On the way to Easter – Lent 4

Fourth Sunday of Lent

1 Samuel 16.1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5.8-14
John 9.1-41

At Easter God completes his act of creation by raising one of us to the full definition of humankind. In Christ the whole work of creation has been successful, and that success is opened to all of us. Through the Holy Spirit Christ has attached us to himself, so that the resurrection of the first man is the beginning of the resurrection of all humanity. Easter is a preview of the consequences of this for us: Christ’s resurrection is a rehearsal for ours.

In Christ, each of us joined to every other. The Church is the companionship of God making itself tangible and corporal here. The distinctiveness of the Church from the world is the great gift that God gives the world: the world is anointed with the Church. But what the Church knows is not obvious outside the Church – it has to be confessed. The Church has to pray and to speak up for the world. The world relies on us to do this.

I The anointing
Christ is anointed King. He is anointed by the Holy Spirit, and he anoints us with that very same Spirit. The Spirit makes Christ is inseparable from his people and his people are inseparable from him. They cannot be taken away from each other. This people of Christ starts in heaven and is made present on earth for us in the form of the Church. The readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent ’s eucharist. The readings are 1 Samuel 16, in which Samuel anoints David as King; Ephesians 5, ‘Awake sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you’, and then the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, the man born blind recovers his sight as the messiah brings the light of God and vision that drives darkness away.

Let us start with 1 Samuel.

The LORD said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David. 1 Samuel 16.1-13

Jesus is Christ because he is anointed and crowned. He is made the head of the body. Christ is the definition and criterion of the Body, the Church, and he is the source and agent of that Body. We may not divide Christ from his people, the head from the body. The head is our captain and leader and, as we have seen, he is the spring and head-waters from which the whole Church flows. Christ lends his identity and very being to the Church, and thus Christ considers the Church his own, and considers even its sins and deficiencies his own. When we see the Church in faith, we see him.

You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Yes, this is the Lord my shepherd who accompanies surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. Psalm 23

The resurrection is the event in which God comes to man in Christ has come to man and anointed himself with man and crowned man with God. Christ is anointed and made king by the Holy Spirit. Christ is absolutely unknowable apart from the Spirit. The Church is anointed and equipped with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit frees us from all other bonds to worship God. The Church gathered to worship is ‘in the Spirit’. In the Spirit the whole communion of God with man, and man with man, is revealed. And as we shall see, our society is also anointed – with the Church. The Church cultivates a memory and tradition which keeps our intellectual ambitions high, so the Christian faith is vital for civil society. But the Church cannot please the world, nor should try to. The best thing the Church can do for the world is be distinct and it will be distinct as long as it lives from its own traditions, which are much deeper and more complex than secular traditions. Modernity is short-termism, Christian discipleship is long-termism.

II Vision

The comment from our guide, the apostle, on this anointing is

Wake up sleeper rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you. Ephesians 5.8-14

Christ shines and wakes us. We were in darkness but now because of the Lord and his resurrection we are in the light. We were in a torpor of insensibility to one another. But the ‘light of the world’ (John 9.2) has woken us not only to him but also to one another.

Man without vision
So the gospel, John 9:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth… Jesus spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’. Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.

The blind man wonders at this event – and insists that it is not to be explained and pigeonholed – and that it has to do with the true calling of Israel as a whole.

III Leaders without vision
The leadership of Israel does not see what is wrong with the man. It was not expecting him to see, for it does not see that his blindness is a misfortune, or anything but a reflection on him. They do not see how it can reflect on them. Jesus insists that it is does reflect on them, indeed that that their blindness is the cause of his. Their blindness has transmitted itself to him and to the rest of the nation. It is God-blindness that makes us blind to one another.

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see???, your sin remains. Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see???, your sin remains.

The pressure on our own authorities, is to treat us as though we were just a bundle of material needs. They do this because we insist that they do so. We oblige them to do so. If they treat us as a simple set of problems it is because we demand that they treat us in this way. It is we who lower expectations – and we do it by buying the newspaper that shrieks most shrilly about the failure of the government. We elect a government and in the following years we slowly tear it to shreds. We are accomplices at a slow mugging in which we punish our leaders for daring to do what we asked them to do – to lead us. This our secular liturgy: it gives us a short attention span, and prevents us from seeing our own responsibility. They keep us satisfied with the shut off locked down life that the liturgy of the world, media consumption, the blizzard of images about how you must be. It is all so much displacement activity. Of course in the end it is ourselves we are robbing. But it is not only ourselves, for this liturgy of the many other counterfeit gods of the global marketplace and media, and though in some sense London does very well out of it, it is not clear that it is good for the world as a whole. But what about the individual and the country that does not want this anointing?

The Christian faith must always hear the rebuke of society, for there is always something for the Church to learn from the world. They must alway hear that their input is no longer wanted. It is not wanted – but it is needed, and the Church that sees its society with compassion will give it what it needs. Though centuries, the Christian faith has encountered many other accounts and developed a comprehensive account of its claims. Part of our service is to offer the Christian proposal, with its very high and very complex account of human being, to the world. What we have received, we have to pass on. Great traditions teach us how to grow up into responsibility and freedom. Without them we remain in an adolescent resentment, always in crisis. But we Christians have to take the university seriously, and remind them that they are offering accounts of what it is to be human and that the Church has a very sophisticated account of human beings. Without a tradition the university and public square are always in a crisis about how to view humankind, with the result that our freedom and responsibility become treated as practical problems that have to be solved – that is, removed.

