| John 9
||Sun, March 10, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It seems to begin innocently enough. Jesus and his disciples are walking along when Jesus sees “a man blind from birth”. But nothing is innocent about this story. Notice the verses that preceed it. Jesus is in dispute with clerics and theologians. That episode ends with near violence: “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (Jn. 8:59). Nearly stoned to death by the protectors of religion, saved by his own stealth, Jesus escapes ... for now. And he sees “a man blind from birth”. His disciples see it as an opportunity for theological conversation about why ‘bad things happen to innocent children’. But when Jesus sees this blind man he sees opportunity for enlightenment - for a sign of what he is up to. Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud with the saliva and, like the creator shaping the first earthling, spreads mud on the man’s eyes. Then he tells the man: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”. The blind man does not say a word. He does not cry out to Jesus from the side of the road: “Light of the world, have mercy on me”. He does not ask for healing. He does not return with words of gratitude ... or join in with Jesus’ community on the road. One minute he is blind. The next he meets Jesus. Then he washes in the pool of Siloam. And then he sees. It seems, on the surface, to be an innocent story of a miracle cure. But this encounter is not nearly so innocent as we imagine.
This story is not innocent because it is about what happens when Jesus gives a person sight. It is not innocent because it is about washing in the pool of Siloam and seeing, as if for the first time. It is not innocent because it is about us ... about our blindness ... and our new sight ... and about what happens to us when we begin to see what is going on. The first clue that this isn’t an innocent story is the brief translator’s note that John includes: “‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent)”. The blind man washes in a pool that is called ‘sent’. For a long time I was blind to the power of this moment in the story. I overlooked ‘Siloam’ - the pool called ‘sent’ - as a trivial historical detail. Now I suddenly see something amazing. As it happens, the first chapter of the first book that I read at the beginning of these past four years of doctoral study is entitled: “Missional Church: From Sending to Being Sent”. And then, in the final chapter of the last project that marks the end of those studies, I wrote: “The North American church is in the midst of transformation from its Christendom inheritance - in which only a few of its number were called and sent - into a renewed identity in which the entire community is a called and sent people.” Do you see? This is a story about what happens when Jesus gives people new sight. It is a story about what happens when people in the church begin to see what Jesus is up to ... or, more to the point, what God is up to in Jesus. It is a story, I must confess, about me. Maybe it is also a story about y’all ... and all ya’ll.
What is so fascinating about this story is that Jesus disappears so quickly. He arrives in the life of this blind man. He gives sight. Then he vanishes, stage right. The one who has newfound sight is left on his own to testify about what has happened. There is no party, no celebration, no joy in the streets when he shows up seeing. The neighbours notice a change in him and are confused. Something is different about him. They argue about whether its even the same man who they once knew. So the once blind man tells them: “It’s me alright. But I’ve been changed. The man called Jesus sent me to Siloam and told me to wash and I did and now I see.” As if needing further proof from Jesus himself, the neighbours ask where the healer is now. “I don’t know”, says the once blind witness. The blind man is unable to satisfy his neighbours. He is different. They notice it right away. When they ask him to explain, he says “Jesus gave me sight”. When they ask him to produce Jesus on command, the man can’t deliver. He can only say: “I see now”. When I began returning from Atlanta and began seeing new things in the texts and in the church some of my colleagues - and some of you - wondered aloud about me, saying: “You’ve changed ... you’re not the same ... what’s happened.” And I said, “It all looks different now ... the church is no neighbourhood chaplaincy meant to patch people up. The church is a people given eyes to see what God is up to in a world of chaotic terror and spiralling consumption, of desperate poverty and environmental degradation, of soul-destroying guilt and suicidal despair. The church is a people who are sent as disciples of Jesus in this world of God’s life-giving mission.”
Do you see? The baptismal font is the pool of Siloam. It is the pool called ’sent’. It is here that we wash away blindness and receive new eyes to see what God is up to in Christ and in us and in the world of God’s great compassion. That is the reason that we will gather here at the font next Sunday - the last Sunday before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday - to renew our faith and our sight. Once a year those of us who have been baptised are invited to join in renewing the baptismal covenant with the threefold God who, in our baptism, overcomes our blindness and gives us eyes to see ourselves and the world in a new light. Others in our number will be welcomed here to act as witnesses to what we do and say at the font. Then, two weeks later, on Easter we will gather once more at the font to witness the miracle of new sight as some come to be baptised and to enter our community through the renewal of their baptismal promises. In a world that uses the language of ‘enlightenment’ to describe the deification of human reason as the highest power we discover here a different source of enlightenment. Jesus opens our eyes and we see peculiar strangers now become beloved neighbours. Jesus opens our eyes and we see the lost and lone not as subjects of scorn, derision or smug gossip but as the beloved children of God to be welcomed, fed and graced. Jesus opens our eyes and we see that our self-controlled, self-concerned, self-centred lives are being turned inside-out, no longer under our control, now becoming centred on God’s purposes and concerned only about our life together as citizens in God’s kingdom come.
