| John 9
|Sun, March 14, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Whew. Now that is a scripture reading! One chapter. Forty-one verses. Or, to put it more accurately: one act, six scenes and an assorted cast of characters that includes disciples, neighbours, Pharisees, parents, Jesus and a man born blind. After such a reading we are like the audience sitting in the theatre after the curtain falls ... and the preacher is the reviewer scurrying home to type out a review for the morning paper. What do those in attendance say to one another in the car on the way home about what they have just experienced? What will the reviewer say about this drama?
Perhaps there will be notice of how little Jesus is on stage. He disappears after the first scene, only to reappear at the end of the act. Only here in all of the gospels is Jesus offstage for such a long time. Or maybe attention will be drawn to the only so-called sinners in the story - Jesus because he broke the sabbath and the man because he was born blind. Those who have been working their way through the ‘Book of Job’ on Wednesday evenings through Lent must notice one of the underlying themes of the action immediately: what is the cause of suffering? Is this man’s blindness somehow deserved? If not, why do such things happen to some and not to others? How are we to make sense of unjust suffering? Then there are the theology students in attendance who recognize immediately a crucial scene in the long sad history of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Hearing that key verse - "for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" - they remembered that here is the clue that this gospel is written in the context of a heated debate among Jews about the identity of Jesus before there is any such thing as a church or even a community known as ‘Christians’. Maybe, though, these scenes evoke another response. Maybe they are also about something else, something more.
The first reviewers of this drama thought so. Travel to the catacombs and look at the earliest Christian images painted on the walls there. Seven times the story of the man born blind appears ... most frequently as an illustration of Christian Baptism. In that early church it became the practice that those preparing for baptism would pass three scrutinies. On the day of the great scrutiny, when the catechumens passed their examination and were found worthy of Baptism, lessons from the Old Testament concerning cleansing water were read to them. Then came the solemn opening of the Gospel book and the reading of John 9, with the confession of the blind man, "I do believe, Lord", serving as the climax. As in the story, so in early Christian baptism spittle is used in an act of anointing. The story makes it clear that the man is healed only when he washes in the pool of Siloam ... the pool of "one who has been sent". It is a pool of the one who has been sent by God ... it is water associated with Jesus himself. The reader who has been paying attention will remember back to the third chapter of the drama when Jesus says to Nicodemus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit". Here, in the ninth chapter, is the story of one who is born again of water and the Spirit ... the story of a man who can see for the first time in his life. Perhaps this is how early Christians came to think of Baptism as coming to sight. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds the letter’s recipients of "those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings" (Hebrews 10:32). The 2nd century Christian writer, Justin, tells us that the washing of Baptism was called ‘enlightenment’. And then there is the other text which we read this morning: "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light." (Eph. 5:8). It is the story of the man born blind ... and, say the first Christians, our story.
Our story. This is the key to any lasting drama. Is it someone else’s story which we watch ... or is it our story in which we participate? The Gospel according to John continually draws us into participation. We go to Jesus at night with Nicodemus ... and find ourselves playing being invited to rebirth. We meet Jesus with the woman at the well ... and, with her, long for the thirst-quenching living water which he promises to deliver. And here, with the man born blind, we are meant to see in ourselves one who has been given sight. But this last scene is a challenge to our imagination. We are, after all, children of "The Enlightenment". This is the self-definition of those who live in the ‘modern’ world. We have been ‘enlightened’. We have been given sight by the power of human reason and have discovered the blindness of the ways of ancient superstition and irrational beliefs. Or so we have been taught. In such a world to trust in the God revealed by Jesus Christ is to live, so they say, by ‘blind faith’ ... it is to be ‘unenlightened’.
Who sees with clear sight? This is the question that lies at the heart of the ninth chapter of John. Is it the general population along with their religious and political leaders who see clearly? Or are they blind to what only an outcast beggar, abandoned by friends, family and religious community can see? The early church understood that this story lies at the heart of the life of Christian experience and of the Christian community. The challenges that result from altered sight, from new perspective, from a radically changed understanding of the world are the central challenges of the Christian life. Those who have been washed in the water of the "one who has been sent" see things differently. People are no longer ‘units of production’ to be maximized but ‘neighbours’ to be loved. The world is not a ‘resource’ to be ‘consumed’ but rather a ‘gift of God’ to be ‘stewarded’. Perhaps most profoundly, ‘sinners’ are no longer scapegoats who are to be evicted from the community but, rather, lost sheep who God seeks to redeem, reconcile and forgive back into the community. At baptism we are given new sight. We live as a community that sees things differently than others.
