SJF • Proper 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen: for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
As someone who has had a variety of eye problems since I was young, and sadly even up to the present day; and who worked while in high school as a volunteer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Osler Eye Clinic; and later in the period just before starting my seminary studies at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind; and as one who is even now an Officer of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, whose main work is the support of the Eye Hospital there in the Holy Land — given all of this I’ve learned a good bit about vision and vision problems in my day.
And one thing I’ve learned is that vision is not only about the eyes, but about the brain. There are forms of blindness which are caused by damage to the visual cortex of the brain — which ironically is at the back of your head — in which a person who may have perfectly sound eyes may be completely blind. Conversely, some marvelous new inventions are being designed that can allow people whose eyes are damaged beyond repair, to learn to see by means of direct electrical stimulation of portions of the brain, there at the back of the head. Geordi LaForge from Star Trek Next Generation may not have to wait ‘til the 24th century to get his visor.
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All of our Scripture readings today deal in part with the difference between seeing with the eyes and knowing in your heart and mind what you see — the difference between the inside and the outside. What is seen by the eye is not always understood by the brain, even when everything is working as it should. We’ve all seen optical illusions or puzzles where the eye can be fooled and it takes time to figure out exactly what it is you are seeing. Sometimes what you are looking for can be right in front of your eyes, but for some reason you just can’t “see” it. As my grandmother used to say, “If it was a snake, it would’ve bit you!”
And speaking of snakes — recall the promise that the snake made to the man and the woman in the garden: “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like God!” Of course, their eyes were open all along, but they didn’t realize what it is that they saw. Remember: they could see. The woman, when she saw the apple and the tree, said it was pleasing to the eyes. They had seen each other naked from the time God first woke Adam up and presented him with the one he greeted as a helper suitable to him, who was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. It was only with the bite of that apple that they realized what they were seeing — their own nakedness — that it was in any way, shape, fashion or form unseemly, and they tried the first cover-up in history: stitching leaves together and then even going so far as to hide in the underbrush. The vision of their own frail nakedness was too much for them — and in their nakedness they also saw — and felt — their shame. In one sense, they did not become like God, but rather fully human, at that point, and they tried to hide their frail humanity from the eyes of the living God himself.
They had made, you see, the mistake that all human beings are likely to make — we who see not as God sees; that is, looking at the outside — all that our eyes are able to do. For surely our outer form is weak and wasting away. But fortunately, our true humanity lies not in our outward form, our merely biological existence as what anthropologist Desmond Morris called the “Naked Ape.” Adam and Eve were rightly shamed by the frail flesh that they were — that ‘earthly tent’ as Saint Paul calls it — seen in the stark light of God’s own judging presence. But there is more to our humanity than just our naked outside. There is an unseen part, an inner nature that is unlike that of the animals. This is the part of us that is able to reason, and above all, to love. As Saint Paul assures us, this inner capacity is renewed day by day by God’s grace, even as the outward form is wasting away in aging, sickness and death.
Our human nature, as made in God’s image, allows us to have that God’s-eye-view, to look to the inside. This is why we look beyond what can be seen with the eyes of flesh to see with the eye of faith. There is more to us than merely animal biology — our flesh and blood, the earthly tent of our outward nature. We are also creatures of spirit, made in God’s image at the first, though our eyes of flesh got us into trouble when we first started using them, startled to discover that we were naked. We failed to realize at that beginning point, that there is ever so much more to us than our skin and our flesh.
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And more than our flesh and blood, as the concluding portion of this morning’s gospel passage reminds us. Jesus’ mother and siblings are worried that their son and brother is heading for trouble — people in town are saying he is crazy or even possessed (much the same thing in that time.) And so they’ve come to take him in hand, and get him out of harm’s way, away from the crowd and the religious authorities who have come down from Jerusalem. And when the people tell Jesus that his mother and family — his flesh and blood — are asking for him outside, he makes the astounding statement that it is the people in the house, those there around him, who are his mother, brother, and sister. Whoever does God’s will is kin to Jesus, kin through the Spirit. It is not the flesh and blood relationship that matters — the relationship we may or may not have with each other through biological descent or inheritance or kinship — but the relationship that each of us has and all of us have with God, through God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and among us.
And notice once again how this relationship is portrayed as being inside rather than outside: the biological family, the family of flesh and blood, is outside the house, seen by all in the public square; but the true family of God is inside, inside the house with Jesus, gathered around him. It is here, here in ‘this house not made by hands’ — the house which is the new temple of God’s Holy Spirit, which is made up of all of the members of the church — it is there, “here” as Jesus says, that the true family is to be found.
So work, my sisters and brothers — and I do not call you that lightly, for we are all members of God’s true family — work to keep your inner eye, your eye of faith, focused on the place where truth and mercy dwell, with our Father in heaven. Study to see as God sees, guided by the Spirit into the truth of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s glory.+