Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year A] - April 3, 2011 (John 9:1-41)

The sermon portion of the closing worship each year at the Virginia Synod’s event for 5th and 6th-graders, which is called “7th Day,” involves a series of skits put on by each group of youth who are attending the event. Each group (and there can be 25 or more) is given a little snippet of Scripture from one of the gospels, and they come up with a way of presenting or portraying that snippet without speaking and without costumes. Each skit usually takes about ten seconds and is performed up on the stage in front of the entire assembly. They shuffle up on one side of the stage, perform the piece of Scripture in somewhat rapid fashion, and then exit the other side of the stage while the next group is coming on stage behind them. As can be expected, the skits are often very humorous, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally very moving.

One skit at this year’s event, held about a month ago, featured a young girl who was blind cast in the role of Jesus for a healing story. I had seen the girl several times during the course of the weekend being guided by a personal aide up and down the steep hills and staircases of the retreat center. She also carried a white cane and she appeared to me to have no vision at all. As her group got ready to perform, I found myself wondering how she might be experiencing the event (especially since the sermon was silent), how challenging it must be some people to be fully incorporated into relatively simple tasks. Suddenly, there she was, hand outstretched, her aide pointing her body in the direction of the people who were pantomiming imaginary ailments. They had to stand right up close, stretching their heads out and pressing them into the palm of her hand.

Maybe she had volunteered to act out the role of Jesus herself, maybe her group members had assigned it to her, maybe they had drawn straws for the part—but, to be honest, it kind of caught me off guard. I must confess that to me she may not have been the obvious selection to play Jesus, especially because navigating the stage could have been difficult, but, man, did it work! It was a beautiful portrayal of the story, and, like all experiences with the gospel of Jesus, it contained a poignant element of surprise. I was humbled to watch from my seat on the front row as the person who probably most often dwells at the margins became the agent of healing and grace.

It’s safe to say that people with illnesses or disabilities were viewed a little differently in Jesus’ day. Rarely were they seen as agents of healing or grace. Rarely were they even incorporated into daily life. Without the aides offered by modern technology and today’s educational systems, such people were often left at the margins of life. Furthermore, their malady was often seen as divine punishment for some sin either they or someone in their family had committed. That made interaction with them even more of a taboo on most occasions. Blindness, especially, was to be pitied and feared, for in ancient Greek culture, seeing was equated with understanding, sight with knowledge. In fact, the verb “to see” in ancient Greek is the same word for “to perceive,” or “to regard” or “to discover.” It was thought that someone who was unable to see could never really comprehend anything on a meaningful level.

So, as you can imagine, the blind man in this gospel story was most of all to be pitied, left at the margins to beg. As they approach him, the disciples wonder whose sin might be responsible for his condition, his or his parents’? Jesus’ grace, however, transforms the scene, complete with the gospel element of surprise. At once, the man born blind is brought into a relationship with God’s own Son and his condition is changed into a display of God’s glory.

And, all the while, the nearby Pharisees react in a similar fashion to my callous first impression of the young girl’s skit at the synod event: surely this man cannot be the Messiah.

There are many interesting elements to this encounter between Jesus, the man born blind, and the Pharisees. Perhaps the first one is that the actual act of healing takes up such minimal space in the story. Only two verses out of the forty-one deal with the man’s gaining of physical sight. Jesus spits on some dirt, rubs the mud in his eyes, and tells him to go wash it off in the water. The bulk of the story, rather, focuses on how people deal with and make sense of the event. What is communicated here has less to do with Jesus’ ability to transform a hopeless situation (which is important, by the way) and more to do with people’s reactions to and reception of Jesus. That is, the light that Jesus brings to the world, as explained by this story, has less to do with physical healing and transformation and more to do with spiritual understanding and a restored relationship with the Creator.

