Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
‘Seeing ... and ... believing’
I am severely shortsighted. Eye-
I come to a text like today’s Gospel with a degree of panic. Am I to blame? A bookish personality is sometimes attributed to willful shortsightedness. Head in a book of words and letters, perhaps artworks too! I can’t see well, but, by the grace of God, I can see something! Up close, I can see something!
I take heart, reading the words of Jesus in verse 3: “It wasn’t because of anyone’s sin … Rather, it was to let God’s works shine forth in this person.” A shortsighted person might still be of value. Something of God might be revealed in such a one ...
The last time these readings appeared in the lectionary (three years ago) I discovered a website called American Printing House for the Blind. I’ve chosen an artwork from the same site for today. The artist, Cyquita Stewart, is blind. The image she makes of herself and her friends, however, reveals something of what she sees. That can be startling. She has a sense of sight we might not appreciate. She has some kind of insight we might not expect or value. Her work can help us to see what our readings would have us seek and see.
A longer homily could attend to the ways that disabled and disadvantaged persons are wrongly blamed and shunned in the name of religion (or common sense, science, progress or free trade). Blamed, shunned, and in the process denied opportunities to contribute.
This morning, however, I’d like to offer a corrective to dwelling overly on sight. A good case can be made that sight, that vision, is an especially vain sense. In thrall with spectacle, the spectacular – televised bombing raids, celebrity events, luxury goods – we quite naturally associate sight and knowledge. Common sense, like television and a thousand advertising images, like scientism, says: seeing is believing.
There’s nothing actually bad about knowledge. Nor is sight a bad thing. But the real trouble starts when knowledge/sight is confused with faith. The Gnostics, at the time when John’s Gospel was written, insisted that faith was a secret seeing/knowing, a way of seeing through the things of this world – the bodily realities of struggle and suffering – through to a spiritual world, a world of clear meanings, doctrines, explanations. Martin Luther famously called such religion the theology of glory. It may also be called fundamentalism.
And John’s Gospel was written to refute these fundamentalists. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed”, says Jesus in one climactic scene (20:29). Belief, faith, is more like the trust of a blind person than the piercing gaze of a seer.
Let’s take a closer look at our Gospel story – like very shortsighted readers, let’s press our faces to the text, to the dark glass (1 Cor. 13:12). We note that the person born blind does not come to faith at the moment of initial healing. (One commentator remarks that the text is awash in baptismal imagery – the person washes, and gradually, over time, sees the light.) At first, the healed one regards Jesus a mere prophet (not, in John, a fully adequate title). It is only upon Jesus seeking the healed person, and revealing that “You have seen the Chosen One … The Chosen One is speaking to you now”, that the person born blind falls to worship Jesus. We may surmise that in this instant, like the Pharisee Saul on the Damascus road, the healed person sees nothing much at all.
In other words, the healed person had already seen Jesus, without believing. Faith comes to the baptised person only upon hearing what Jesus says.
Confusing faith and sight is idolatry – worshiping a god we can see, a god reduced to the size of our own imaginations, our own preferences. As one commentator says: “A god we can get our heads around is not the Christian God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God of Jesus Christ. It is a god of our own making, a version of our dreams or fears, projected into the heavens and given the name ‘God’, a god we can control and domesticate. A tame god who never asks us to change” (Garry Deverell).
During Lent we move towards the God who sees us and seeks us, and what we are given to see, through the veil of tears, via repentance and profound affection, is no beatific vision, no theological knowledge, but the disfiguration of a crucified human being raised above the earth.
And to see that, is, in a way, to be blinded (again and again). Like staring into the sun. A painful shock to the eyes.
For Christians, the point is not to be able to see, but to believe that God sees us, not to claim a certain knowledge or experience of God, but to trust that God knows us.
The interesting thing about light, as the writer to the Ephesians notes, is that it exposes and makes visible everything but itself. So if Christ is the light of the world, we can trust Christ to make visible our own paths through life, including the sin that so easily entangles (Garry Deverell). But we should not expect to see or experience Christ with any sense of certainty until the day of peace, the other side of the struggle for justice in the world.
“Faith is the intimation of all that is unseen”, says the writer to the Hebrews (11:1). Good news for the shortsighted, the weeping and hoping ones. And Paul, no longer Saul, no longer entirely sightless, but still seeing in a glass darkly, says something similar: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
The artist, Cyquita Stewart, is blind. The image she makes of herself and her friends, however, reveals something of what she believes. That can be startling. She has a sense of faith we might not appreciate. She has some kind of intimation we might not expect or value. Her work can help us to trust what our readings would have us weep and long for.
In the silence you’re invited to close or cover your eyes. What do you hear? How might that come to challenge what you see and/or what you believe?