These four passages – Jesus’ visit from Nicodemus, his encounter with the Samaritan woman, his healing of the man born blind, and his raising of Lazarus, which comes next week – are all crazy long. They contain some of the most extensive dialogue found in the gospels as well as some of the most complex plotting and the most provocative interpersonal dynamics.
John provides fewer accounts of Jesus’ active ministry than do Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but the episodes he does include, he develops in tremendous detail. As I observed when I reflected with you about the Nicodemus conversation, the community from which John’s gospel arose was deeply concerned about understanding the meaning of Jesus’ life, his identity, and the relationship between Jesus and God. These concerns of the young Church in the very last part of the 1st century Before the Common Era, were the beginning of an intense era in the life of the Church (that in fact lasted through the great Councils of the Church in the 4th century) in which pinning down the Church’s Christology – its understanding of the nature of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah - was a primary focus.
If we read John closely, we see that this is the thread that runs through the gospel, from the Prologue in which John declares that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and throughout, including in this morning’s account of Jesus’ healing of the man who was born blind.
Before we take a look at other details and implications of this morning’s gospel, I’d like to zoom in on one little line that is part of the pattern through which John reveals his convictions about Jesus. Before he heals the blind man in today’s gospel, Jesus says to him “I am the light of the world.” This is one of SEVEN “I am” statements spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel. Scholars who write about these “I am” statements don’t even count such statements as the one we heard last week, in which after talking about living water and the coming of the Messiah, Jesus says to the Samaritan Woman “I am he.” I’ll leave it to you to listen for the “I am” statement coming up in next week’s gospel.
What’s the big deal about these “I am” statements? Do you recall the story of the call of Moses in Exodus? How Moses was confronted by a burning bush and heard a voice directing him to return to Egypt and lead his people out of bondage? In the communal memory of their relationship with God and of God’s saving activity on their behalf, this memory was and is one of the critical touchstones for Israel, for Jesus’ community. It would have been well known, as it was read from the Torah in the synagogue every year.
One of the questions Moses asks in that ancient story aims to understand God’s identity: “But who shall I say sent me?” The answer Moses heard was “I AM.”
Jewish hearers of Jesus’ repeated “I am” declarations, and readers of John’s gospel who were been grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures would have been immediately understood Jesus’/John’s reference: God was once again revealing God’s self, once again offering grace and salvation to God’s people, this time, in Jesus.
And so we have this rather crazy story of the healing of the man born blind. You may have had trouble following it as we heard it this morning because the plot is a bit of a jumble. It starts with Jesus’ disciples, upon seeing a man who was blind, begging, and, assuming that his blindness was a punishment for sin, asking whether it was the man himself or his parents who had sinned. Without any direct interaction with the man himself, Jesus applies mud to the man’s eyes and directs him to go to a sacred pool to wash.
And Jesus then disappears. When the formerly blind man returns with his sight restored, a complete hubbub ensues, with a wide cast of characters getting involved in the quest to figure out what has happened. Is this really the man who was blind? How then was his sight restored? The uneasy neighbors refuse to believe the man’s account of his own experience, and drag him before the local religious authorities, who in turn don’t believe his testimony, but instead, haul his parents out as witnesses. The parents actually don’t really want to get involved, fearing that coming down on the side of the controversial prophet, Jesus, would not be in their best interests. When the continuing dialogue between the religious leaders and the newly-sighted man leads to his offending them with the suggestion that they don’t really know as much as they think they know, they expel the man from the synagogue and, apparently, the community.
At which point Jesus returns, to offer consolation to the one who has been healed. He confirms man’s belief in the Messiah and informs the man that he is the one who has been expected, and offers a summary statement on the whole episode: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
I have often referred to Frederick Buechner’s suggestion that the gospel is a mirror that shows us ourselves1, and this certainly applies here. Today’s gospel is really a sad story of a group of people who are so unwilling to have their view of the world shaken up that they refuse to hear the truth about a healing that takes place right in their midst. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad that not just the powerful religious leaders but also the ordinary townsfolk cannot believe the firsthand testimony of a person they know. “He’s blind. He can’t possibly be able to see now just because that traveling preacher smeared some mud on him!” “It must be somebody who just looks like him, probably trying to put something over on us.” “We’d better get rid of him!”
And this is, at least in part, my point about this story as a mirror. We have such a drive in us to fit the evidence to the way we already understand the world that it is really hard to remain open to new thoughts and new truths. When claims of a different reality nudge at us and make us uncomfortable, our impulse is to want to punish somebody. When Jesus says “I came into this world … so that those who do not see may see”, he’s not really talking about the man born blind: it is all of us that Jesus speaks about, even as he is also speaking to us.
I feel terribly troubled, and I suspect that many of you share my concern, that the cultural divides that exist not only in our country, but increasingly, it seems, in the wider world, seem to be hardening rather than easing. I worry terribly that diverging perspectives on gun ownership, and on what we have to acknowledge are real immigration crises throughout the world, and on voting rights, to name just a few, seem to have become intractable problems because we are so dug in to our differing assumptions and differing values that we cannot even talk to one another, let alone devise solutions.
I hope that I am clear that I think we are all guilty of this. It’s very easy for me to see the plank in the other person’s eye, to identify how narrow and selfish and unreasonable their positions are. I think that we Christians have Lent so that we can be thinking about the debris that compromises our own vision.
In her sermon last week Heather built on Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”, observing that in his outreach to the Samaritan Woman, Jesus EMBODIED that message of love. Heather went on to suggest that the story of the Samaritan Woman is an invitation to us to join Jesus in the work of reconciliation among peoples who are divided from one another.
I think that today’s story shows us the role that vision plays in the challenges of doing the work of reconciliation. In order bridge divides, we must be willing to see accurately, and overcome our own inclinations to remain blind.
When Jesus returns to the man born blind at the end of our gospel story, he promises that he has come into the world “so that those who do not see may see”. Jesus shows us God’s presence in the world and God’s wish to heal us. The vision we need is inner vision; the vision we need is wisdom and courage, to open our eyes to the truths that are not simple and not easy, and not necessarily the ones we’d choose.
What clouds our vision this week?
What are we having a hard time seeing?,
Where do we need healing?
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