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On our Lord’s encounter with the blind man

Sixth Sunday of Pascha—The Sunday of the Blind Man / Heiromartyr Therapontus; St. John the Russian / Acts 16.16-34; John 9.1-38

F/S/HS.  Brothers and sisters, there is a verse in Peter’s first Epistle that acts as a test of the character of our Christian faith.  1 Peter 3.15: … always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you …  As the footnotes in your Orthodox Study Bible say: A challenge to us all—clergy and laity alike—to answer when asked about our hope in Christ.  In other words, do we find a voice, do we have a voice, at those times where we need to defend the faith that we believe in?  Do we have an answer for the hope that is Christ living within us?

Two stories from my own life.  The first: I was twenty-two years old, attending Whitworth University.  I came to know a friend who was Islamic.  Over the course of our friendship we have three different conversations wherein he challenged my Christian faith, wherein he gave a defense of his own Muslim faith. 

My tactic, I told myself during these conversations, was to not push back too much, to try and find common ground between us, and to find places where I could affirm his own Muslim faith.  Never in those three conversations did I give a defense of my Christian faith, a defense of the hope that was my Christian faith.

Looking back on these conversations, I am ashamed of myself.  My strategy at that time, I came to realize with the passage of time, was really an excuse to duck serious and needed conversation about our differences.  I did not stand tall.  Nor did I possess a voice in defense of my Christian faith, the voice that the Apostle Peter calls each and every one of us to possess.

The second story from my life is from this past fall.  It took place here in our Church nave.  I was meeting with a class from Whitman College, about twenty-five students who were studying the subject of sacred spaces in different religious traditions. 

During the Q and A at the end of the class, one of the students, a woman, asked a question about herself and, as it turns out, on behalf of her two male friends who were standing next to her: So Fr. Daniel, I understand from my reading on Orthodoxy that you may not honor my gender identity, nor that of my friends, by addressing me as I would like to be addressed, as they.  Is this correct, that you would not address as as they?

I paused.  I looked intently at this woman and her two friends, wanting to offer a sincere answer.  I could feel a bit of a lump in my throat.  The memory of forty-four years ago rushed before me—those three different conversations with my Muslim friend.  In those few seconds of silence, I resolved to give a good defense of my Christian faith, of the hope that is Christ living in me.  And I wanted to speak with love and wise judgment to this woman and her two friends, absent being judgmental.

Yes, generally speaking that is correct, I would not address any of the three of you as theyI would want to know your birth name and call you by that name.  I went on to say, remembering a recent conversation with a very wise Orthodox woman on this very subject.  But I want to tell you why I would not address you as they.  Because you deserve an explanation for my answer.   

I explained that the origin of naming a person has always, throughout history, been one of naming a person by use of a first-person noun.  First-person nouns, I explained, carry tremendous weight; they bequeath identity, often religious identity.  By definition they is a third-person plural subject pronoun and therefore an abstraction and diffusion of identity.  To depart from the rich tradition of naming a person with a first-person noun would, in my estimation, be an act of hubris.  It would be a religious and cultural deviation that I could not accept and don’t believe Orthodox Christians should accept

To the credit of these Whitman College students, four of them approached me as left our church, one of these four being the woman who had asked the question.  She said to me: While I don’t agree with your explanation Fr. Daniel, your answer was one of the best I’ve ever heard on this subject.  The other three students nodded. 

One of these three students thanked me for standing my ground.  I’m not particularly religious, he said, but thank you for your good defense of your faithIt gives me a lot to think about given the culture war and cancel culture times that we live in, where truth is relative and everyone’s different truth is the truth, not to be challenged.

Sisters and brothers, one of the morals of these two stories is the need to find your voice in defense of the Christian faith and hope you believe in.

St. Theophylact makes a compelling observation about this morning’s Gospel story.  The story of the blind man is a story about the need for, and the power of, a firm voice, and a story about finding one’s voice.  That phrase—finding your voice—it’s not just parlance unique to our contemporary times but instead language quite ancient, going all the way back to at least the early twelfth century and the time of St. Theophlact.