But we can easily begin to lose that new found sight. Submerged in a world of consumption and production, where economic growth and personal fulfilment are gospel truth, we can be seduced into blind faith ... blind faith in the power of money ... blind faith in the power of the market ... blind faith in human potential ... blind faith in our own abilities to succeed. And not us alone. In every generation, Christians have struggled to keep their eyes open to the new way of life revealed by the One who is the ‘light of the world’. This is the origin of the annual Covenant Renewal service which we will mark here next Sunday. Our Methodist forebears recalled the ancient covenant renewal ceremonies of the Old Testament and recovered this practice for Christians living in the modern world. Concerned as they were for lives that lived out in practice the God whom they worshipped on the sabbath, the Methodists invited one another to restate their promises to God every year. The words used in committing all of life to God, are powerful:I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed Triune God, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
These are not words to be taken lightly. They are words to take home and to ponder this week in prayer and in conversation. What does it mean to make such promises to God? How are we to live them out? Is this really what it means to be a people who have been washed in the Pool of Siloam ... in the water of ‘the one who has been sent"?
See how the ninth chapter of John answers these questions. See how the man born blind becomes the focus of the action. Jesus is off stage, gone from sight. Left behind is this marginal beggar who is now suddenly centre stage. Everyone wants to know why he sees, how he sees and who is responsible for his sight. Accusation and blame are thrown back and forth. But the man born blind does not accuse or blame. He does not make extravagant claims to have ‘true sight’ or to be ‘enlightened’ when all else are ‘in the dark’. No. The man born blind, the one who had been reduced to begging in order to survive, simply tells other people what has happened to him: "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight." He gives truthful testimony. Nothing more, nothing less. When challenged with the fact that Jesus sinned in order to give him sight, the man continues: "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." Perhaps you have said something similar when asked why you see things in such an odd way. A business associate wonders about your ‘unnatural’ neighbourly concern for a competitor ... or an employee. Or a friend on campus is curious about the unorthodox way in which you help other students to make better grades. Someone in the family worries that you don’t wisely invest enough in your own future, but foolishly invest too much in ‘charity’. "All I know", you might have said, "is that I have been baptised as a disciple of Christ ... and I see clearly that the way of compassion is the way of life".
It is at this point that the man born blind realizes that he is all alone in the world. His boss doesn’t see it his way. His parents don’t see it his way. His minister doesn’t see it his way. And he is driven out because his way of seeing is too dangerous. It is out there ... outside of the synagogue, beyond the doors of the church ... that Jesus finds the man who can now see. Jesus is outside, not inside. He is out where his disciples find themselves alone, worried that perhaps they have got it wrong after all ... worried that the others are right ... that they are living by blind faith, not by sight ... wondering if they really are ‘enlightened’ after all. Out there ... out beyond the authorised religion ... the man who was once blind sees Jesus for who he is: the One sent from God and says: "Lord, I believe".
And us? Which part do we play in the drama? Perhaps, too often, we are inside the walls of the church ... worried about new ways of seeing that come from the margins. Perhaps, if we would admit it, we are more like the Pharisees than we care to admit. The Living Christ appears in our midst and we point out that he breaks the rules, does not keep God’s way, confounds our orthodoxies. And, in the process, we ignore the testimony of those who have been healed and who see clearly. But then again maybe, just maybe, we are in the process of coming to sight. Maybe our part in the drama is that of the one whose newfound sight confounds the neighbourhood and the family and the authorities. Maybe we are simply asked to live in the world trusting our washed and anointed eyesight. Maybe that is what next Sunday’s service of Covenant Renewal is all about ... about promising to be a people who see the world through eyes wide open to the surprising God revealed in Christ. Maybe. May it be.