Now I see
1 Sam 16.1-13; Psalm 23; Eph 5.8-14; John 9.1-41
Our gospel reading this morning is long – very long. In some ways the healing of the man born blind is like a short play with a number of acts: complex in plot, with multiple characters. And who is the ‘main character’, who is the protagonist, in this story? The man born blind or Jesus? Strikingly, the man born blind is ‘on stage’ almost entirely through-out the passage. Jesus, however, is ‘off-stage’ for most of it. Off-stage, yet even when out of sight, even when not on the page, his is the presence, which drives the story. He is the real target of the religious hierarchy – the formerly blind man is simply collateral damage as far as they are concerned.
The story begins in a familiar enough way to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Gospels. The disciples say something stupid, I mean, really stupid. ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (9.2). The connection between affliction and sin – affliction as punishment by a punishing kind of God – is a theological attitude with a long pedigree. One can almost hear Jesus’ exasperation: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’. The disciples are doing bad theology – Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus sees this as an occasion in which the works of God can be revealed. This is his last miracle before his most important and last in John’s gospel, the one that points most forcibly that Jesus is Lord over life and death – the raising of Lazarus.
The formerly blind man is now back in his own neighbourhood. His own neighbours are disquieted. They don’t like the fact he isn’t blind any more. It disturbs their sense of order. What should be a source of joy becomes the object of a quarrel. Who did it? How did he do it? Where is the healer now? Arguments erupt between those who think he has been healed and those who think there is some sort of fraud at work. What there isn’t, is any joy: no praise, no thanking God, no taking of encouragement – in the face of God’s mercy and goodness, there is only factionalism and quarrelling.
But that’s not the worst of the formerly blind man’s troubles. We then get the senior clergy involved. This healing took place on the Sabbath. Uh oh. In the bizarre moral economy of the Pharisees, for which there are plenty of Christian analogues let’s remember, if it really was a miracle, if the man really was healed, it makes the healer’s action a sin. They ask the man. He says Jesus is a prophet. They haul the poor man’s frightened parents over the coals – they pass the buck back to their son. He is interrogated again. Even the formerly blind man (and who can blame him) is forced into a defensive position and must be beginning to wonder if his healing was, in fact, a mixed blessing. The religious leaders are in a bind here. Either they must accept that the man has really been healed and that the healer is a person of God, or they must continue in their fundamentalism about the Sabbath and reject both the one who is healed and his healer. They choose their institutional fundamentalism and ‘excommunicate’ the formerly blind man. Note here that no one has expressed any joy, any praise, for what God has done. Not the neighbours, or the clergy, or his parents – even the man has been forced into the role of a defendant.
The final act: rejected by the church, Jesus now reappears in the man’s life. Where has he been? John doesn’t tell us; no doubt hanging out with the wrong kind of people. The man’s faith is still rather unformed. He has been defending Jesus without knowing truly who he is or the real source of his authority. Jesus is a patient teacher: ‘the one speaking with you is he’. He adds, uncomfortably, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ The religious leaders don’t like that one bit and take exception. But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. Little wonder that the next passage in John’s gospel is Jesus’ homily on the Good Shepherd. Far from a cosy metaphor, it is a searing indictment of precisely the poor and abusive ‘pastoring’ the formerly blind man has received from the hands of the precisely the people who should be the pastors of God’s people.
With such a story so rich in detail and irony, a great number of observations could be made. But as it was a long gospel, let’s keep this a short sermon. Here are two to offer and they are about being certain.
First of all, sin is a recurring topic in this drama. The disciples ask, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ For Jesus it is the wrong question; for the religious leaders, it is absolutely the right question and they have the right answer. They know who sinners are and Jesus in one of them as well. But it is them, that at the close of this drama, that bear the label ‘sinners’. The story of the man born blind is, in part, a story about false certitude of the religiously correct.
Second, as noted, Jesus is largely off stage for most of this drama, but is in fact, its centre. He reappears after the man, who has been in face of aggressive questioning about who Jesus is. The man is in many ways ‘agnostic’ about who precisely Jesus is, stands fast to his experience of Jesus. Is he a prophet? A sinner? ‘One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see’. This reminds us all that the life of faith in Christ is first not about certainty about a set of dogmas about him – but about relationship and encounter withhim. ‘One thing I do know, that although I was blind, now I see’.