Our Gospel narrates an encounter between Jesus and a young blind man, the only Gospel story where the person is blind from birth.  V. 2:  Jesus’ Disciples ask Him: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?  Why, we ask ourselves, are these the only two options to account for this man’s blindness: either his sin, or the sin of his parents?  Because back in the time of Jesus, these were the two primary ways to account for the affliction of blindness.

Listen to the voice of the greatest man—the Godman—who ever walked this earth, a voice that introduces an entirely other way to account for blindness!  Answers Jesus:  Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.  In other words, there is something about this man’s character and spirit such that God is going to use him to show everyone around him that Jesus is in fact the Light of the world (v. 4-5), a light that will bring light to this man’s hitherto blind eyes.

Our Lord bends down and spits in the dust.  He rubs the mud into the sockets of the eyeless man, and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  The young man is compelled by the voice of Jesus; he abides by this voice.  And for the first time in his life he now sees—sees the beauty around him, sees the face of the parents who gave birth to him.

The voice of Jesus!  A voice that brought healing and joy to this young man’s life.  A voice that would forever change how folks looked upon such physical ailments as blindness. A voice clear and pure, and full of mercy and authority.

And a voice that aroused the ire of others, giving rise to a different kind of voice, a voice of vile opposition: The voice of the Pharisees (vss. 13ff).  The Pharisees challenge the young man to give an accounting of his healing, much as my Muslim friend pushed me back in my college days.  Your healing, they clamor, it occurred on the Sabbath.  Therefore it must be of an evil nature.  This man is not from God, their voice bellows, because He does not keep the Sabbath (v. 16).

These Pharisees then call the young man’s parents to themselves, to ask them to account for their son’s healing.  And what happens to the voice of these parents?  It entirely wilts.  Why do these parents lose their voice?  Because of fear, our Gospel says; because they were afraid that they would be kicked out of the temple if they pushed back against the Pharisees (v. 22).  How often dear ones do we lose our voice out of fear, resorting instead to a voice that is compromised, a voice of double-speak, a voice absent a good defense for the hope that lives in us as Christ?!

Again the Pharisees call the young man to themselves.  And his voice?  O my, what a voice.  Pushed to deny the healing ways of Jesus; pushed to acknowledge that Jesus is a sinner because He healed on the Sabbath; pushed to account further for how Jesus healed him, the young man has finally had enough.  Listen dear ones to this voice, to his voice.  

I told you already, and you did not listenDo you want to hear it again?  Do you also want to become His disciples? …  If this man were not from God, He could do nothing (v. 27, 33).  Hearing this voice, the Pharisees are furious.  They throw the young man out of the temple.  

Jesus finds the young man.  The two of them converse.  And though he has been exiled from the temple, hope and a good defense resound in the voice of this young man. Lord, I believe in You.  And the young man worshipped Jesus (v. 38), as did many others who witnessed this miracle and heard this young man’s defense of what happened to him, and his hope in Jesus.

Dear ones, let’s be clear about something.  There are reasons why some of us struggle to find our voice in defense of our Faith and the hope that lives within us.  Some of us are young and haven’t yet found our voice.  Some of us are more shy and introverted.  Some of us struggle to know what we believe about Jesus. 

And there are, as well, times where it is wise to maintain silence, in the spirit of our saints who tell us to avoid unnecessary disputations, unnecessary arguments.  After all, as He did shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus chose at certain moments to remain silent before Pilate, without words, absent a good defense.

Nonetheless, the challenge for all of us—clergy and laity alike—is to always strive to bear witness with our voice, by giving a good defense of the hope that lives within us as Christ’s Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, which we celebrate two weeks from today.  May we strive ever more to find that voice; may we strive to use that voice in love and absent of judgment; and may we discern where to remain silent, all to the glory of God.  F/S/HS