Part of the preparation for Confirmation classes includes instruction on the sacraments, so part of my conversation and teaching with our young people has to do with the how and the why of the sacramental life. In the Lutheran Church, we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion. Why two, and why these? Because they follow two of Jesus’ commands, and they are each associated with a promise from him.
Jesus told the disciples that they should go and baptize, and that whoever believes and is baptized will receive eternal life. So, that is the rationale for our inclusion of Baptism in the short list of sacraments (other denominations might include as many as seven). What a glorious command and promise enfolded in this one act by which God claims us and cleanses us of the weight of our sin.
On the night in which he was handed over to death, Jesus instituted the second of our two sacraments, what we now call “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Holy Communion” or “The Eucharist”. As he gave God thanks, broke the bread and gave the bread and wine to his disciples to consume, Jesus commanded his disciples “do this in remembrance of me,” and he promised with this meal would come the forgiveness of sins.
There are two things that make a sacrament what it is: an element and God’s word. The element is a visible sign that reminds us of the reality of the material world, created by God, in which we live and which, along with our bodies and our being, belong to God. Elements are things we can touch and feel and observe; things like water, and bread, and wine. By God’s grace and only God’s grace and blessing do they become anything more.
Our sacramental life flourishes as the Word of God transforms the element and makes of it a sacrament, which believers receive in faith and obedience, (“go and baptize,” “do this in remembrance”). In and through them, by God’s grace, we are changed. Sin is forgiven, and faith is given, restored and nurtured.
The healing of the man who is blind from birth is really a story of sacramental healing.
Jesus uses water from his own body – spit – and dirt from the ground and forms a paste to use on the man’s eyes. He then gives his Word, that what he is doing is the will of God who desires that God’s works might be revealed in him.
The healing of course is miraculous – and transforms the man’s life. He cannot remember a time when he could see – anything. But after washing the paste from his eyes he has perfect eyesight!
The healing, of course, is not without its challenges. The Pharisees object to how and when this healing work was done (it is the Sabbath). They accuse Jesus’ of failing to observe the Sabbath in accordance with the Law.
They question whether the man had truly been born blind at all. When assured he had been blind all his life, they then lead the way down that rabbit hole of a question, “why?” Why had he been born blind? What did his parents do that caused this child to be born blind? Blindness and illness and misfortune are commonly perceived to be the punishment of God for sin, and that is why this question is placed before the man’s now fearful parents.
“None’s so blind as them who cannot see,” is a proverb dating back to 1546 by English writer and poet John Heywood. It resembles Jeremiah’s admonition, “Now hear this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not”. Jesus delivers a challenging teaching on exactly what constitutes “being blind”.
Recently, our renewal team was at a training event where a video of a famous experiment was shown. A group of people appear on screen, bouncing and passing balls back and forth like a basketball team might do as they warm up for practice.
Into this group appears a moon-walking gorilla. He nonchalantly weaves and passes through the crowd, moving right across the screen. At least half of the observers of this video, and I think it was more like three quarters of our group that day, say they totally missed the gorilla – they didn’t notice him at all until he was pointed out to the crowd and the video was shown again.
God often works in the most unexpected of ways and most unusual of circumstances. The fact that we see what we expect (and sometimes what we want to see) and can be blind to what we do not accept, believe, or want to see, extends to our experience of God. Convinced of our own “perfect sight” we can miss what God places right before us to teach us and bless us.
Jesus notices hurting people, and he often acts before they even know their need or who he is and how he can heal them. The man had been blind from birth and didn’t even know to ask of healing from Jesus, for who, born from birth, could expect to receive that remarkable gift of healing, wholeness and restoration?
By grace, this man receives a gift for which he is not even seeking, a gift neither he nor his community really understands, a gift that comes in the most obscure way. At first neither he nor his community knows how to respond, so they turn to our default response as they question, doubt and judge what has happened and how it has happened. They point fingers. They make accusations.
They probably wonder, “if Jesus is really a prophet and man sent by God, why not a more common-sense miracle”? A miracle more in keeping with what we expect a miracle to look like? When we think of miracles we think of them entering the scene in a flash and a bang, with wildly unexpected, fantastic special effects.
But that is rarely God’s way.
Instead, God meets us where we are, and amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of life, God enters our lives in everyday moments of grace, fueling the restoration and healing God has already begun in the world.
Through the sacraments, God uses ordinary elements like water and bread and wine and God saves, renews and refreshes us, and prepares us for eternal life. In making a blind man see, God uses spit and dirt. What is God using in our lives today, offering us grace and light and life? What are we not seeing of God’s presence and power?
We are living through some scary, uncertain times. We are uncertain about the future, so afraid of an invisible menace, wondering about our safety and security. Our lives and our world are thoroughly disrupted.
We might as well be blind ourselves. We cannot see a clear path, we don’t know where this pandemic is taking us. We don’t know what path it will lead us down. But into the midst of that reality comes another.
We have a relentless God who loves us and desires the best for us. We have a saving Lord who uses ordinary elements to utterly transform us. We have a God who creates magnificent creatures from the dust of the earth and who, with that same dust and a bit of spittle restores sight to the blind.
The blind man didn’t know what Jesus was up to, could not have anticipated that Jesus would bring him healing, but miraculously, he trusted him and obeyed him. And he was given sight.
Today, we are changed. We aren’t even able to stand together in worship and the presence of God in church. We can’t go to the places of work, school, routine activity or even go out to eat.
We don’t know where this pandemic will lead us, but I believe it will change us. I believe that through it, God will transform us. I believe that the same God who restored sight of this blind man, who saw the hurt and need in the heart of a Samaritan woman, who spoke of being born anew and knowing the Word of God in flesh, can and will work in our hearts too. We need to trust him.
Viruses, tests and trials like this do not come from God but grace and mercy and light and love come from God in the midst of such events.
Despite the fear and uncertainty inspired by COVID19 God is working in and through individuals who are looking out for the most vulnerable among us, caring for one another, feeding the hungry, providing for the homeless, and accompanying the unemployed and unpaid workers. Caring for children of those lucky enough to work but who now have no childcare for their babies and small children.
Generosity flourishes at times like these, and God’s mandate remains: that we love justice, pursue kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
While we may not always see the gift of grace for what it is, let us trust that, blessed and equipped by God through the sacraments we will all not only get through this crises, but thrive, as we continually pray and seek God’s mercy throughout our days. May it be so.