Sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday
There are so many things going on in this morning’s Gospel reading that it really is difficult to be concise, to focus on one point. I will probably not succeed. One issue that is central is Christ’s death and resurrection as the fulfillment of Scripture, as the key to Scripture. Another matter is spiritual blindness. A third matter is how those who follow Christ, those who walk with Christ in this world, set up obstacles for those who honestly and with a true heart seek a personal relationship with Christ. And a fourth is the power of enlightenment that resides in earnest prayer.
Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished… And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken (Luke 18:31, 34).
They did not understand. But he had to tell them; he had to let them know. According to the Fathers, as his passion drew near, Jesus told the disciples what was about to happen for two reasons. One was in order to reassure them: Jesus foresaw that they would be troubled, afraid, panicked and thrown into disarray at His Passion. After all, this was the Savior and they had forsaken everything to follow him—and then he is killed like a common criminal. Of course they will panic. In the words of the Venerable Bede,
“For because they desired His life above all things, they could not hear of His death, and as they knew him to be not only a spotless man, but also very God, they thought He could in no wise die. And whenever in the parables, which they frequently heard Him utter, He said any thing concerning His Passion, they believed it to be spoken allegorically, and referred to something else…”
What could be expected of them other than fear and confusion? So he told them what lay ahead, but they did not understand. Another reason for telling them is to make sure that they do not fall prey to heresy. The Venerable Bede notes that, Christ, “knowing that there would arise certain heretics, saying, that Christ taught things contrary to the Law and the Prophets, He shews already that the voices of the Prophets had proclaimed the accomplishment of His Passion, and the glory which should follow.”
Imagine all the wicked voices, the gleeful throng as well as the authoritative Pharisees, who would chime in after his death, to add insult to injury. Not only would Jesus be crucified, he would come under a barrage of posthumous accusations for having been a false prophet, a false Messiah—and they, his disciples, were neither brave nor bright enough, frankly, to defend themselves or their master. They were regular people, not super humans. So he told them what lay ahead… but they did not understand.
They failed to understand what the prophets had foretold until after the resurrection. Cyril of Alexandria said that “the disciples did not as yet know exactly what the Prophets had foretold, but after He rose again, He opened their understanding that they should understand the Scriptures.”
After He rose again, He opened their understanding that they should understand the Scriptures. Herein lies a truth that is fundamental to our Christian confession: all Scripture points to Christ. But this also means that without Christ, the Scriptures are, as it were, obscure, if not in fact a historical curiosity without any relevance to our lives. Not only the prophets spoke of the coming Messiah, but all of the history of the Israelites, their labors and troubles, their ongoing relationship with God—all of it points to Christ. All of it. Once we know—when the resurrection is a fact and through faith we accept it—then Scripture, the Old Testament, gains new meaning. In fact, I would put it this way: its true meaning is revealed.
“All Scripture points to Christ” means that it is relevant as a living document because it points to Christ. As a history book, sure, it may be interesting to see how other people far away recorded events—but Israelite history is not important in and of itself. As cultural anthropology, sure, it may interest some people, but it doesn’t come to us as Christians because it is really important to know how and why the ancient Jews celebrated their holidays.
It is the Book of Life because of Him who came back from the dead. Every page testifies to his coming, and the resurrection is the key that unlocks the entirety of Scripture. It is the light that illuminates for us those things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world and the dark sayings of old, which I spoke of in my sermon two weeks ago. The resurrection is that singular event in human history that confirms and seals God’s love for mankind and all creation, and thereby allows us to understand Scripture. To read it as if the scales have fallen from our eyes.
Spiritual blindness and spiritual sight is at the heart of the account of Jesus healing the blind beggar. A confirmation that all our categories are turned upside down. The blind man was able to see clearly, yet the sighted people who walked with Christ were blind to the truth.
And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me (Luke 18:38).
This was a spiritually enlightened man, truly blessed. Those who passed by told him that it was Jesus of Nazareth—but he did not cry out” Jesus” or even “Lord”—he addressed Jesus as Son of David, as one would who knew the Scriptures and understood to whom they pointed. One of the Greek Fathers comments on this passage and asks: “Who taught thee this, O man? Has thou that art deprived of sight read books? Whence then knowest thou the Light of the World? Verily the Lord giveth sight to the blind” (Pseudo-Chrysostom; cf. Ps 146:8). Indeed, God is not impeded by physical impairments. He is not hindered by worldly obstacles, nor—importantly—is hindered by those who claim to have the faith.
And they which went before him rebuked him, that he should hold his peace (Luke 18:39a). It is not clear who these people are, but they are most definitely people walking with Jesus. Clearly they want to give some impression of authority and purpose, and of faith, since they enjoin the man to not bother Jesus. These, the followers of Jesus, are the truly blind ones. Not only do they not realize who Jesus is, even though they walk with him. Not only are they hard hearted enough to tell the beggar to shut his mouth and not bother him. They are in fact trying to suppress a genuine expression of true faith in Jesus. In this sense they are blind in a truly, eternally debilitating way. Due to their blindness, regardless of their status as followers of Jesus, they are lost unless they repent and convert.
But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them (2 Cor 4:3-4).
This is a testament to an enduring problem for the church, because it has happened time and again, and continues to happen today. Those who claim to walk with Christ and who claim authority in his holy name, are denying, eve shunning, those who confess the Christ of the Scriptures. We see expressions of this in virtually all the churches, at virtually every level of authority. The Christ if Scriptures is exchanged for “Jesus the Wise Man” or “Jesus the Really Nice Guy but not God.” This is at the heart of one of the most popular ways of refashioning Christianity today, the quest for the “real Jesus.” Theologians, bishops and modernist opportunists have become obsessed with the historical character of Jesus, and seek to reduce the faith to that which can be proved historically. But the historical Jesus is of no interest absent him being the eternal King of Glory, the Christ according to Scriptures, the resurrected Son of Man. No interest whatsoever. Pedestrian. Not even his followers, who lived with the historical Jesus, understood his true greatness until after the resurrection. They did their best, but they were in doubt. The doubts were removed when, and only when, he rose again from the dead—according to the Scriptures!
When the Jews who followed Jesus were in a state of ignorance, they expected a great king, a military leader, an invincible superhuman. When today’s church leaders wander in their state of willful ignorance, they are looking for someone who makes no demands, who says clever things, holds insights into niceness. But the effect is the same as in this morning’s reading: they suppress the simple faith in the Christ of Scriptures of those who have received, through faith, that saving enlightenment from God. This is the reaction of the world to living Christianity. Always and everywhere, in many different guises.
Let us never stray from the Scriptures and thereby join the ranks, the armies, of the spiritually blind. Let us instead follows the blind beggar’s example and never, never, never cease calling on Jesus, the Son of David, the Christ of Scriptures.
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen.