Apr 3rd | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | John 9
Every three years, the story of the healing of the man born blind rolls into our worship. It always comes during Lent and it usually means that we hear a sermon about how Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” We work up a cute little children’s sermon, to which adults pay way too much attention, sing a couple of hymns about light, pass the plate, pray the prayers, and call it a day.
We know this story from John’s gospel. In fact, we probably think we know it too well. We lead ourselves to believe that this is another story of Jesus doing the impossible – the miraculous – the unexplainable. Jesus, the miracle worker, is at it again and, like most modern and post-modern people, we don’t take those stories literally any more. Whatever happened, however it happened, one who was blind was able to see and he gave the credit for this to Jesus.
But, here’s the problem: the story isn’t really all that much about Jesus. Jesus shows up at the beginning of the story and pops back in at the end. In between those appearances, the story is really that of the religious leaders – the religious folk – and how they respond to what Jesus has done for this blind man. The more I considered the story and thought about what John was trying to tell us, the more I found a sermon that was preaching to me and, I hope, will speak to you.
So, let’s get to it.
The story begins with a healing. Jesus and the disciples are walking along and come across a man who was born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Why?” Why was this man born blind? If God is a God of love, how could God allow anyone to be born blind? Surely blindness is a sign of the presence of sin, so who sinned: this man or his parents?
The disciples aren’t asking anything most of us haven’t thought about from time to time. Why do bad things happen? Why does God “allow” bad things to happen? Why doesn’t God just intervene and prevent children from being born blind, or free from Down’s Syndrome, or autism? Why does God allow this?
But, Jesus doesn’t take that bait. We may wish he had and given us an explanation for how evil exists in a world God calls “very good,” but be doesn’t do that. Instead, Jesus says that the man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. With one of the seven “I am” statements that form the infrastructure of John’s gospel – “I am the light of the world” – Jesus makes some mud with his saliva, rubs it on the man’s eyes, sends him to a pool called “Sent” – “Siloam” in Hebrew, where the man washed his face and sees. When his disbelieving neighbors and acquaintances begin to question how this happened, the man says that Jesus did it. “Where is he?” they ask the man. “I don’t know,” the man responds.
End scene one.
Scene two begins with the entrance of the religious leaders – the Pharisees. Now, we could content ourselves with saying that the Pharisees were really just the power elite of the religious folk. But, we need to see ourselves in them. Religious people are religious people – regardless of how much or how little power they think they have. Don’t fall into the trap into which too many fall. The trap is that they blame the Jews for all of this. That road only leads to anti-Semitism and only serves to widen the gap between Christians and Jews – a gap that is already far too wide.
The man’s neighbors and friends drag him to the religious leaders, who begin to question him about the entire experience. It comes out that the man was healed on the Sabbath, a day in which no work was to be done. Well, if this was done on the Sabbath, and Jesus made mud from spittle and dirt, then he had broken the Sabbath prohibitions about work and was a sinner. So, how can a sinner perform such signs?
A great debate about Jesus erupted in the gathering of the religious. In frustration, they turn to the man who had formerly been blind and said to him, “What do you say about him?” The man responds, “He is a prophet.”
Now, let us pause for just a moment to consider the scene. A man born blind is taken to the religious leaders of his day and the subject of the conversation becomes on what day the man born blind received his sight and whether or not this was in accordance with the laws of their faith tradition. No one gives thanks to God that the man has received his sight after many long and difficult years. No one tells the man how happy they are for him. No one expresses joy of any kind.
This is religious behavior, all right. This is the kind of behavior of people who have plenty of religion and very little faith. This is the behavior of those who expect God to only act in ways of which they approve. God can do as God desires, but only if all of the “I’s” are dotted and all the “t’s” are crossed. And if God does not perform in accordance with our preconceived notions of how God can perform, then it is not God nor of God.
Sounds a little uncomfortably familiar, doesn’t it? But, we’ll leave that for a moment, because that’s the end of scene two.
