Sermon / March 26, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 9:1-41 /
I’m always amazed that so many people think the Bible is a book about other people, about how people used to be and used to act. Like it’s some kind of artifact from the distant past with some symbolic spiritual value, but not much that really pertains anymore to life as we live it. I remember a seminarian I knew who made a trip to the Holy Land. She got on a bus to take a tour and when she noticed road signs that said things like “Jerusalem: 30 miles” or “Bethsaida: 2 miles”, she thought to herself, “Oh, how cute. They’ve named their towns after places in the Bible.” And then she realized she was in the Bible.
The Bible is not a book about other people. It’s a book about us.
That’s important to remember when we have a story like the one about the man born blind: It’s a story about us. Even though we’re not living in the first-century; even though most of us here this morning aren’t Jewish; even if none of us were born blind. It’s not a story we hold at arm’s length and from which we extract a few nuggets of abstract wisdom and then “apply” them to our lives in an armchair philosopher kind of way. It’s a story about each one of us, directly.
And even though it’s the story of a miracle, it’s still a story about us. Most Christians, even devout Christians, pretty much doubt that the miracles of Jesus really happened. Jesus feeds 5,000 people? Jesus cures 10 lepers? Jesus heals a blind man in a split second? Highly unlikely and completely contrary to how the world works, or so we think. Let me tell you something: If you try to construct a spiritual life based on a de-sanctified, de-miracled story of Jesus, you’re not going to end up with much. And that includes the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a metaphor for the daffodils coming back in the spring. Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could have spring. He died on the cross so we could have life. That’s what religion is for: finding life.
And so we can’t cherry-pick the New Testament. It’s a very, very sophisticated and complicated collection of writings. We’ve got to deal with the whole thing and think about what the whole thing means.
If accepting Jesus’s miracles is difficult for you, remember that the Scriptures are not asking you to believe in something difficult just to believe in something difficult, as if suspending disbelief were the test of faith. The Bible tries to make sense of life, in the very deepest sense, not to obfuscate things. And the Scriptures are not asking you to think of Jesus as some kind of magician. The Scriptures record the miracles as part of their way of discerning the action of God in the world, much of which is invisible. Look, our foundational belief as Christians is that (despite appearances, sometimes) God is transforming the world in love. And God will not be impeded. In the person of Jesus, all the love, power, mercy, and generosity of God were present. And so when Jesus was with us in the flesh, his very presence was the vehicle for the immense power of God to enter the world and change it. Looked at this way, the healing of a blind man seems pretty possible and even strategic, if you believe that God is really God. And remember, miracles are signs. Jesus didn’t do them for their own sake. He didn’t do them to be a nice person. He did them to show us what God is really like and what God is trying to do.
John’s gospel records with great power a number of things that happen as Jesus engages with his opponents in such a way that his execution becomes inevitable. In today’s story, the Pharisees, who were Jesus’s natural allies in some respects, clash with him over his healing of a blind man on two counts: First, that he does this on the Sabbath, when no work should be done; and secondly and more subtly, that the healing is undeserved, since blindness (or any physical defect) was considered by the Jews of that time to be a consequence of sin. So Jesus has done something improper in an improper manner. He has broken the Law, thereby implicitly putting himself in its place. And he has challenged the social construction of who constitutes a person worthy of God’s mercy. There is no way to overestimate the seriousness of this charge. This was not nitpicking. To heal on the Sabbath was to thumb one’s nose at God and at the religious establishment, and to heal a sinner was to upend the Law and put oneself in the place of the purity code on which an entire society was based. Hence the rage you can hear in this story. Religious establishments do not like to be messed with.
Jesus is here presenting a different vision of who God is. Although he honored the law and was a faithful Jew, he also knew that the danger of any religious practice, including our own, is that it can become life-denying instead of life-affirming. It can become a cause of the very things it’s supposed to confront, often without anyone really seeing that that’s what’s happening.
Why? Because people are blind. We are blind. We think we see everything. We think we understand most things. But in truth, our vision is limited. Our eyes are veiled. They can take in only so much. It’s as if there is a plot line we make our lives follow and we train our eyes to recognize only what fits into the plot. The plot line we’ve imposed on God is that we think God is an all-seeing, all-knowing, transcendent hall monitor on purity patrol who scrutinizes everything we do, with an eye out for sin. Sure, that means we end up with a retributive, angry God, but the up side is that we can try to figure out how to keep in His good graces, or so we think. But this is not who God is.
We do this to people too. We construct plot lines for them – as if we really understand them, their motives and objectives – when of course we don’t. We can see only a tiny bit of the truth of another person. Think about that the next time you impugn someone’s motives or condemn them for not following the plot line you’ve imposed on their life.
And so we see only what we want to see. That’s what happens in today’s gospel. A man has been healed by the creative power of God. God has been revealed as God really is. And not a single person jumps for joy. Not one. Everyone’s question is “Who sinned? Who sinned, the healed or the healer?” You see what’s happening here. The religious people, the self-appointed regulators of God, say that unless this healing has happened legitimately by their sights, it hasn’t happened at all. They try to uncreate what has been created.
There is a strange reductionism in all this, a strange fixation on sin and guilt, on trying to place blame. It’s scary. It’s so scary that the healed man’s parents bail on him, and he gets thrown out of his synagogue, and the disciples who are at first right there as interested on-lookers are suddenly nowhere to be seen. All anyone has to say is, “Who sinned? YOU sinned!” This is what evil is: blaming, labeling, condemning, ejecting, dispersing, destroying, breaking down community.
The sad news is that we all do this. The good news is that Jesus didn’t give up on us. Because in everything he did and said, he interrupted this terrible vortex of sin and guilt and fear with great power and authority. And you see the effect of Jesus’s strength on the man he healed. You see this guy growing in courage. He gets feistier and feistier. And he comes closer and closer to Jesus. After the man gets kicked out of his community, Jesus goes looking for him and he asks him a question. As I read the story, it seems not a confrontational question. Jesus seems a bit shy, and he asks his question almost politely, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
And then the man really sees, not only with his eyes, but with his heart. He has spent his entire life in darkness and he has been able to see for all of about 10 minutes, but all that his eyes have taken in makes a bypass through his heart and then breaks through to his consciousness and he recognizes Jesus’s face and his eyes are really opened and he sees who Jesus really is and he says, “Lord, I believe.”
He responds not just to his healing, but to the fact that Jesus has pursued him and wants to know him. And so the miracle is more fundamentally spiritual than it is physical. It brings someone into relationship with God. Now that’s a miracle.
I don’t mean to come off as morally soft, but often I wonder whether our fundamental spiritual problem isn’t our garden-variety sins so much as it is our inability to recognize how much God wants to give us. God can take care of our sin. That was done on the cross. What God can’t do is make the decision for you to see the world with different eyes. Because that’s the answer to sin. And that’s who Christians are: people who see the world with different eyes.
When our sight is healed, then we begin to see things with God’s eyes. We see beyond appearances. We stop looking for sin everywhere. We see beyond the confines of our histories and habitual world views to something deeper, something more real and radiant, to the great stream of light that is all around us and that clarifies and purifies everything and returns it to us, graced and sacred and bearing to us something of the life of God.
God is transforming the world in love. To be a Christian means allowing God to open our eyes to the fact that only that great, liberating love will make us human.
That’s what the Bible is about. It’s not a book about other people. It’s a book about us.