10th October 2022

Evensong for Harvest: Seeing the Whole

A sermon preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury

Sunday 2 October 2022, Harvest Festival, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity


Nehemiah 5:1-13

John 9


Grigoris Afxentiou died on 3 March 1957.  He was twenty-nine years old.  Afxentiou was second-in-command of EOKA, the armed group that had emerged two years earlier to resist British rule in Cyprus.  He died when the mountain cave in which he was hiding was surrounded.  He refused to surrender.  After ten hours the British troops poured petrol into the cave and set it ablaze.  Afxentiou’s charred remains were interred within the grounds of Nicosia’s Central Prison.

To the British he was the enemy, as were they to him.  The soldiers who threw grenades to ignite the petrol were not attacking an idealistic young man who was newly married and had spent his time in hiding reading religious texts borrowed from the nearby monastery.  They were attacking a dangerous terrorist.  And when Afxentiou shot and killed a young British corporal who approached the cave he was not attacking someone far from his own home, sent to serve among a people who were not his own.  He was attacking his homeland’s oppressor.

Something of this failure to see one another fully, and of this determination to see one another in parts, is captured in the memorial to Afxentiou which stands on the hillside close to the place where he died.  A human figure cast in bronze lies off-centre in a huge stone circle. But its head has been separated from its body; its legs have been separated from its torso; and it has no arms.  The onlooked sees disconnected parts before she sees the whole.

The story of the man born blind, which fills the ninth chapter of St John’s Gospel, is a story of people similarly seeing disconnected parts.  The disciples of Jesus see a sinner or the son of sinners.  The man’s neighbours see a blind man, not someone whose sight has been restored.  The Pharisees (or “the Jews” as John unhelpfully characterizes them) see a healer whose failure to observe the Sabbath means he cannot be from God.  The parents see the fate that awaits them if they embrace their son, and they effectively disown him.  Their interlocutors see themselves, and themselves only, as the disciples of Moses.  And finally, seeing only a sinner who is full of blasphemous presumption, they drive the man out of their synagogue.  At every stage the speakers’ vision is off-centre; it sees only in part; it sees what it chooses to see.

In contrast, and in response to the gracious action of Jesus, the man born blind sees more and more as the story unfolds.  I say “gracious action” because Jesus heals him before he has opened his mouth – before he has made any declaration of faith or repentance, a detail which Christians need to note.  Jesus sees him, makes a paste, and sends him to wash himself.  It is an unmerited, unconditional gift of love, which sets in train a series of questions.  In answer to his first questioners the man says simply that Jesus has healed him; in response to his second and third questioners he asserts that his healing means that Jesus must be from God.  Finally, he comes face to face with Jesus and when he does so he utters three words “Lord, I believe”.  “And”, John records, “he worshipped him”.  While the disciples, the Pharisees, “the Jews” and even his own parents cling to their half-truths and caricatures the man has moved from blindness to partial sight to a full and extraordinary vision of ultimate significance.

On Afxentiou’s mountainside, above the stone circle, stands the other part of his monument.  A huge bronze eagle spreads its wings heavenwards.  It is no doubt intended to symbolize his ultimate triumph.  But while all states need heroes, and while Afxentiou’s personal courage is beyond question, that giant eagle might represent the necessarily limited nature of what we are able to see for ourselves.  The political cause for which he fought – the union of Cyprus with Greece – never came about.  Instead, in 1960 the island was granted a precarious independence, which lasted only until 1974, when its government was overthrown by the Colonels’ regime in Athens and its territory was invaded by Turkey.  Ukraine is not the only European country to be under illegal occupation: Cyprus has been for nearly half a century.

At Harvest we give thanks for all that God gives – for all that God brings forth.  From the land and the sea, yes, of course, but also for what God will bring forth in us if only we will allow it.  Each of us clings to half-truths and caricatures; many of us have deeply-rooted ideas about what is of ultimate significance.  Perhaps we might celebrate Harvest by praying that our eyes might be opened, that we might see, and that, so, God’s works might be revealed in us.