Scene three begins with the age-old battle cry of the irritated and exasperated: “If you don’t do as I tell you, I’ll call your parents.” They bring the man’s parents before the religious leaders. “Is this your son?” they ask. “Yes, this is our son.” “Was he really born blind?” “Yes, he was born blind.” “Well, how is it that he now can see?” “He is our son. He was born blind. But, we don’t know how he now sees or who did this for him. He is of legal age. Ask him and leave us out of this.”
The author of John is quick to point out that the parents said this because they were afraid. Their fear came from the fact that those Jews who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah were being put out of the synagogue. In fact, the audience for whom John is writing this gospel are Jews who had been put out of the synagogue because of their faith in Jesus. John is writing his audience into the story.
But here’s something else we religious folk are really good at doing: driving out from the church anyone who isn’t just like us and who doesn’t believe just as we do. Too many churches have as their unofficial motto: “Our way or the highway.” You must believe as we believe, do as we do, value what we value, vote as we vote – or there’s the door. We like homogenized congregations, in these opening innings of the 21st century. We like churches where everyone believes all the same things - where questions are unwelcome and discussion is discouraged.
And if someone comes along who doesn’t do things the way we do, we may not throw them out. That would be un-Christian. But we’ll make them miserable enough that they’ll leave on their own.
Fear is, unfortunately, still a powerful tool in the arsenal of the religious and we wield it well. If someone doesn’t do things our way, believe in our way, follow in our way, we will simply cut them off and leave them outside our happy little fellowship. That’s the end of scene three.
Scene four has the man who had formerly been blind back before the tribunal. But this time, the man has had quite enough. “Swear before God!” the tribunal demands. “We know that this man Jesus is a sinner.”
The formerly blind man fires right back: “I don’t know if he is a sinner. I know only one thing: I was blind and now I see.” “How?” the religious folk ask. “How did he do this? By what authority did he do this?” “I’ve already told you everything that I know. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
That did it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The man became a preacher and proclaimed the good news of God’s love to those who should have already known it. “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
And that’s when the religious folks kicked him out. They excommunicated him. They took away his place in his community. They took away his spiritual connections. They took away his identity. He became a non-person. It was as though he never existed.
Scene five. Re-enter Jesus. In his compassion, Jesus searched out the man who had been born blind, because news had come to him of the man’s treatment at the hands of the religious folk. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” We might also read, “Do you believe in the Messiah?” “Who is he, sir, that I might believe?” the man replied. “You have seen him and the one speaking to you is he.” “Lord,” the man said, “I believe.”
And then, turning to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The sightless man can see and the ones who claim eyes of faith have become blind to what God is doing.
There’s more to the story, but we’ll hear that after Easter.
So, let’s wrap this up.
This story is as much about the religious folk of Jesus’ day as it is about the healing of a man born blind. The religious folk of Jesus’ day couldn’t get their heads around the idea that God would do something in a way that didn’t fit their expectations. They couldn’t conceive of God doing something that wasn’t done as they would do it, or have it done. They couldn’t allow God the freedom to be God. God could only be God on their terms.
But, that’s not the way it works. God does as God chooses to do. God works in ways both mysterious and common-place. God touches those whom God chooses to touch, whether they measure up to our standards or not. God becomes involved with those who ask for God’s involvement and with those who don’t.
We call it “grace.” And either it is grace for all or it is grace for none. Grace cannot be for a few or for some. Grace cannot be only for those who deserve it. Grace cannot be just for those we like. Grace cannot be confined or controlled by our rules and our regulations.
And if God’s actions are beyond our understanding, beyond our expectations, beyond our comfort level, beyond our religiosity – then that’s just tough.
“What do religious folk do?” Let’s change it before we close. “What should religious folk do?” They should allow God to be God. They should allow God to do what God would do. They should behold the goodness and grace of God that comes in ways both great and small. And they should give thanks. That’s what religious people should do. For now and evermore. Amen.