Somewhere buried beneath the readings pressed into the service of Mothering Sunday last week, are another set for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In any given year these readings get obscured by the dust generated by the stampede to pay homage to a festival shaped more by the greetings card industry than the ways of God.
This year the Lent 4 gospel was the account of a blind man being healed in the fourth gospel. A blind man encounters Jesus. Typically, the man’s religious or faith credentials are not known, they are irrelevant. Jesus meets him at a point of need and heals him, although we are later told that this happened on the Sabbath, when religious law forbids any acts of work. God, Jesus says, is glorified when people are met at their point of need.
The man, having recovered his sight, is understandably jubilant and people marvel at his transformation. He is brought to the religious authorities. The man identifies his healer, but the authorities claim that this man could not have effected a healing, as he does not have the right religious credentials and in fact is a doubtful character. This is a more firmly held truth than the evidence of the man looking right back at them. Maybe he wasn’t born blind, but his parents are brought to witness that he was. The man is asked again, in order to have the opportunity to tell the story in a way that fits with religious authority, and he can’t. There is even a twist in the conversation when the man suggests that the religious authorities become Jesus’s followers.
For those of us who belong to formal religious organisations, and especially we who hold positions of leadership, there is a constant temptation to allow religious truth-claims to surround the place where we believe God to be, and we become the gatekeepers to this place. It sounds absurd if it is stated as baldly as that, yet it is one of the risks we run when we set up an organisation in the name of God: the interests of the organisation can quickly eclipse the interests of God.
Only recently, a colleague of mine, knowing that God is glorified when people are met at their point of need, wanted to transform the nave of their church into a night-shelter for the homeless. You can easily imagine the heated debates in their church council about the building as a heritage monument, about the risk of vandalism, about health and safety considerations and, of course, the very ready but unstated fear of being polluted by contact with the unclean.
When I was first taught the fourth gospel at university, our tutor insisted that it was written that way for the stage. Reading this story I can readily envisage the comic effect of a man clearly in receipt of the intervention of God, being denied by the authorities who claim that they alone are the ones to adjudicate authentic divine activity. The message is a salutary one for those of us running religious organisations. We need constantly to be brought back to the question of how we glorify the God we believe in. How is our organisation configured to do that? Is there anything we value more highly than doing this work of God, of meeting humanity at its point of need? If there is, whose glory is it serving?
Even in this late part of Lent, we are being asked the questions which will help root out what keeps us from doing what we claim we are called to do.
Andrew Spurr is Vicar of Evesham in the diocese of Worcester