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.
This must be one of the best known lines from a hymn. And maybe this is the most important verse to know by heart, because it summarizes what we believe as Lutheran Christians.
I am by no means implying that Lutherans are the only Christians who believe in the amazing grace of God, this grace which alone has the power to save us. But Martin Luther, the father of the church we call Lutheran, the father of the church we are a part of, made it very clear in the 16th century: it is through grace alone, and faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ, that we find salvation. And, amazingly, this grace is free.
He probably would have sung along to ‘Amazing Grace’, had this hymn been in existence in the 16th century, with conviction and a loud voice. I once was lost, by now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.
Martin Luther grew up in a in very pious times, with faith and church life penetrating every aspect of life. There was no such thing as secularism – that’s a modern concept. And faith life was by no means uniform, but influenced by local customs and superstitions. Many people in Luther’s day thought that they had to earn their salvation, through pious deeds, rituals, and financial contributions to the church. And the church in Rome did little to dissuade the faithful from doing good deeds for their salvation.
Luther became a monk out of fear of God: he thought that being a monk would afford him enough merits to gain God’s favor. However, Luther soon found out: it’s never enough. No matter how fervently he prayed, how meticulously he observed the rituals, and how hard he worked – he had the sense that he was still too great a sinner to deserve God’s grace.
It wasn’t until he became a professor of theology and studied the gospels in depth that he realized: God’s grace is a gift. God’s grace is free. We as human beings can’t do anything to earn it. It’s not about what we can do for God – it is about what God has done for us – sent the Son and died on the cross.
For Luther, this discovery was life changing. For the first time he felt that his eyes had been opened, and that he truly saw – instead of blindly following some misguided doctrine.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved – how precious did this grace appear the hour I first believed.’
It was Luther’s discovery and experience of God’s unconditional grace which led him to take on the Roman Catholic power politics of his day, and what we today call the Reformation and the Lutheran Church came about – and we will observe Reformation Day next Sunday.
Now, just for the record: in recent decades, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have been quite clear: yes, it’s all about grace. Nothing we do could earn us the grace of God. So Roman Catholics and Lutherans today agree on the doctrine of grace – but then there are a few other things we disagree about. So Reformation Sunday is not about glorifying a past in which Luther came up with this wonderful and original idea of grace and defied a blinded Roman Church; instead it is a day to celebrate the common ground we stand on: Jesus Christ who became incarnate to bestow God’s grace on humanity.
Today’s gospel story is very fascinating. Here we have one of the numerous healing stories we hear about in the gospels: an impaired person, in this case a blind man, calls out to Jesus and asks for restoration to health and wholeness. Jesus grants the request with the words, ‘Your faith has made you well.’
Matthew, Luke, and John mention this healing as well. However, there is one big difference: the man remains anonymous in Matthew, Luke and John. In Mark, he has a name: Bartimaeus. This is personal. And I will get back to that name in a minute.
Now, according to Mark, the healing of blind Bartimaeus is remarkable in other ways, too. According to Mark, this is the last healing Jesus performs on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Also, we may hear Bartimaeus address Jesus as ‘Son of David’ and not think much about it. However, ‘Son of David’ is a messianic title. The blind man ironically is the one who sees Jesus for who he is, and he is the only one to profess it publicly. (Peter confessed before, but that was a private affair, and Peter didn’t really get it.)
Bartimaeus sees who Jesus is – the Messiah, Son of David, Son of God. Now let’s take a look at his name. Bartimaeus is a strange hybrid of Aramaic and Greek. ‘Bar’ means ‘son of’, so his name is quite literally ‘Son of Timaeus’. But what does Timaeus mean? Scholars don’t know for sure. But some say that is derives from an Aramaic word meaning ‘Unclean’ or ‘Corrupted’. So his name would be ‘Son of the Unclean/Corrupted’. And to the people in Jesus’ days, this would have made a lot of sense – they believed that someone born with a physical disability, like blindness, was bearing and displaying the sin of the fathers. Batimaeus’ blindness then would have been understood as the manifestation of the spiritual blindness, or uncleanness, or corruption, of his father.
And it was assumed that a physically blind person was spiritually blind as well. Instead of deaf and dumb, it would be blind and ignorant. Now, the Jewish people in Jesus’ days may have said to the blind man, bad luck, sorry, you are out of God’s favor, somebody did something wrong to have you turn out this way, it is God’s will, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
But we learn two things about Bartimaeus. Firstly, he is anything but spiritually blind, but sees who Jesus is. AND we learn that he trusts in God’s grace – God’s mercy that can liberate him from his physical blindness and make him whole. Bartimaeus doesn’t deserve the help of Jesus, he doesn’t deserve the grace of God – but he is saved anyway. And what does Bartimaeus do once he is fully restored? He leaves his cloak and his past behind and follows Jesus. The gift is a call. Bartimaeus understands he cannot let this precious gift go to waste, but use it for the glory of God and in service to others.
Talk about a reformation! Now I think we all know that, despite the fact that we all have eyesight, we may sometimes be blind. Blind to injustice in this world, blind to the need of our neighbor, blind to the pointers God gives us as we journey through life, blind to a reality unfolding around us. The good news is: there is always hope. God sends the Holy Spirit, over and over, to help us see and understand – and of course that isn’t always pleasant. Who likes to acknowledge their blindness and their mistakes? And even better news: God loves us and showers us with amazing grace, even though we have our blind spots.
However, as today’s gospel and the story of Martin Luther point out: seeing has consequences. The gift is a call. We have the God-given responsibility to live our faith, and to constantly work for a reformation of this church and this world, so that it may reflect God’s reign of love and justice. To never leave this vision out of sight.
Helen Keller, who may be the best known blind person and activist, once said: It is a terrible thing to see – and have no vision.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining like the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise then when we’d first begun.
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