Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Rev’d Charles Everson
John 9:1-13, 28-38
March 19, 2023
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Are you saved?
This is a question many of us have been asked, and some of may have asked it of others. In certain corners of the Christian faith, it is taught that this is how you become a Christian: at the moment in time when you admit to yourself and to God that you are a sinner, and you ask Jesus to come into your heart, you are “saved” and then are guaranteed a spot in heaven.
When I was 11, my step-dad got transferred to Texas, and once we got settled there, some friends at school invited me to a youth group gathering at Trinity Oaks Baptist Church in Red Oak, Texas. It was there I had such an experience. And wow, was it an emotional experience! I felt closer to God than I had ever been – as if I had met him for the first time and all of my spiritual and emotional wounds were healed! I was convinced that what they were telling me was true. Finally, I knew I’d get to heaven!
The youth pastor and other, having heard about my experience, encouraged me to be baptized. For the Baptists, baptism is something you do in response to the purely inward and spiritual act of accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. No grace is imparted in the waters of baptism. You get baptized only out of obedience as an outward sign of what has already happened in your heart.
In the passage we heard from the gospel of John, we see the conversion story of a man who was born blind. Jesus brought about healing and wholeness to the blind man not by teaching him what to pray or what to believe, but by spitting on the ground and making clay with the saliva and spreading it on the man’s eyes, then saying, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam”. So he went and washed and came back able to see. This man’s conversion involved clay from the earth, Jesus’ saliva, the touch of his hands, and the words he spoke.
It wasn’t until years after my “conversion experience” at age 11 that I learned that this is exactly how the Sacraments of the Church work! By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus infuses and transforms the simple creatures of water, bread and wine, and oil in order to communicate his grace, his healing, his wholeness to us. Salvation isn’t just something that happens in the secret places of our hearts, it is also something that happens to the body. There really isn’t any room in Christianity for separating the two.
This passage also exposes another unhealthy dualism that was as common in Jesus’s time as it is in our own. As Jesus passed the blind man, his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Many of us get it in our heads that if things are going well for me, God must be happy with me. On the other hand, if my life is going to hell in a handbasket, God must be unhappy with me. I must have done something wrong.
Friends, that isn’t Christianity. God’s grace and favor toward us are by definition unearned and undeserved and not related to anything we may have done or left undone.
Rather than treating the human body and soul as separate things, from the earliest of times, the Church has taught that we are one, whole, fully integrated person that is, in a sense, born blind. We are all born with the tendency to sin, and once we’re old enough and have the ability to choose right from wrong, we often choose to engage in sin.
This past Friday night, Bishop Bruce was here and she baptized and confirmed a young woman named Jordan (Jordan works on Sundays, so she’s been coming during the week), and she confirmed eight others: Jami, Aaron, Kait, Monica, Abby, Matthew, Cat, and Minor. Using the tangible elements of water, and the bishop’s hands, God’s grace was bestowed on these nine persons. Each of them acknowledged in their heart and publicly before this faith community and the Almighty that he or she is a sinner. By water and the Holy Spirit, God bestowed the forgiveness of sins on Jordan. The others renewed the covenant they made at their baptism (or was made on their behalf when they were infants) and by the laying on of the bishop’s hands and the Holy Spirit, they were strengthened with God’s heavenly grace and empowered to do the ministry God has called them to do as mature Christians.
While I know some of them better than others, it is certain that they all came to God for his grace on Friday from very different upbringings, experiences, and having made very different moral choices throughout their lives. Jesus met each of them where they are, and using physical elements transformed by the Holy Spirit bestowed his grace on them, not because they were worthy because of their own merit or success, but because God lavishly bestows his grace and love to those who don’t deserve it at all.
That powerful moment at Trinity Oaks Baptist Church at the young age of 11 was certainly when I realized for the first time that I was a sinner and in need of redemption. But I had been baptized as a young child at Village Presbyterian Church in Mission, Kansas. While she may not have had the theological language to explain why, my mother knew that baptism was once and for all and did not want me to get baptized again. I was a persistent and unruly child and ended up wearing her down, so she relented, and I ultimately got dunked by the Baptists. But in hindsight, I don’t think that was the moment I became destined for heaven, nor was my baptism when I was a child for that matter. When asked now if I’m saved, I respond, “I was saved, I am being saved, I will be saved.” Salvation isn’t a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a continual cycle of death and resurrection – of falling to sin and repenting and returning to the Lord – that begins at baptism and ends at the resurrection of the body at the Last Day, peppered with spiritual highs and lows and everywhere in between, littered with good and bad choices, and continually nourished by God’s grace given to us freely and undeservedly in the Sacraments of the Church.
And now, as we do week after week, we come to the altar of God and ask the Lord to bless and sanctify, by his Word and Holy Spirit, the simple creatures of bread and wine, receiving God’s pardon and peace in our bodies and in our souls, and eating of that foretaste of the heavenly banquet, giving us hope that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we will be raised at the last day. Dear friends, let us run with haste to this altar as the wise men did to Bethlehem to greet our Savior Jesus Christ who came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world, confident that he will evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!