It is a pleasure to be here in Charterhouse school
Last time I was here I was being ordained Deacon
I am not sure which is the more frightening – The Bishop of Guildford and the Holy Spirit or Dr John Verity and the Prayer Book Society.
The last time I saw John he was wielding a scalpel over me to perform a ‘minor operation’ – it seemed that ‘minor operation’ was code for ‘without anesthetic’.
I wonder whether there might be some significance in being called here to Charterhouse School today
As you may know I have been trying to get a Guildford Branch heat of the Cranmer Awards going but it has come to nothing to date and as I stand here I wonder whether perhaps we should hold it here…
Thomas Cranmer is one of my great Heroes.
At University in Oxford, the martyr’s memorial made a great impression on me – walking daily past the spot on Broad Street where Cranmer was burned at the stake, thrusting his offending hand into the fire and repeating the words of Stephen, the first martyr: “Lord Jesus receive my spirit”.
Powerful stuff for an impressionable young man
Another lasting impression of Oxford was the discovery of Choral Evensong and the slightly arcane words which surrounded it.
As a classicist I loved the archaisms – we are “Dearly beloved brethren” and “miserable offenders” speaking of “the lowliness of His handmaiden” and using a different version of the Lord’s prayer to catch out the uninitiated and make one feel superior in saying with extra emphasis “as we forgive them that trespass against us”.
And so when I came to be ordained I already knew and loved the Book of Common Prayer.
This copy [red BCP book] was given to me by the Prayer Book Society at the beginning of my training – Your money is not wasted!
Not only that but it is used for a term by those studying on the Local Ministry Programme course in Guildford – I can not speak for Ridley Hall, Cuddesdon and other such places but here in Guildford it is honoured if not quite universally loved and I think that far from dying out we are starting to see a resurgence of interest in the Prayer Book – not least among the young who, brought up on a diet of Harry Potter are not frightened of strange words full of mystery and hidden power. We look forward with hope.
Looking back and looking forward
At this point we are half way through Lent – we look forward and we look back – we can look back to all of our broken promises – the rules we made for ourselves but have not kept: the books unread, the gym membership unused (I speak for myself you understand) and look forward to the new hope, the fresh start of Easter.
Our two readings mirror this
We look back in the Old testament to the prophesy of Jeremiah which itself looks back to the law of Moses which the Israelites have broken and so stand to be punished
They have worshipped other gods and so broken the law which was written on tablets of stone by the finger of God
And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you (Dt 9:10)
Jeremiah references these ‘tables of stone’ in our passage
The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars;
And the law is clear that the punishment for transgressions which will be meted out on future generations
for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, (Ex 20:4-5)
So it is with this back story that Jesus meets the blind man.
The healing of the blind man is one of those rare stories which appears in all four testaments and indeed twice in the Gospel of Mark – once in the The healing of Bartmaeus (Mk 10:46-52), and then in the story of the Blind man of Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26) which is most similar to John’s.
Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. 23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.
And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.”
The synoptic stories all make play of the irony of the blind man who can see what the scribes and the Pharisees, for all their learning, cannot.
But John, as so often, takes the story to another level.
First John asks us to look back – this man was blind from birth – so who sinned? Remember the OT. Jeremiah asks
Wherefore hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?
Bad things must have causes. Who sinned? It reminds us of the companions of Job. What did you do to bring God’s anger upon you?
Jesus heals him using the spit of Mark’s story and the mud from the ground
In the previous chapter Jesus had drawn in the ground with his finger as they asked him to condemn the woman taken in adultery
The finger of God which wrote on the tables of stone is now redrawing the law in the dust of human existence
For the mud is dust – it is the dust of Adam – so is it Adam’s sin?
All of us who are born of Adam and of the flesh are flawed – or at least in need of perfecting.
If so who can undo that? Who can perfect us?
Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me
Jesus says that the reason for pain is to make visible the glory of God. The perfection which is available through the relationship with God and one another through the example of Christ
The whole reason for life is to struggle for healing against the chaos of the world – establishing healing out of chaos is to build the glory of God.
Our response to human suffering is not to look for the sin from which it originates – to blame someone – but rather to glorify God – in Mary’s words to ‘magnify the Lord’ – in healing it
This was the work which Jesus did
I must work the works of him that sent me
And it is the work which he has left us to do
As my father has sent me, even so I am sending you (Jn 20:21)
Jesus is asked to judge the blind man (They ask, “whose sin is this?”) – but instead he heals him and he heals him in a particular way which I think we can all recognise
Jesus heals physically through touch – he anoints him (epichrisen) – he makes him one of the anointed – a messiah – a Christ – in short, he Christens him!
He heals him psychologically through a remodelling of his clay self – not as originally sinful but as originally of God, which Jesus remodells and perfects – and so he makes him new
Finally, he heals him Symbolically through water
Water which is so important in John’s Gospel
Washing feet – turning water into wine – meeting a woman at the well
Here it is ‘Siloa’s brook’ which Milton noted ‘flow’d Fast by the Oracle of God’ – the spring used for the rites of purification in the Festival of Tabernacles – the water we know as the water of baptism
And as a final touch, we are told that Siloa means “sent” – in Latin we might say missa est. I’m not sure what Thomas Cranmer would make of that, but it seems significant as ‘sending’ is such an important concept in John’s Gospel.
It seems, therefore, that John is recording here the story of baptism
For we are all born blind – literally of course as new-borns we cannot see
Metaphorically, we are all catechumens who need to learn to see the light
We are then all sent to perform ‘the works of him who sent us’.
The Old law was written with a diamond tipped chisel
The new law is in spit and mud, in flesh and blood, in bread and wine
It is grounded, human, accessible
It is an incarnational message from one who “knows whereof we are made – that we are but dust” (Ps 103)
It is also a model of what we should do in nurturing disciples
- Getting close to people
- Blessing them and teaching them that they are the people of God
- Leading them to the rituals of the Christian church
- And sending them out into the world to do the same for others.
and that is the message looking into the future – for our children and our children’s children.
Sermon preached for the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society, Charterhouse School, 10th March, 2018
Words from Psalm 103
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.[a]
17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children
 See also Mt 20:29-34 and Lk 18:35-43
 Milton: Paradise Lost Book 1:11