Sermon: "See"

02 March 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 02, 2008

Fourth Sunday in Lent


1 Corinthians 11:17-29, 33
John 9:1-7

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This is a great story, this healing of the man born blind.  It goes on for ALL of chapter 9 in John’s Gospel. I encourage you to read it on your own sometime. The Pharisees really go on the attack.  The point is, the story is about more than the simple healing of a blind man.  To John, it’s a sign from God that Jesus was the Messiah.  But above all, for us today, it is a story to help us “see” Jesus in the light of John’s Gospel.

John describes Jesus early in chapter 1 as God incarnate, or God made flesh.  Verse 18 says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the “light of the world” because he shines the light on God’s true character.   Jesus shows what God is really like, by his words and actions.  The Gospel of John is in many ways different from the other three – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – which we call the “synoptics,” which means “seen together.”  But John is different.  In his story of the calling of the disciples, for instance, Jesus doesn’t pick them all at once; instead, they respond individually to Jesus’s invitation to “come and see.”  And each new disciple’s view of Jesus is different, kind of like ours.  Each person sees Jesus from a different perspective.  And some people, like the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson for today from John 9, are too blind to see the Jesus at all. 

I know our Sunday and Thursday Faith Journey Groups have been struck by how differently we each see Jesus, because he was the topic of our class last week. I had printed out 60 images of Jesus from the Internet and taped them up on the walls of the church library, where our class meets.  (You can look at them yourself, if you want to, today after worship.)  They’re from different ages of art history, and from different cultures.  And yet, each of them represents a unique way that someone saw Jesus – and each of them struck group members differently.  People picked pictures that appealed to them and others they found troubling, or least appealing.  It was amazing how one image that attracted one person rang false to another.  And yet, here we are, all together in this one “Body of Christ” at the Congregational Church of Brookfield.  How is it possible for us each to see Jesus differently and still get along?  Without a common vision, how can we unite ourselves in ministry and mission? 

In some ways, that’s why we have started our new visioning process, which continues at tomorrow night’s Program Board meeting.  I doubt we can all agree on everything, but maybe we can claim a vision to inspire us and help us work together better.  I’m suggesting that we start with communion.  I chose today’s text from First Corinthians because not only does it remind us of the familiar “words of institution” that are spoken at communion, I think it provides a common vision of Jesus for the church.  I think it holds some important clues for us today about where we can see Jesus in our lives, and it shows us how to relate to him, and to one another in the church.  And, I would argue, we really do need to see Jesus as clearly as possible, so we can follow him as the head of our church.  Seeing Jesus better should be the first step in any visioning process. So what does Paul have to say in his first letter to the Corinthians that might help us? 

If you remember, Paul had been a Pharisee, and like the Pharisees in John’s 9th chapter, he had been blind to the truth when Jesus was still walking the streets of Jerusalem as a man.  It was only when Paul was literally struck blind on the road to Damascus that he “saw” a true vision of the risen Christ for the first time.   Paul’s conversion filled him with passion for the gospel, and he began planting new churches throughout the known world, including Corinth.  Most pastors, like me, have great sympathy for the apostle Paul, because (like Paul) most of us can recall times when we tried to teach something – only to find out later that we had been misunderstood.  That’s what was happening in Corinth, which was a pretty rowdy seaport town.  Their version of Christianity was merging in a big way with Greek culture, and Paul was upset.

Most Greeks back then loved a good party, and their worship was anything but boring.  Dramatic festivals to the god Bacchus – the god of wine, women, and song – went on for days.  In Greece, philosophers – the word literally means “lovers of wisdom” – were the scholars, not religious leaders.  Greek religion was not governed by teachers of law, like Jewish rabbis.  Greek priests were not solemn and strict like the Sadducees of Jerusalem.   In Greece, the priests and priestesses of the goddess Aphrodite were supposed to have drunken sexual relations with people who came to their temples, which were essentially houses of prostitution.  To the Jews and Jewish Christians of the time, this was obscene – and it’s nothing you’d expect a Christian to endorse today.

So the Christian communion Paul had introduced to those early house churches had been somewhat “corrupted” by Greek culture, in ways Paul found offensive.  He talks about “divisions” among the people.  Apparently they were not even eating together when they came to worship, but rich and poor were separated.  (Paul says that one went away hungry and another drunk.)  He tells them not to “humiliate those who have nothing” by failing to share.  And because he says, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another,” when we serve people in the pews at our second service, we take the bread and hold it until all are served.  But Paul also says were are supposed to see Jesus in the feast.  Verse 29 says, “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”  He calls us to discern, or “see,” Christ at the table.

There are several ways that might be possible.  First is to see the body and blood of Christ in the bread and the wine – or the grape juice, in our case.  Some people can imagine that so well they don’t like to think about it, and that was true even back in Paul’s time – some church visitors were going away and spreading the rumor that Christians were cannibals.  But another way is to see Jesus in the worship leader who breaks the bread and holds the cup, since Jesus was the “host” at the Last Supper.  That actually was Pope John Paul the Second’s argument for not allowing women to serve Communion, because he thought seeing a man at the table would help people see Jesus better.  But since Jesus probably had long dark hair, and it’s highly unlikely Jesus was taller than Jen …  I don’t know, maybe you’re better off looking at us.

Other ways to see Jesus in Communion, which I think may be more important, is in the act of sharing the bread and cup, and in faces of our neighbors. Remember what Jesus told us in his final words to the disciples in the Gospel of John?  In chapter 15, he tells us to “love one another.”  In Matthew’s Gospel, he says (in chapter 25, verse 40) “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” Whether you come forward for communion at the early service, or pass the communion elements from one hand to another through the pews at the later service, remember we are family.  Be conscious of our call to serve one another with love and grace – because that’s the theology we share.  We are the body of Christ.  We are his disciples, his holy priesthood of all believers.  Let us see Jesus in the faces of one another.

No matter how you have seen Jesus at other times – as a Messiah, a healer, a teacher, a mystic, a living sacrifice, a bearer of love and truth, or Ruler of All the Universe – I pray that today you will be able to see Jesus through our communion.  For the beauty of the sacrament is that it calls us into relationship with Jesus in a real and bodily way, using all our senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.  Once you’ve seen for yourself what the love of Jesus can do – you will start seeing Jesus alive in the world everywhere you turn.  You won’t even have to wait until Easter.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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