Archive for May, 2015

john9Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples saw a theological question. The religious leaders saw an example to be made.

He was Judah, or Joshua, or Eli – – the evangelist John doesn’t record his name. But Jesus knew his name. The disciples didn’t stop to learn his name. John simply refers to him as “the man”. The man who was born blind and to whom Jesus gave sight. The religious leaders didn’t stop to learn his name. He was just a blind beggar. He was useful to them for a moment, to try to catch Jesus out, but after that they didn’t care. His parents gave him a name. Probably a name that evoked Israel’s glorious past, a name that reminded them of Israel’s bitter present, a name that hinted at Israel’s hidden hopeful future. If he was born in the Greek city states, or in the Imperial colonies he would probably have been left on a cliff one night, shortly after it became obvious that his new-born eyes were not going to open. But they did not do that. They kept him. They nursed him. They soothed him when, in darkness, he bumped into things and stumbled and fell. They raised him. He would never do any work. He would never contribute and every day they heard the whispers. “What sin must they have done to be given a child born without sight?” Was it their sin, or the grandparent’s sin that was being so visibly demonstrated for all to see – in this useless offspring, who could neither provide for his family nor bring in a dowry in marriage.

Everyone knew that sin had consequences. Sin had Consequences. It just did. Everyone knew that. And the sins of the fathers were visited on the children, and the grandchildren, even down to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:4-7b)

Everyone knew that the whole country was reaping the bitter harvest of generations of sin. Look at them. Economically – on their knees. Socially – divided from top to bottom. Militarily – defeated, humiliated and occupied. Theologically – bereft of the glories of earlier days.

Everyone knew because it was obvious. You just had to look around. You could see it. Because that was what life was like. That was what the world was like and that was what God was like.

Some people started believing that God was like the being described by the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle. A kind of being outside of time, who could see all of past, present and future in one glance. All knowing. Ever present. All powerful. Unchanging.

They even read their won Scriptures through Greek lenses.

For them it was obvious. God was a God of Justice. God was a God of Consequences. A God of logical rules. God was the God in which everything made sense.

7,250 people die on the sides of the Himalayas. Their feeble houses shaken to pieces while they slept. Over 3,000 of them children and babies.

For them it was obvious. God is a God outside of time and space. God has a perfect plan. God knows what is going to happen and God has the power to move mountains.

Who sinned? These 3,000 children or their parents?

A gorgeous little boy is born. He is surrounded by love and prayers. There is something wrong with his heart. He struggles for life. He endures procedure after procedure as highly skilled physicians work hard to employ the latest techniques to save his life, while his family and friends pray.

Why him? Why does any little baby need a heart transplant? Why does this happen to us?

For some it is obvious. God is a God outside of time and space. God has a perfect plan. God is all knowing and God is all powerful.

At Siloam a tower falls, crushing 18 men and boys – masons, carpenters, builders. Perhaps the materials were not the best. Perhaps the design was unsound – 18 fathers, brothers and sons taken from their wives and mothers.

13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-4 (NIV)

Who sinned? Was it the builder? The chippy? The architect? The client? The cement supplier? Their fathers or their grandfathers?

To them it was obvious. God is in control. God can hold up a tower long enough for everyone to escape unharmed. God, in his mysterious ways chose not to and God knows why?

In sub-Saharan Africa 22 million people live with HIV, over two thirds of them children. Every year 1.4 million are removed from this number as a result of secondary illnesses for which they have no immunity. Every year another 2 million are infected to take their places.

Who sinned? Was it the child with HIV, or her mother?

To them it was obvious. This is evidently the wrathful judgement of a holy god upon the wicked, and their victims, and their children…

What about those Galileans who enraged the Roman Prefect by staging a demonstration against his building works? Who could have predicted it would have broken out into violence? Who could have known that so many would have died?

Who sinned? The rebels or their fathers? Or the soldiers who were just following orders or the powers who were just trying to keep the peace?

To them it was obvious. God knows the past, the present and the future. God has a plan and God’s will is sovereign.


