Sunday, March 26, 2006

4th Sunday in Lent (A)
Outstanding Christians

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1,6-7,10-13; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Sisters and brothers, someone once cheekily confessed to me that he was an outstanding Christian. I was a little puzzled at first, because I didn’t think this person was the sort to blow his own horn. But he later clarified, with a chuckle, exactly what he meant. For him, an outstanding Christian is one who always comes to Mass late and prefers to stand outside the church.

In church, this afternoon, there is also a group of people who stand out among us, but for a different reason. I’m referring to the elect. It’s difficult not to notice them. They are seated right in the middle of our worship space, dressed in distinctive maroon-coloured T-shirts. Visually, they stand out.

In the readings of today, too, one person stands out: the man who had been blind from birth. This connection between him and our elect is no coincidence, for to meditate on the experience of the man born blind is also to gain some insight into the faith-journeys of our elect. In the gospel, Jesus sends the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam. And after he does so, the man gains his sight – not just physical, but also spiritual sight. This is how he stands out: of all the characters in the story, he alone has the faith to acknowledge and worship Jesus as Lord.

In the same way, Jesus has called our elect to the pool of baptism at Easter. There they will gain spiritual sight. There they will profess their faith in Christ and worship him as Lord, in full communion with his church for the first time. The words of the letter to the Ephesians will then apply also to them: You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord. At baptism, they will commit themselves to living like children of light, for the effects of light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth. They will try to have nothing to do with the futile works of darkness but (expose) them by contrast. And by living in such a faith-filled manner, they will shine out like bright stars in a world filled with shadows and lights contrary to the light of Christ (cf. Ph 2:15).

But surely the readings of today are meant not only for our elect, are they? Rather, they also invite the rest of us to reflect on the extent to which we are living out our baptismal faith. They offer us a very sober warning about how easy it is to remain spiritually blind. In our readings, even the religious professionals – the Pharisees in the gospel, and the prophet Samuel in the first reading – fail to recognize the grace of God at work. What about us who profess to be Christians? To what extent do we continually try to heed the advice of the letter to the Ephesians? To what extent do we continually try to discover what the Lord wants of (us)? And when we do discover it, how well do we respond? To what extent do we continually try to shine out in our world with the light of Christ?

To help us answer these questions, it’s useful to consider the other characters in our readings today, and the things that keep them spiritually blind, the things that prevent them from recognizing and responding to God, the things that hinder them from coming to faith in Christ.

What are some of these obstacles? Prejudice is the first. We see this in Samuel, who favours Eliab because of his appearance and height. But he is reminded that God does not see as (we see); (we look) at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart. Similarly, the Pharisees say of Jesus, This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the Sabbath. And by clinging to their understanding of the meaning and importance of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees remain blind to the Word-of-God-Made-Flesh. We too have our various prejudices. We too may judge according to appearances, or even according to how well someone keeps religious rules. The question is whether we are willing to change our point of view, as Samuel does, when it becomes clear that God is moving among us in a new way. Or do we prefer to cling to our prejudices, as the Pharisees do, and so remain blind to God’s action?

But why, we might ask, do the Pharisees cling so stubbornly to their prejudice even when it becomes clear that God is at work in Jesus? As the once-blind man says to them, Ever since the world began it is unheard of for anyone to open the eyes of a man who was born blind; if this man were not from God, he couldn’t do such as thing.

Could it be out of a desire for power and control – even a desire for power and control over God? The Pharisees were pious and scrupulous observers of the Law to the nth degree. But isn’t there also a shadow side to piety? Isn’t it true that it can become a subtle means of bending God to our own will? So that to admit that God can be at work in someone like Jesus, who seems not to keep the Law, would be tantamount to admitting that God is beyond our control – something which the Pharisees cannot accept? Do we not also try, from time to time, to manipulate God? We may tell God, I will come to church more frequently, if only you will get me a job… find me a wife… heal me of my illness… Of course, it’s a good thing to come to church. Just as it’s a good thing to ask God for what we need. The problem is the if only – the condition that we set on our religious observance. As if God had something to gain from our coming to church. And yet, in one of the prefaces for Mass we say to God: You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in grace…

But perhaps there is something even deeper than the desire for control. This is what prevents the parents of the blind man from supporting him when they are questioned by the Jews. He is old enough, they say, let him speak for himself. And we are told that they spoke like this out of fear of the Jews, who had agreed to expel from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Fear – that is the final obstacle to faith that we find in our readings today. Fear of what will happen to us if we stand out in the crowd, fear of the suffering that comes our way, even if, or perhaps precisely because, we follow Christ. Like the Pharisees and the parents of the blind man, we prefer to live in ways that give us an illusion of control. We keep the rules, religious or otherwise. We keep a low profile – we try not to stand out in the crowd, for fear of the consequences.

But this safety-first attitude robs us of a very precious experience – the experience of being accompanied and strengthened by the crucified and risen Christ when we suffer. As we heard in today’s psalm: If I should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would I fear. You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort.

My sisters and brothers, you the elect stand out visually among us this afternoon. But it will be very sad if you were to stand out among us spiritually as well. For are not all of us gathered here called to the same faith in Christ? Is it not true that Christ wishes to heal all of us of our spiritual blindness, so that we might all shine out in our world with his light? Is not the letter to the Ephesians addressed to us all when it says: wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you?

My sisters and brothers, elect and baptized alike, how are we being called to be outstanding Christians today?

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