It all sounds so good, so right, so pure, so innocent. But it is not so innocent. Receiving sight at the hands of Jesus in the baptismal pool of Siloam implicates us as one of the ‘sent’ disciples of Christ. There is no avoiding the truth about this. Those who see that Jesus has been sent as God’s human face of love and light in a world darkened by too many violent betrayals cannot pretend to be blind anymore. To see Jesus as “the light of the world” is to see that other gods are not the world’s light. Seeing Jesus as saviour is to discover that no model of government - even democracy - and no economic system - even capitalism - and no social movement - even civil rights - will finally save us. Those who see Jesus to be the Light of the world offer this daring testimony amongst a cacophany of competing claims to the truth about the future of the earth and its peoples. This is what draws the man born blind into controversy. He doesn’t seek trouble. Trouble comes to him. The authorities are confounded by his sight. They claim that his sight is somehow the result of sin, that his seeing is not authorized, not valid, not clear. They bring his parents in for questioning. And his parents, knowing the danger of being implicated in anyway with the new sight of their child, disclaim any part in the changes in their son. They know that what their son sees about Jesus with his newfound sight is dangerous. They know that to be associated with him now is to be tarred with a guilty verdict. So they claim no part in his strange new eye sight. Neighbours, authorities and family are all confounded by the vision that is given to this lone blind beggar who, after all, did not ask Jesus to turn his life upside down in the first place.
That his life has been turned upside down becomes clear as the once blind man discovers a growing testimonial voice. The man grows in his conviction that what has happened to him is good and right, even as the religious authorities increase in their anxiety at such changes. Suddenly we discover that this blind-now-sighted man has also become a disciple of Jesus (Jn. 9:27-28). We wonder when this occurred, since Jesus has hardly been in his life long enough to put mud on his eyes. But then we notice that this once blind man is growing in the language of discipleship. First he calls his healer “the man called Jesus”. Later he says that Jesus “is a prophet” and then a man “from God”. As he grows in his conviction in telling others about the sight that Jesus has given him, this man finds himself becoming a disciple. Like us, perhaps? And in becoming a disciple the man born blind finds himself driven out of the contemporary religious structures, driven from the accepted ways of thinking and living, excluded by those who do not share his sight. It turns out that being given sight by Jesus isn’t quite the gift we imagined it to be. Being given sight by Jesus leads to hard questioning and risky testimony and to being pushed out by those in authority.
But this is not the end of the story. Notice what happens the moment that this once blind man finds himself lost and alone because he sees. Jesus hears the news - enters from stage left - finds the man and reveals his true identity. It turns out that the blind man has been on a pilgrimage to insight and that he finally sees who Jesus is at the end - not the beginning - of the story. Here, after telling the truth to his interrogators and after enduring their verdict of disbelief, the man born blind comes face to face with the One who is the Light of the World and confesses: “Lord, I believe”. It turns out that the once blind man is not left alone and that his testimony is true, after all. The man who was lost, is now found ... this one who was blind, can now see. It is no accident that we recognize this familiar cadence. John Newton’s 18th Century hymn “Amazing grace” has become perhaps the most well known hymn in the English speaking world. And, yes, its first verse intentionally echoes the voice of the man born blind ... the lost man who is given sight by the One who is the Light of the World. Newton was a ship’s captain and a slave trader whose conversion as a disciple of Jesus opened his eyes to see the institution of slavery as evil. Looking back at a lifetime of blindness to this evil and at his participation in perpetuating human slavery, John Newton sees how wretched he is in the face of the slaves who he has delivered into servitude and before the judgment seat of God. Yet, in seeing that God cherishes each indentured slave as a beloved child, Newton sees that, in Jesus, God is prepared to welcome him as a forgiven and beloved child as well. “Amazing grace”, indeed. In his epitaph, Newton says it this way: “John Newton, Clerk: Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy ...”.
Being given new sight by Jesus is the sweet sound of amazing grace. It is also cause for a testimonial life that can’t help but embody a new way of seeing what God is doing in the world. Those who receive their sight in the pool called ‘sent’ see the world anew ... and, as honest witnesses, tell the truth about what they see. This is the story of the overcoming of the blindness of the church in our time. We are being sent into households and neighbourhoods, classrooms and offices, shopping malls and polling booths with newfound sight. It is no longer a few brave missionaries and a wonderful, if motley collection of preachers who are sent on behalf of the church to testify on its behalf. Like the early church, so now the whole church is being made up of those who once were blind but now see. Such a people does not have the option of sitting on the sidelines, claiming congenital, chronic blindness. Jesus open its eyes - our eyes - to the passion of God for the earth ... for neighbours and strangers and enemies. We see ... and we are sent, taught to fear the awesome reality of God’s determined love and yet not afraid to speak of this One who so many simply cannot - or have not - seen.
Perhaps you noticed that the story of the man born blind concludes rather oddly. Its final verses end with the authorities refusing any suggestion that they might actually be the blind who need to be given new sight. Jesus responds that there is no sin in being blind. Blindness, he suggests, is commonplace. Instead, the sin lies with those who claim perfect vision when they cannot see a thing. This is, of course, the reason that even here ... even at the pool of Siloam, even after our baptism, even after years of preaching and praying and studying and living as disciples of Christ that we always begin our worship with truth-telling confession, acknowledging the recurring blindness of the church and our deep longing for new sight. This is the reason that we are invited to gather here at the baptismal pool called Siloam next Sunday to renew our covenant with God ... the covenant that sends us as disciples of Jesus into the world of God’s steadfast love. Do you see?