John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John is probably the most skilful writer of the four canonical evangelists. Some people say he was writing in the style of “apologia” – a type of document produced as a defence in court. In which witnesses are introduced, give their evidence and are never heard from again. There is some merit to this understanding. Typically in John the minor characters do not interact with each other, only with Jesus – but this pericope is not like that. Jesus frames the section at the beginning and end, but there is extensive dialogue between the characters. John also uses recurring characters, such as the disciples or the Pharisees to put questions to Jesus that move along the argument. This is a passage like that.

John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

John also uses big metaphors– flesh / spirit, life / death, light / darkness, blind / seeing. This passage is a good example of that. In fact the Tanzanian theologian Elia Mligo remarked that this is a passage where, other than Jesus, every single character is shown to be blind, including the reader – and only some of them receive the light of Christ by the end of it.

John writes that the disciples asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

You see when you ask simple closed questions you already know the answer. Its either A or B, so which is it? But as we have seen in our studies all this year, when you ask Jesus a question, you might find your whole world opened up to a new way of thinking.

They asked Jesus “is it A or B?” – and Jesus refused to be drawn into the limitations of their thinking by answering “Neither”

When you ask Jesus “is it A or B?” – don’t be surprised if the answer is “Neither”

The disciples knew what life was like, and they knew what God was like, so they asked Jesus…


Now, if Jesus had a favourite saying it might be relevant at this time. It wouldn’t be “Your sins are forgiven”- he said that on seven recorded occasions. It wouldn’t be “Ye must be born again” – he only said that twice, and then to the same man. It wouldn’t even be “love your enemies” – he only said that four times. What is the phrase Jesus is recorded over 28 times of using – the nearest thing Jesus has in the Gospels to a catch-phrase?

“You have heard it say, but I say unto you…”

Whatever you have heard about life, whatever you have heard about God, whoever you have heard it from, listen.

Listen. Its not like that. Life is not like that. God is not like that. Not like either of those choices.

Our stories about life, and stuff, and God and the why of everything don’t work. They don’t work because God isn’t like the Greek-statue version of God portrayed in those stories. They don’t work because God isn’t a classical Theist – unchanging, unemotional, beyond time and space, infinite in power, mysterious in wisdom. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise. In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Jesus came to show us what God is like. And the revelation of the early church was simple – God is just like Jesus.

The Bishop John V. Taylor said “God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all”.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury put it this way: “What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is – is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition.”

Tripp Fuller reminds us that for our theology to qualify as Christian, our picture of God has to be at least as nice as Jesus.


So how does Jesus encounter the man blind from birth?

Well there is a word that the gospel writers use time and time again for the way Jesus interacted with people in pain, people in distress, people who were being excluded by their betters in society, people who were being blamed for their sin or tat of their parents.

And the word is “splagchnizomai”

The RSV renders it “pity”. The NIV sometimes translates it as “indignance”. King James has it as “compassion”, not a bad word, but one which to our modern ears loses some of the impact of the visceral nature of the metaphor. The Greeks derived the word for “spleen” from this word. And good old John Wycliffe, in his more earthy language renders it as “Jesus was moved in his bowels”. In fact we see the same root word in Acts 1:18 when in death Judas spilled his “splagnon” over the field. The word can also have shades of being “tenderhearted” – although again that word has been de-tenderised by a million boy-band song lyrics.

You see “splagchnizomai” is not about having a nice thought about someone. Its not about feeling guilty, or sad, about the pictures of homeless children in the Himalayas. Its not about hoping someone’s going to get better. Its not a word we experience in our head’s at all, or even in our hearts.

“splagchnizomai” is the gut wrenching, heart tearing, entering into someone else’s pain, and letting them enter into the mess of your own life – that both of you are transformed by the experience.

“splagchnizomai” is not the distant uttering of an abstract, immutable God, who knows everything already and is unchanged by experience.

“splagchnizomai” is a concrete expression of love. It is ragged love. Dirty love. Honest love. Open love. It is the love that completely shares. It is the love that risks both hope and disappointment. It is the love that gets down in the mud.

“splagchnizomai” might move you beyond pity, beyond indignance, beyond empathy to action – action which according to Jesus own brother is the difference between real live faith and the lifeless, belief in God that characterised demons and the powerful of his day.

