READINGS: — Acts 16.16-34; John 9.1-38. (Edited version of extempore sermon).
"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see."
The last line of that opening verse of a well-known Evangelical hymn (a fairly recent recording of which was so popular it nearly reached the top of the charts) was clearly suggested by the Gospel story we have just heard, about Jesus healing a man blind from birth.
The hymn writer applies the story of the physical miracle of Jesus restoring the sight of a man born blind to Jesus healing our spiritual blindness. But this is a tradition dating back to a time long before there were any Evangelicals (except in the sense that every Christian is called to spread the good news about our Lord Jesus Christ, and so every Christian is an evangelical). It is certainly part of the Orthodox tradition. Besides commemorating the physical miracle, the hymns of the Church services also remind us that Jesus cures our spiritual blindness. For example, the kontakion that we sang a little while ago: —
"I come to you, O Christ, blind from birth in my spiritual eyes, and call to you in repentance: you are the most radiant light of those in darkness."
Indeed, the application of the Gospel story about the healing of the man blind from birth to the healing of spiritual blindness has always been part of the tradition, in both East and West.
We are all spiritually blind from time to time, even the most devout of us. For we all have our periods of doubt, the dark times in our life of faith. Jesus Christ, as both God and man - the God-Man, cures us of our spiritual blindness. For what we learn in the Gospels can only be believed through spiritual insight, by means of an inner eye (as it were). Spiritual insight is available only to those who have entered into union with the Holy Trinity. The inner eye is the gift of God, divine grace offered to us by the Holy Spirit, sent to each one of us by the Father through the Son. We enter into union with the Holy Trinity (however partially and intermittently) as members of the Church. Spiritual insight is available only to baptised Christians.
But spiritual insight, the inner eye is necessary to us. What we learn in the Gospels about Jesus Christ cannot be believed by applying human reason. In fact such notions as that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he cured a man born blind and performed other miraculous healings, and that he rose again from the dead after being crucified, are, from the world's point of view, downright unreasonable. They offend against both science and common sense (and we are hearing a lot about common sense during the General Election campaign!). Women who have never known a man do not have children. People do not rise from the dead. But we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God become man, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived and preached on earth, was crucified, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And that in due course he will return to this world in glory! Only spiritual insight, an inner eye, could possibly enable us to believe all this.
Historically, there have been three ways of approaching the problem of belief in the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. First, there is the Roman Catholic way. Roman Catholics may possess spiritual insight (I'm sure many do). But it is not really necessary. All that is needed is to believe an infallible Church, whose infallibility is secured by its having an infallible leader, the Pope, bishop of Rome, the successor to St Peter, who has inherited from him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. There seems to be almost no place at all for the individual conscience.
Second, since the Reformation in the West in the 15th and 16th centuries, there has been the Protestant way. According to this approach the individual conscience, private belief, is almost everything and the authority of the Church practically nothing. (There are many different kinds of Protestantism, and for some the authority of the Bible replaces that of the Church. But often the meaning of the Bible is left to individual interpretation!).
Academic research into theology and Biblical studies proliferates, as more and more scholars publish their own opinions. Theology becomes academic research rather than the expression in words of the Church's spiritual experience. In episcopal denominations the bishops more and more resemble a university theological faculty. At the extreme it almost seems as if you need a theological degree at an approved university to get into heaven!
Both these approaches are wrong because they are one-sided. Individual conscience and the authority of the Church are BOTH important, but neither is to be stressed to the exclusion of the other. The third approach is the Orthodox way, which recognises both the authority of the Church and individual conscience.
Like the Roman Catholics, Orthodoxy believes that the Church is infallible. But the Orthodox Church does not believe that any individual is infallible. Not the Ecumenical Patriarch, nor any patriarch, archbishop, bishop or anyone - however spiritual or pious. it is the Church as a whole - bishops, priests, deacons and lay people -that is infallible. The truth is what the whole Church accepts, and every member of the Church -whether belonging to the hierarchy, the clergy or the laity - is responsible for guarding the true faith. Not even ecumenical councils are infallible until their findings have been accepted by the whole Church. That is what makes them ecumenical. It is not the number of bishops attending or the number of local churches represented.
For instance, the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in 325 to fight the heresy of Arius (who believed that Jesus Christ is a created being) was not called ecumenical until the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 — 56 years later! By that time its doctrines had been accepted by the whole Church. At the time of the First Ecumenical Council the deacon Athanasius (now one of the greatest of Orthodox saints) stood out alone against practically the whole episcopate.
One Christian — a deacon, but it could equally be a layman or laywoman — can, if need be, constitute the whole Church, the sole defender of the true doctrine handed down by the saints! It does not depend on theological training. Passing examinations does not help here at all. True doctrine is what accords with spiritual experience — that is the experience of the Church, and that of the individual within the Church. The two are inseparable, for individual spiritual experience depends on the spiritual insight we receive as members of the Church. Remember that each baptised Christian has been received into the community of the Holy Trinity. Each is guided by the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father through the Son, to the Church and to each member of it. So each shares in the spiritual experience of the Church and each is a guardian of the Church's teaching.
That has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Church, although sometimes particular hierarchs, influenced by Roman Catholic teaching, have asserted otherwise, or at least behaved as if they believed otherwise. So the Orthodox layman or laywoman is faced with a huge responsibility. He or she may have to oppose the teaching of the patriarch, the bishop or his or her own spiritual father! Nobody is infallible. As an Orthodox Christian I honour the bishop as representing Jesus Christ himself, but at the same time I realise that even nowadays some hierarchs make mistakes.
A former secretary of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius (the Anglican-Orthodox friendship association), who had become Orthodox, resigned and returned to his former role as an Anglican parish priest. He said it is a great thing to be an Orthodox layman, but in this country it is practically impossible. I don't know what made him come to that conclusion, but he was certainly right. How can a very ordinary Orthodox Christian take on the huge responsibility of being a guardian of the faith? It is impossible!
It is impossible to achieve by human effort. But remember that for God all things are possible. The God who cured the man blind from birth (who, according to some of the Church's hymns, could not even distinguish between night and day) can cure our spiritual blindness. The God who also, according to today's Apostle reading, broke the chains of Paul and Silas and enabled them to convert their jailer can provide us with the spiritual insight, the inner eye that we need. We have only to pray that he will.
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