My thanks to Zoe for that elegant reading of such a long passage – 41 verses! – the entirety of the story in John’s gospel of the man who was born blind. Those who were here last week were treated to the entire story, of equal length, of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well. Next week we will hear the equally lengthy story of the raising of Lazarus. These are the assigned texts for these weeks – what is known as “the lectionary.” We on the Chapel staff have not simply chosen to add to the extremes of whatever is your Lenten discipline by making you sit through very long Bible readings. This series of very detailed stories in the Gospel According to John were included by the author, John, with a very important goal in mind: each of the readings reveals a “sign” of something that is central to the person of Jesus Christ. In general, John uses the word “sign” where the other evangelists use the word “miracle.” The sign revealed in the story of the woman at the well is that Jesus is the living water. The sign revealed in the story of the raising of Lazarus is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The sign revealed in our long text for today is that Jesus is the light of the world.
And the great irony of the story of this sign is that the one person in Jesus’ midst who understands this is a man born blind. He sees the light. He realizes that Jesus is the light of the world not because Christ glows like floodlight, but because he is the Messiah, the redeemer, the key to salvation, our hope. In troubled and murky times he is the light by which we can find our way on a rock-strewn, challenging, sometimes dangerous path. We don’t need vision to see that, or intellectual brilliance, or any other ability; we need only the gift of faith.
What an honest and earnest young man is described by John! Immediately, I like him, and feel that I know him, in a way. He gives himself over to a stranger who spots him, who slaps mud on his eyes made of his own saliva, and tells him to find his way, blind with mud on his face, towards a particular pool and wash himself. (The name of that pool, Siloam, means “sent.”) The young man, emerging from the water and able to see the world for the very first time, might have said, “Awesome!” as he galavanted off to start a new life, get a look at his best friend’s face, whatever. Elsewhere in the gospels is the story of ten lepers whom Jesus heals. Nine of them dash off to get their certificate of cleanliness from the nearest priest so they can restart their lives. One of them turns around to thank Jesus - to acknowledge what he has done in achieving his restoration. The newly sighted man leaves the pool to go find the person who did this for him.
He can’t find Jesus (he doesn’t know what he looks like), but the Pharisees find the man. People bring the man to them so he can tell them himself how his sight was enabled. Everybody throws this young man under the bus because they have something to lose in his being healed. His parents are worried about being thrown out of the synagogue if they say anything about this sign accomplished in their son – it might sound like a statement of faith in Jesus, so they set their own son up to tell the truth to the Pharisees and suffer the consequences. The Pharisees try to deny Jesus any legitimacy by calling him a sinner for having performed a “work” on that, the Sabbath. They try to get the young man to proclaim that Jesus is a sinner, and he answers with the simple truth: “I don’t know if he’s a sinner. I don’t know who he is and I can’t find him. I do know that I was blind and now I see.” For this truthfulness he is driven out of his community. It is then that Jesus goes to find him.
The young man methodically, we see, goes through what has happened to him. He analyzes it. He takes it step by step, like a scientist performing a rigorous study. He seems so thoughtful. And in the end he concludes that Jesus is the Messiah and therefore should be worshiped. He starts right away. Meanwhile, all the sighted people in their midst are declared by Christ to be actually blind. Standing among them is the light of the world, and they do not see it. Sadly, they still cling stubbornly to an idea that has plagued religious and cultural communities throughout time – that the suffering of people must be attributable to some moral failing in them or in those around them. We do it still today, when we distance ourselves from people with mental or physical disabilities.
The Pharisees cannot accept that they are blind. Let’s not be like them! If we let Jesus act like a massive flare in our lives, shot into the sky several hundred feet above our heads and lighting up the night sky, what would we see? What would become apparent in that bright light that we do not see in the dark? Or another way to get at this is to consider the words that we will sing together in a few minutes, from the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The man who wrote those words, John Newton, was an English slave trader. Christ, the light of the world, saved him through some amazing grace, and he ended his slave work and became a pastor. He had been blind to the sinfulness of trafficking in human beings; he was blind to his racism, greed, inhumanity, violence, and his inability to see that every human being is made in the image of God. He rationalized away the violence he was doing, the suffering that he could see that he was causing, the brutal system that he was participating in and that was earning him so much money.
His is a particularly gruesome and dramatic turn from blindness to sight thanks to the Light of the World. Is there a blindness you know of in your life that already has been turned to sight? Is there a before and an after that was achieved through God’s amazing grace? Or what is it in your life today that you might recognize as a cause of blindness?
I think that for many in the wealthier world our comfort blinds us to the struggle and sometimes misery of others. We don’t see – or if we do we rationalize away why we should care for - people who live in poverty. We tell ourselves that we simply have made better choices than they have, and that we and they have thus really gotten what we deserve. We deserve material blessings; they don’t. This is called fairness. We let ourselves remain blind to the inherited privileges that have given us a leg up. We let ourselves remain blind to how very hard most poor people are actually working, and at toil we wouldn’t ever want to go near. Underneath our blindness is something akin to John Newton’s – we don’t see other lives as having the same value as our own or those of our families. We don’t see ourselves as participating in a system that provides blessing for us at the literal expense of other lives. We conveniently see these structures and processes as “neutral.” We are blind to inequity and inhumanity. We say that there is a difference between the radically equal spiritual value among all people versus the social or political value between people. Like the Pharisees, parents, and others in our gospel story for today, we have something to lose if we let go of our blindness and permit the Light of the World to give us sight.
When I am honest with myself, I admit to this blindness around my comfort in the world of poverty. I also am blinded to Christ’s light more generally by my lack of a grateful spirit – my deficiency of gratefulness. I think that if I did view the world through the sighted lenses of gratitude that I would be much more aware of God’s grace, of signs and miracles. I would see the hand of God everywhere, and be a much truer and more audacious disciple for it. Another source of blindness for me is likely related to my self-involvement, my consuming focus on myself, my own struggles, my preoccupations, my wants. The real answer to all of this is to grow my faith in the one who is the Light of the World. As the Evangelist John writes at the beginning of his gospel, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Our Lenten journey continues for another three weeks, a time in which we are invited to be especially intentional about letting the Light of the World in to our minds, hearts, souls, and eyes, dispelling all darkness and turning our blindness into sight. I pray that, as John Newton wrote, grace will teach our hearts to love, and grace our fears relieve.