblical scholar of our time. And he said that the Gospel of John – none of the stories that appear in that Gospel were actually true. That the characters are all literary characters, and that the gospel was written and meant to be understood symbolically.
So let's look at this story of the blind man symbolically.
You know, one of Bishop Spong’s contemporaries, another biblical scholar, is John Dominic Crossan. He's still alive. He was part of the very famous Jesus Seminar in the 1970s and 80s. When many of the world's great theologians got together to really study the Bible. And John Dominic Crossan said, “My point is not that the ancient people wrote literal stories, and now we're smart enough to understand them symbolically. My point is that the ancient people wrote symbolic stories. And now we're dumb enough to understand them literally.”
Literal interpretation is the lowest form of meaning. Right now, there are Christian churches this Sunday morning around the world, where children are in Sunday school. And they're focusing on today's Gospel reading of the healing of the blind man, and their teacher is telling the little fifth graders, there was a man who was born blind, Jesus put mud on his eyes, and then he washed it off. And the man could see! Jesus is a miracle worker! Yay!
And yet, there are adults who understand the story the same way.
You should not be understanding scripture the same way a fifth grader does. Your understanding should be spiritually mature. In Scripture, it says, “When I was a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
In this season of Lent, one of the things to give up, instead of chocolate and candy, is maybe to give up your literal interpretation of Scripture, to grow in your spiritual understanding.
Now, I don't know if Jesus really healed the blind man or not. But there's a part of me that says it doesn't matter. Because whether these stories are true or not, they speak to great spiritual truths. And the spiritual truth of this story is that we can see things with new eyes, through the power and the presence of the Christ.
So let's look at the story the way it was meant to be understood. The story is the healing of a blind man, because Jesus is trying to have people see things in a new light with new eyes.
So you see, the people come up to him, they say, “Jesus, what did this man do that he was born blind? Did he sin? Or did his parents sin?” Because you see, in Jesus's day, they believed God punished people. So if you were born with leprosy, or something bad happened to your family, they said, ‘Oh, they're sinners, God's punishing them, see?’
And Jesus was saying, No.This man didn't sin, his family didn't sin. God doesn't work that way. This man is blind to reveal the presence of God. And I don't know if you understand exactly how shocking that was for people of Jesus's day. It went against everything they were taught. It would be like, in the 1950s, if there was a Christian pastor in America, and someone asked him about gay people, and he said, ‘Oh, no, they didn't sin. They're not sinners. They were born to reveal God's presence.’ How shocking that would be. They would fire that pastor, they'd run him out of town in the 1950s.
What Jesus was saying was so shocking. And then we see that the Pharisees, the religious authorities, say he's got to be a sinner. He was working on the Sabbath. He healed somebody on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the day of rest. It says so in Scripture. And Jesus is saying, it's not about the literal letter of the law, people!
So what Jesus is doing is challenging these long-held beliefs that people had, that were about the letter of the law. And he was trying to get them to see things differently, to heal their sight.
So symbolically, the mud represents the Earth, the world's earthly things, worldly things, material things. My friends, when our eyes are muddied with the things of this world, we can't see things clearly. We've got to wash those things away so we can have spiritual sight.
That's the symbolic meaning of the story. The man has to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam. The so the word siloam means to give up to release to let go.
And notice the man has to go and do it himself. Jesus doesn't do it for him. Jesus could have just blinked his eyes and said, “Boom! You have sight!”
But Jesus had the man take action for his own healing. So again, what is it, that you need to wash away? Let go of? Release? So that you can see things more clearly.
Now, yes, I want to be very clear. Jesus was a miracle worker. Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was the light of the world. But he came not to tell us those things. He came to say, “You are sons and daughters of God,” not “I am the Son of God.”
And he didn't come and say “I am the light of the world.” He said, “You are the light of the world.” And then he said, “All of the things that I've done, you can do. These things, and greater.”
Do you understand? Jesus was trying to tell us that we can work miracles? Yes, we can. We are here to be healers of the world.
But most people don't believe that. It's much easier to worship the one guy who did all those things, rather than to follow in his steps. Jesus did not want fans. That's what father Richard Rohr says, Jesus wants followers, not to worship and praise him, but to go and do as he did to be miracle workers to be healers.
That's what our Christian calling is.
And so my friends, as we continue our Lenten journey, I want to invite you to find time each and every day, to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And where is the kingdom of heaven? Jesus said, it's within you. Get silent and still so you can enter into the kingdom of heaven and begin to see things with new eyes, to see people in your life and situations in your life that right now seem muddied and to cleanse your sight, so you can begin to see as God sees. To love, as God loves, to heal as God heals, and to be the miracle workers and lights of the world that you were created to be.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
During Jesus’ lifetime, most people believed in miracles. Gods and demi-gods such as Hercules and Isis all reportedly healed the sick and overcame death. There were also myths about philosophers like Pythagoras calming storms at sea, chasing away pestilences, and being greeted as gods. The achievements of the first century Apollonius were so famous, and so similar to those of Jesus, that early opponents of Christianity used Apollonius’ accomplishments to argue that Jesus was neither original nor divine. In the earlier synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke – Jesus refuses to use miraculous signs to prove his authority, but the miracles in the later gospel of John are performed to confirm his divinity. John’s gospel adds miracle stories that appear to have been unknown to earlier gospel writers; for instance, he tells about Jesus turning water into wine, restoring an invalid to wholeness, healing of a man who had been blind since birth, and raising Lazarus from the dead. To be considered a divine wise man during this time in history, the populous expected miracles and other wondrous acts to prove divinity. Some of the miracles of Jesus are similar to some of Buddha’s: Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee; Buddha crossed the River Ganges without a boat. Jesus by a word or the touch of his hand healed the sick; Buddha healed a sick woman by a single look. Jesus fed five thousand on five loaves and two small fishes; Buddha fed five hundred with no previous supplies. The similarities make me wonder: Did Jesus’ miraculous acts really happen or were they attempts by the early Christian community to prove Jesus’ divinity? Personally, I think Jesus would be amazed and even disturbed to hear the miraculous things he supposedly did during his life.
What did you think?