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SEEING AND NOT SEEING Acts 9:1-22 & Matthew 19:23-end

This week I went to the opticians to have a regular eye examination and I was pleased to learn that I have healthy eyes and also that my prescription has not altered enough to require new spectacles! I heard a story recently of a blind lady who had sight given her through an operation. Apparently she still found it preferable to judge objects by their feel. For instance, when out shopping the sense of touch was a more familiar and accurate source of information for her than what her eyes could tell her. That certainly sounds strange to those of us who use sight as our primary means of deciding about things but it certainly puts things in a different light when you stop to think about that lady.

We often refer to sight when we speak of perspective – how you look at or see something. In solving problems it can help to look at what we are struggling with differently to how we’re seeing it to start with. For instance, in solving a technical puzzle like putting some flat-pack furniture together; or if we’re confronted with a personal or emotional problem, it can help to look at it from a different angle or perspective. We can say that it is all about seeing and not seeing.

We are in the season of Epiphany when in the Christian calendar we explore how Jesus is seen. We ask questions about who he is. We study how the people who met him saw him, and we ask ourselves how we should see him. Depending on how we see him we go on to think about how we show him to the world.

Paul’s Perspective
My parents, whom many of you know, were missionaries, saw Paul of Tarsus as an example to follow and named their eldest son after him! They also chose a Celtic Saint’s name for his middle name, to keep the local link, being from the North East. As well as being the 3rd Sunday in Epiphany today is the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. As if all of that were not enough, it is also the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which began with the Feast of the Confession of St Peter. Today we contemplate the story of how Paul changed his view of Jesus. We recall the story, as told by Luke in the book of Acts, how Jesus was seen by Paul at first as an enemy and then became the Lord to be proclaimed to all. That was some change of perspective!

The Enemy Name
Luke picks up the thread of a story after a short interlude in which he pauses to tell us the story of Philip and the Ethiopian courtier. Luke broke off from telling us about the martyrdom of Stephen and how a certain Saul stood by, looking after the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. Saul approved of this action. The religious council of the Jews of the day were trying Stephen for the things he had said about Jesus. They heard him exclaim that he saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. In other words, Stephen saw Jesus as divine. This was blasphemy in their law and so they stoned him to death. Saul had heard Stephen invoke the name of Jesus when he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Saul saw Jesus and his name as an enemy of his own people and in his zeal to protect and defend the faithful, set about doing what he could to suppress those who followed this way of Jesus.

Many of us are familiar with the dramatic conversion scene on the road to Damascus. What has struck me, reading it again, is that the vision that struck Saul with temporary blindness was a similar vision to that of the dying Stephen. A bright light from heaven shone around Saul. From this blinding light a voice spoke saying, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute!” In other words, that name, whom Saul saw as the enemy now confronted him. That name was not one to invoke because it seemed a blasphemy– equating that name with the Almighty. And now, that name comes to Saul through the blinding light and causes him a crisis.
He comes to a point at which he needs to make a decision because something new and unexpected about that name has happened.

The Friendly Name
Now the scene shifts, and as Saul sits blind and stunned into not eating and drinking for three days, Luke tells us of Ananias whom the Lord wanted to send to Saul. Ananias trembles at the mention of Saul’s name for he still sees him as an enemy. But Ananias obeys the Lord who tells him that Saul is going to spread the name of Jesus far and wide. Ananias dares to go to Saul in the name of Jesus. The name not to invoke, Ananias invokes to restore Saul’s sight. Such is his obedience to the Lord that Ananias’ own perspective on Saul is changed. No longer is he the enemy of the saints but now to be seen as Brother Saul! Ananias’ faith and obedience is just as important to his conversion as is Saul’s change of heart. It doesn’t take long for Saul to begin invoking that very name he had sought to persecute and suppress. Later in the book of Acts Luke tells us that Saul began to be known also as Paul, and in fact, we now normally call him that. His name change signifies the change that Paul made to the way he saw the name of Jesus.

Seeing Paul
I mentioned my parents’ reason for giving me my name being how they saw Paul. How do we look on Paul? For some he is a great missionary, a hero of the early Church. For others he is rather anti-women, hard to understand and very strict. He was certainly a great mind and exercised a huge influence on the way the Church developed. Without realising it, we often look back at Jesus in the gospels through the lens of Paul. The ways we see Jesus are often filtered through Paul’s interpretation of him to the later Church in his writings contained in the Epistles. But what does Jesus look like without the filter of Paul? Who is Jesus in today’s gospel reading? What do the blind men think of him? The blind men call out to him as “Son of David!”

Hearing, Seeing and Believing
We come back to thinking of other senses that accompany eyesight. The blind men outside Jericho had only heard about Jesus. What they had heard encouraged them to cry out. They had heard he was a descendent of the wonderful king way back in the history of their people. They knew David was a true king who helped the poor and disabled. Here was a descendent of that great king whose reputation for reaching out and raising the poor and destitute spread like wildfire. If they yelled at the top of their voices, perhaps they would be lucky and attract his attention. Perhaps this Son of David would come and do something for them.

Jesus’ own way of seeing himself is conveyed by calling himself the Son of Man. In the scene immediately before the encounter with the blind men Jesus has to correct the wrong perspective of his disciples. They see Jesus and their place with him in terms of power and influence. He has to put them right. The Son of Man is a servant and all who want to be great in his eyes, must first serve others, even if it means with their lives. The yelling voices reach the ears of Jesus. He does not say to them, I am not the Son of David, be quiet! Instead he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is the question of the servant. “Here am I! What is your wish?” Their greatest desire is to have their eyes opened. Jesus serves them, touches those considered unclean because of their disability, and immediately, Matthew tells us, they regained their sight.

Do we hear and see Jesus in these ways? We cry out for help. Jesus’ responds by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” Do we know how to respond to that question? Do we know what our deepest desires are? Jesus comes to us personally asking that question. He comes to us as a church, asking that same question. He comes to our hurting, blind world, and asks what he can do. Is not our answer the same as those men? Help us to see afresh!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



God of heaven,
you send the gospel to the ends of the earth
and your messengers to every nation:
send your Holy Spirit to transform us
by the good news of everlasting life
in Jesus Christ our Lord.