17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? James 2:17-21 (NASB)

“splagchnizomai” might birth in us the love of which John in his later letter wrote:

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NASB)

With “splagchnizomai” people might hug the person living with HIV, visit the convicted criminal in HMP La Moye, bake a casserole for the family who are having a hard month

“splagchnizomai” is both a divine gift of the Holy Spirit and the moment in which we are most human – bearing the image of God.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that spits on the ground, makes a spitty, muddy paste and rubs dirty saliva in your face.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that risks the social contagion of being seen with the wrong sort of people, of embracing the excluded and honouring the stigmatised.

“splagchnizomai” is a love that recognises that not all families come in the same size and shape as ours, that not everyone is turned on by the same things as us and God has made some people who are turned on by what disgusts others.

My favourite theologian says “splagchnizomai” is an immersive love that peels off the daily pleasantries of life to lay yourself raw and bare to the needs of someone else. (KSN)

It is what Jesus is like – and that if we are Christians that is what we say is what God is like.

Jesus said […] anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… John 14:9b (NIV)

Jesus took great care on numerous occasions to show that God was not like the powerful deities that sat behind Caesar (or Antiochus Epiphanes). Jesus showed God to be more like a woman who seeks out a lost coin until it is found, or a parent waiting to throw a party for a returning wayward child, or a good shepherd, caring for and tending for every last one of the flock.

The Greek and Roman deities of infinite sovereign power ultimately stand behind the principalities and powers who plunge the world into war, famine and poverty. Gods of power sit atop cultures of violence. An omnipotent deity is a God who builds crosses.

In Jesus we see the God who bears the cross, who is nailed to a cross – just as the powers always execute and humiliate their opponents. A God who is killed by the powers.

As it was remarked in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri recently – a legal system shows its power not by killing the guilty, but when it knowingly kills the innocent. That is the message of power of the cross which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians.

If that is what Jesus is like, then what is our calling?

Well firstly, Jesus calls us into this “splagchnizomai” way of being…

“Become compassionate as the father of you all is always compassionate”.

Luke 6:36 (AT)

So our vocation in God is to be compassionate.

Secondly, we recognise that it is not a natural thing to do. Our natural drives and Darwinian instincts propel us to look after our own, to protect and preserve, to play it safe and to keep things polite. The way of Jesus is outrageous to civil society. You just don’t act like that. Especially towards those kind of people (who had it coming to them anyway). No it is a distinctly unnatural way of being. Some might say supernatural. I prefer miraculous. Jesus recognised that only the infilling of the Holy Spirit makes it possible to love as God loves. And we need to be filled and filled again with the breath of God, present in every fibre of our being.

So our vocation in God is to be filled.

Thirdly, we need rituals. First, baptism to mark our death and burial to the ways of the powerful and to enact the resurrection life of the age to come.

And then the breaking of bread. As Cranmer wrote in the BCP “at all times and in all places” we are called to be a people characterised by the breaking of bread in Jesus name. Our vocation is to be a people known for the odd company they keep around Jesus’ table. We need to be a people giving Jesus to others. Our vocation is to be a people bringing the presence of Jesus – in open hospitality – to the stranger, the blind man, the person living with HIV, the convicted prisoner, the doubter, the hater, the person whose life is falling apart.

There is so much to cherish in the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer, but we need to become the BCP. To become a people to whom the world can “draw near with faith”. To be a people who say to a painful world, ‘here “take this holy Sacrament to your comfort”‘. To be a people whose very life, as well as our frequent words, says “God have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus”.

Our vocation is to be a people who are the body of Christ in our community. His feet. His hands. His words. His embrace. His compassion. To be a blessing, an absolution, a benediction to those we meet. To make a difference and be part of the solution.

To be a people, whether we take Communion monthly, weekly or daily, who say to the world around us ‘this is “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was” and still is “given for thee”

To be a people, whether we break bread with hundreds, dozens or just one person who needs the touch of God in their life, whose service to the community will “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”

To be a people, whether we share Jesus in a Cathedral, around a dining room table, in a prison, a hospital or on the dirty pavement outside a car park, who can invite the whole world to “Take (us) and eat (with us) in remembrance that Christ died for thee (and for me).”

Our vocation, whether like me you believe in the “real presence”, or like the Protestants you hold to a symbolic Eucharist, is to offer Jesus to the world, and to say “feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.”

And that is good news that will change the world.



Read Full Post »