When someone looks at Jesus, when someone perceives Jesus, do they see an imposter, a blasphemer, just another ordinary sinner? Or do they see the Son of God? Do they make little note of him, abdicating any judgment about how important he might be? Do they understand him to be a significant prophet, a godly man? Or do they understand him to be Lord? The entire range of reactions is presented by this gospel story. Those skeptical front-row Pharisees never come to see him as anything more than a sinner or a blasphemer. Never can they even bring themselves to mention Jesus by name! The man’s parents, full well knowing their son has forever been changed and healed, back off from any assertion about Jesus. The townspeople display pure puzzlement, and perhaps some curiosity. And even the man born blind, himself, slowly grows in understanding of just who this Jesus is. It is not until the end of this encounter that he calls Jesus “Lord” and falls down to worship him.

Pool of Siloam
Another interesting thing about this story is that it involves a critical turning point in John’s gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has performed other signs and has gotten into debates with the Pharisees and religious authorities, but here is the first time anyone is driven out of the synagogue—out of the community—because they confess Jesus to be the Messiah. Here is where belief in who Jesus is and why he matters begins to divide people for the first time seriously. In ancient Judaism, the synagogue was central to community and culture. To be cut off from them was to be cut off from life. And so it is a more than a little ironic that the man born blind, who before his encounter is cut off from life because he cannot see or know anything, is now after the encounter cut off from life because of the person who gave him sight.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, retain their position within the religious community, retain their standing in regards to God’s law, but lose out on a deeper understanding of what God is really like and how much their own sin blinds them to it. They turn a “blind eye” to the poignant gospel surprise.

For whatever reason, we can lose sight of the fact that Jesus has this divisive effect on the world, and on us. We can forget that he often creates division between people, just as we can forget that the presence of light, by definition, creates pockets of shadow and darkness. It has the ability to expose and create contrast, just as Jesus has the ability to expose sin and selfishness and the unwillingness to believe in God’s glory. I find that in both private devotion and in public worship we tend to stress Jesus’ inclusion of others who are different or outcast. We emphasize the joy and excitement of responding to Jesus, but we overlook or gloss over the fact that Jesus does cause division and sometimes conflict.

On some level, I suppose that if we were to err in overemphasizing an aspect of Jesus, concentrating on his loving and gracious embrace isn’t a bad one to choose. But on another level, if we ignore the fact that Jesus comes to bring light and expose the darkness we may fail to notice this feature of Jesus’ character and ministry that exists in our own relationships with him. We can forget that even Jesus himself was aware of this power he wielded. “I came into this world for judgment,” he admits, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

This does not mean that his love is qualified in any way. As he himself says, he was not given to condemn the world, but to love it, and anyone’s life—anyone’s—may be an opportunity for God’s glory to be displayed. However, Jesus’ judgment does mean that it we must be honest about our sinfulness, too, our ongoing tendency to linger in the darkness about how completely God really loves us. As New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann once put it, “in order to be grace, it must uncover sin.” And in the presence of Jesus’ grace, we can range the whole gambit of reaction, just like the characters in this story…from hostility, to doubt, to disregard, to outright worship.

Realizing the multi-faceted nature of this encounter, I decided to emphasize the healing portion when I shared this story with the nursery school students in chapel this week. But before I could even put down the Bible once I had finished reading it, one of the students blurted out, “I wish I could just jump in that story and tell those people that…that…that God is a good guy!”

As I reflected on this comment with Christy Huffman, who alternates chapel duties with me, we realized that’s the essence of the story—of any story involving Jesus. He is the light of the world, and we are invited to jump right in to the story, his judgment and all, and let Jesus speak with us. We are to jump in and find that being so face-to-face with him will make us aware of our own sin, our blindness to the ways God loves us. Likewise, we jump in and learn he cleanses us anyway. We jump in…and see he makes a habit of turning the most pitiable, most forlorn, most marginalized of situations into arenas where God’s light may shine through. His healings, his holy meal, and of course his cross, all display a God who is at work, transforming the world into a place of new life.

In the end, we are to jump into his story—jump from the front row into the skit—and prepare our own muddied lives to be an opportunity to display God’s glory. Washed, and with our eyes blinking, we press our heads up into the palm of his wounded hands and begin, at long last, to see.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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