The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s015g14  Lent 4  30/3/2014

‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’   John 9.16

I wonder if this observation is the reason behind that statement in Hebrews: ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.    Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ (1)   I guess that I am not the only one who finds a sinless Jesus remote and unreal.

The difficulty is that we get caught up in the religious language of sin, which becomes all consuming.

I wonder if we really need to translate this question as ‘How can this man who is not a ‘christian’ perform such signs?’

Quite some years ago, after moving to a different State, I chose to go to a general practitioner who specialised in acupuncture.   I had given up smoking using a home acupuncture kit many years previously.   However it happened that over time after the move rheumatoid arthritis started to set in.   As the disease progressed I went to this doctor every week for needles.  I had regular blood tests, went on pear and rice diets, but what was obvious to everyone except me, I was getting worse rather than better.   I did lots of walking in my job, yet I was not benefitting from this exercise.   Anyway, after a considerable time I changed my doctor.   I had lost so much weight he thought I had multiple myeloma.   This proved negative and a referral to a rheumatologist and a course of steroids and methotrexate proved the diagnosis and appropriate treatment.   I am now back to my old self, taking only one anti arthritis medication.   But I tell this story because it made me realise that I can be entirely oblivious to something which is blindingly obvious to others.   And sometimes ‘professionals’ can be blind to the lack of response to their treatments.

So if we have difficulty in accepting God’s forgiveness that we have to go to Church each and every Sunday, as well as tithe, I wonder if we ought not be better to go to a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or councillor instead.   Most likely appointments wouldn’t be more frequent than monthly, it would probably be far less expensive than tithing and if they don’t work we can always return to church.   But one would not keep going to a medical professional week after week when they provided no lasting relief; indeed any medical professional worth his or her salt would terminate a patient if the therapy they offered were not effective, necessitating meeting on a weekly basis like this!   They would surely suggest someone else.

But of course, the church has a vested interest in people continuing to come, week after week: her own existence and preservation.   Therefore every absolution actually is conditional and therefore pretence.

So what makes the church proclaim herself to be the sole dispenser of absolution, but then insist that it must be repeated weekly?   Perhaps there are people out there who sin more frequently than I do, but weekly absolution seems somewhat over-kill.   I just wonder whose needs are being met.   It is certainly not the world’s needs which are being met, and the world recognises narcissism when it sees it.

Recently I saw someone blame the church’s dithering on matters of human sexuality as a prime reason that the modern generation have deserted the church in droves, and I wouldn’t want to argue with this - it certainly is true.   But I wonder if it is not more fundamentally the emphasis on sin that has driven people out of the pews.   Modern secular humanists have recognised that the church’s emphasis on sin actually doesn’t do anything to help society as a whole.   They recognise that no one is without sin, but we need to get over it, and get on with helping break down divisions within society.   Modern secular humanists actually want to do things that contribute to the well-being of humanity - so they admire those in the helping professions, they join service clubs, community groups, lobby for the environment, try to re-float beached whales.   I suspect that many people think that God, if God exists, is far more interested in these sorts of causes rather than endlessly forgiving the sins of a small coterie of devotees - and condemning everyone else!   And if we care to look there is a good deal of scriptural evidence for the sort of God recognised by secular humanists.

So Isaiah writes: ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats .. Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.   New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation -- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.   Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.   When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen .. learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’   (2)

To me it is no wonder that the people are leaving the church in droves if our primary message is that ‘god’ is so concerned in endlessly forgiving the sins of a small coterie of devotees that God condemns everyone else!

As I finished my sermon last week, we as church need to see that the world has learnt the lesson of love and while the world wouldn’t pretend it does any better in exercising that love and forbearance, the modern world realises that it has to contend with a multiplicity of beliefs and cultures.   Therefore the world has considerable justification in thinking that it is certainly no worse when it comes to sin than a church which blinds herself to the existence of other beliefs and cultures.

.. Which leads me to reflect that we have grown up in a church which has for centuries been the instrument of literacy and I guess it is hard to divest herself of this role of teacher, of literacy, learning, morality, philosophy.   There is little around us that we enjoy that has not depended on these learnings.   Yet for all the good that has been achieved, we have been called to love and listen rather than teach.   And perhaps this is the cusp of history in which we find ourselves.   This is the sharp divide between conservative ‘christians’ and progressive spirituality.

Certainly the bible does talk about sin, but one sometimes wonders if it is an invention of the devout and the orthodox to divert attention to what is really important and from where the Spirit actually leads - the affirmation and inclusion of others.   Because the concept of sin is so all-pervasive, and feeds into our own personal insecurities, there is no way of knowing how much of the words about sin in the bible is from the devil rather than God.  

The man cured of his blindness is moved to reply: ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner’.   He is able to see that sin is no longer a relevant criterion.   A theology that revolves around sin and forgiveness blinds us to the need to extend practical love to others.   So James writes: ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?   So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’   (3)   Surely we know that life consists of more than food and clothing (4) so if we deny dignity to people of other faiths and none, or to those who are not straight like us, are we not condemned by these words of James?

One of the threats the church used to use for the sin of Onan was that it would make you go blind, perhaps originating in 1760 by the Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot (5) and enthusiastically proclaimed at the start of the 20th century by John Harvey Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame.  (6)  Curiously this does link to our passage, because if we only love those who reflect our own theology, we blind ourselves to the legitimate need that others beyond our natural and spiritual families have for respect and love.

‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’   The answer is easy: forget about sin and work with others to create a more just and egalitarian society - now that would indeed be an amazing and Godly sign, welcomed by all!

1. Hebrews 4:15-16  
2. Isaiah 1.11-17
3. James 2.15-17
4. Matthew 6