The Church has something to give the society to which it is sent. It has its proposal to make. The Christian faith is a preparation for life together with other creatures of God and it takes the form of an apprenticeship by which we may learn to take responsibility and so become persons freely in communion with others. Our ability to learn this freedom is essential to our being human. We may become free and mature by learning from, and accepting the proper restraint of, others, mediated by the accumulated expertise of generations. We become mature by becoming the students of a tradition. It is a good and generous thing to lay out various accounts of human being. It is what the Church has to give.

Is our society losing the will to set out intellectual differences clearly? Have we all come to fear that, if we give our own view, we will offend the sensibilities of some particular group? Are we all hushing one another up? The whole public square will contract if we do this, and everyone, all particular groups, will be poorer. Disagreement does not represent a failure of love. Honesty is central for a healthy public life, so disagreement should not be hushed up.

IV The Church as anointed community
Christians must speak up, boldly, just as much as they must listen, patiently. If we do not speak up, our sin remains.

‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see???, your sin remains’.

So we have to tell our country that its view human being cannot be abstracted from the Church. We have to convince them that the State cannot take the virtues and practices that hold good in the Church, and bring persons up into maturity within that specific community, and treat them as applicable generally, across the board. The teaching of the Church – Christian doctrine – it is not just another way of saying what everyone already knows; it is not general knowledge.

The Church cannot be absorbed into the world. The difference between Church and world is there to remind us of the tension between what we are now and what we may become. The very existence of the Church, the fact it has not been absorbed into the world, demonstrates that modernity is not the plateau to which all mankind has been climbing, and that the global economy is not the culmination of history or the kingdom of God.

V Man together with his future
It is for the world that we are different. We are the pray-ers and intercessors, and witnesses of God for this society of ours. We gather here to receive the love and truth of the God. No room for sarcasm or resentment or any self-defensive postures is left open to us. We have to regard all as good, opponents as much as anyone else, and thank God for them.
God asks us to hear one another and to speak up for one another. God petitions us, to petition for other people. We do this speaking up in the intercessions that are part of every service and that are summed up in the collect of the offertory prayer of the Eucharist –Father, we give you thanks and praise…. God’s presence, here amongst us in the worship, forms us human beings, on God’s definition, and that in all our worship and life together we practice being human together.

Christ petitions God for the world, and lifts the world up to him. And we are included in this act of Christ’s, so we are able to lift up the world to God (of course, only because he makes it present to us in the first place. We do this when the whole congregation is present – made up as it is of all the unlikely and most contrary elements, the young, old, this and that class and ethnicity, this and that Churchmanship, gathered and animated by the Spirit we pray and call on God and so become members of his Son. We are a Spirit-filled people, a catholic people when the whole congregation is present. Spirituality is not an add-on. It is our main, or even our only, business. The calendar of the Church year gives us an alternative identity. We are located by the Church year, and so by the Scripture that sets out the year for us. Each reading adds something so by a process of triangulation the sermon spells out to us the results of the readings of Scripture to tell us who we are, where we are and what is coming up.

On the way to Easter
We are preparing for Easter. At Easter God completes his act of creation by raising one of us. The one he raises has attached himself to all the rest of us, so the raising of the first is the beginning of the raising of the whole lot, all humanity, each of us joined to every other. This human being is complete continuity with us but is now no longer constrained by our biological limits, so his life is not given its form by death, as ours is. He is now able to pass his life on to us without limit.

Easter is a preview of the consequences of this for us: Christ’s resurrection is a preview of our resurrection. That is the moment when the boundaries between us and him, and between us and one another, cease to be absolute, like death, and instead become just markers, like day and night.

The project of God is to make human beings – that is, those freely able to hear one another without limit, to speak back to God, and thank him for one another. In a huge gamble, Christ has attached his name and reputation to us. He makes us human or rather he invites and he enables to become human – by being with him. By the long slow process of sanctification, week by week, we are being turned into humans, no longer in-turned, defending ourselves against the world and dictating terms to it, but able to receive every other human creature as the kindness of God to us, and so to take them for our own.

Christ is all humanity and the whole truth of us and the guarantee that humanity is a vastly greater and more wonderful thing than we have yet guessed at. God has defined human as being in relation, through Christ, with all other humans. So we are human to the extent that we admit all others and concede them the status as ourselves, and so are with them. On this definition Christ is the real future humanity. Christ is the full measure of humankind, not as it is now, but as it will be, stretched open to the uttermost. But he does not will to be human without us. He does not consider himself to be entirely himself without us, all of us, the arrogant and smug, and the meek and broken together.

This is what the Christian community is pointing to everything it is gathered at the eucharist. This community is the gathering up of all elements of creation, all materiality, redeemed. Christ is this wine. Though he is wine he has made himself water for us. The water is our humanity, in its present murky state. By the weekly addition of the wine of Christ, humanity-with-God, we are being turned from water into wine. This water has no other purpose than that it become wine, but holiness has to be added to us, externally, week by week, by this eucharistic dosing. Over the years of our Christian lives the eucharist turns us from water into wine, from humans without God, to humans with God.

The Holy Spirit adds himself to virgin humanity, drop by drop. So each week one of the servants draws some wine out and brings it to us, as though we were chief steward. Shall we catch on, and get him and all the servants of God to bring us more, because we know that each ladleful will be more wine than the last? When the wine becomes perceptible we are getting a foretaste of the future, and of our own future reality, when humanity is joined with God, the mortal with the eternal. Then each of us will be joined to all others – and so we will be human at last.