By Bryan D. Spinks
“‘Go. Your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
The healing of blind Bartimaeus takes place in Jericho, as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, where he would meet his divine destiny which the letter to the Hebrews describes as his high priesthood, offering himself for the sins of the whole world. It is no accident that the Gospel says the blind man regained his sight and followed him on the way — the way to Jerusalem, where salvation is offered, and where paradise is regained.
All the Gospels attest the fact that Jesus did miracles of healing, and this included healing some who were blind. Given that sight is so crucial to a full human life, blindness is a serious impediment to enjoying it to the full, and for sight to be restored is an immense gift. Our modern developments of laser techniques allow some to have partial sight or full sight restored, and now there are trials with stem-cell treatments which may allow others to regain their sight. Sight, so often taken for granted by those of us who are not blind, is indeed a gift and a gateway to many avenues in life.
By the time the Gospels were written, Jesus’ healings of the blind were already being interpreted as having not only a literal meaning but also a spiritual meaning. Blindness was taken as spiritual blindness that prevents a person from seeing who this Jesus really is — from being just a teacher from Galilee once upon a time to grasping that this is God’s self-disclosure and is eternal.
Bartimaeus regained his sight immediately. An instant conversion. The man cured at Bethsaida, earlier in Mark, was cured by laying on of hands. But at first he saw people like trees — only when Jesus laid hands a second time did he see things clearly. Coming to the Christian faith for some is instant, and for others is much more gradual.
Perhaps most famous is St. Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road — immediate — though interestingly he lost his sight until some days later Ananias laid hands on him. Sampson Staniforth, a British soldier serving in the Low Countries in 1745 at the height of the War of the Austrian Succession, recorded his conversion thus:
From twelve at night till two it was my turn to stand sentinel at a dangerous post. … As soon as I was alone, I kneeled down, and determined not to rise, but to continue crying and wrestling with God, till He had mercy on me. How long I was in that agony I cannot tell: but as I looked up to heaven I saw the clouds open exceeding bright, and I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. At the same moment these words were applied to my heart, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” My chains fell off; my heart was free. All guilt was gone, and my soul was filled with unutterable peace. I loved God and all mankind, and the fear of death and hell was vanished away. I was filled with wonder and astonishment. (Arminian Magazine 6, 1783)
Now, I have to confess that the circles of the Church of England from which I come frowned on such narratives, experiences, and piety; indeed, the Vicar of Cressing, Essex, the Rev. Alastair Sandeman, was quite clear at confirmation class. If any evangelical were ever to ask us, Are you saved?, we were to answer quite firmly, “Good Lord, no! I am Church of England.”
The nearest I have ever come to a conversion experience was when as an undergraduate theology student I read Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans, which blew me away, and I bid farewell to the so-called liberal theology that until that point I had found congenial.
But perhaps in the end we all undergo some conversion of some sort, even if it is not as dramatic as St. Paul’s or Sampson Staniforth’s.
John Newton, famous for the hymn “Amazing Grace,” worked in the slave business, and continued to do so even after a conversion experience. Only later did he leave that profession and seek ordination.
“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Perhaps Newton’s conversion was more like the blind man at Bethsaida.
It was certainly far more gradual for C.S. Lewis. In his autobiography of his early years, Surprised by Joy, he told how he tried for a long time to resist believing in God. He wrote:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [College]. Night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.’
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of humanity, and His compulsion is our liberation. Or as John Donne expressed it in a sermon, “only the Lord knows how to wound us, out of love; more than that, how to wound us into love.”
C.S. Lewis was still a young man, and still had some way to go before accepting the Christian understanding of God. The British philosopher Professor Anthony Flew, after a life of fierce atheism, finally changed his mind in 2004 at the age of 81, and announced that he believed in a God — not the Christian, Jewish or Islamic God, but a super intelligence which is the first cause of the universe. In 2007 he published a book entitled There Is a God. How far his journey had progressed when he died in 2010 is not recorded. But perhaps he is still on his conversion journey.
I recall when the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell died, my college chapel had a requiem Mass for him. I protested to the sacristan that this was not appropriate. “Why?” Asked the sacristan. “Because,” I said, “he did not believe in God.” Back came the reply. “Well, he does now!” Indeed, whereas we mere mortals have only a lifetime to make conversions, the most gracious triune God of surprises has all of eternity to wound us into love.
At the heart of this is the theme of the Letter to the Hebrews. It is about Jesus the high priest who offers himself as the sacrifice for sins. His blood removed the chasm between us and God. In 2 Corinthians Paul, writing to wayward churches, asserts that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding humanity’s misdeeds against them. Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of humanity, so that in him we might be made one with the goodness of God. You have received grace, and the day of deliverance has come. Here Paul asserts that we are redeemed through the saving work of Christ, the atoning work of Christ.
Some people find the Atonement objectionable, suggesting that it makes God the author or endorser of violence. As I see it, it is God seizing human violence and evil, and making it have a good outcome. Whatever else Atonement might mean, it means a good outcome for us.
Perhaps some of you have read Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, or seen the film. It is about a young girl, Briony, who eventually becomes a novelist. She is the youngest daughter of a wealthy civil servant, and is 13 years old in 1935. She is only just perceiving the world of adults, and frequently misunderstands what she sees. Her older sister Cecilia has recently graduated from Cambridge and so has a young man, Robbie, who is the son of one of the housemaids, but has been brought up and educated by the family.
These two realize that they are in love. The 13-year-old Briony reads a letter she has been entrusted to give to Cecilia — in fact the wrong letter since it put in plain Anglo-Saxon language what Robbie would like to do with Cecilia. Briony is horrified, and decides Robbie is a sex maniac. That is reinforced when she walks in on the pair making love in the library. When a cousin is raped, Briony, who only saw an outline of the man, concludes it was Robbie, and on her testimony he is sent to prison.
Cecilia leaves the family and will have nothing to do with them, and waits for Robbie. War is declared, and Robbie chooses to serve in the army rather than languish in prison. He escapes the Dunkirk retreat, and lives with Cecilia, who has become a nurse. Briony too becomes a nurse, visits Cecilia and Robbie, admits she was mistaken, and promises to make amends. McEwan’s story ends, though, with an elderly Briony being interviewed about her 21st novel. She says it is her last because she is dying. In a way, she says, it is also her first, since it was mostly written in 1940, but only just finished. It is, she explains, mainly biographical — the names and events are true. But the ending has been changed. She explains that she had always felt responsible for what happened. And in fact, Robbie didn’t return from Dunkirk, but died there of septicemia; and she never reconciled with Cecilia because Cecilia was killed in a bomb explosion in the London blitz.
The elderly Briony explains that she had rewritten history to give Cecilia and Robbie the happy ending they ought to have had and deserved, but which she had deprived them of. In the words of the novel, “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them in the end. I gave them happiness.” As a wordsmith she took the decision to alter the story and create the happy ending and atonement.
God too is a wordsmith. In the words of Isaiah in our first lesson:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth … so shall my word that goes forth from my mouth it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
In that ancient story in Genesis, God spoke the word and brought forth creation, though that story had a tragic ending — paradise lost. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. But in the Word made flesh, God changed the ending of the old story. As Paul puts it in Romans: All are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Jesus Christ. Or, as he put in 2 Corinthians, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding humanity’s misdeeds against them. Perhaps conversion is about being able to discover, read and live this happy ending, which is God’s ultimate stand against oblivion and despair. “I gave them salvation.”
Having faith, whatever else it entails, includes accepting that, like John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Like Bartimaeus, having this new insight, we are invited to follow Jesus on his way.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Spinks is Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at General Theological Seminary.