The Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 9:1-41

They are called pericopes: distinct, complete sections or stories from scripture. Usually, they are fairly short and to the point. But not always. And it’s hard to divide a longer pericope into two Sundays. The story would lose some of its power and its meaning. And so, in Year A of our Lectionary, we get these long stories or periscopes – 3 of them – 3 weeks in a row. Last week it was the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Next week, it’s the story of the raising of Lazarus. And this week – today – it’s the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. They’re all wonderful stories.

But I love this one, this periscope, in particular! And I love John for including this story in his gospel. I love this fellow, this character, who was blind and is healed and who cops a pretty indignant attitude toward those religious leaders who before had never offered him help – who believed that his blindness was his own doing, brought about by some personal or family sin – who had always been indignant with him and now seem none too happy about this healing miracle in his life.

Through all of the questioning, through all of the confusion and anger, through all of the abuse aimed at him over his healing, the man with new vision hangs on to his wit and courage and refuses to be jilted out of his miracle.

If asked, he is happy to recount the experience of his healing: “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.”

When he is called before the Council a second time to explain both the healing and the healer, he is apologetic for neither: “You say this Jesus is a sinner,” the man says. “I don’t know about that. All I know is I was blind and now I see.”

“But what did he do to you?” questions the Council. “How did he open your eyes?”

“I have already told you once,” the man answers. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?” And with that, the angered Council drives him away writing him off as one “born entirely in sins,” and, therefore, a completely unreliable witness.

And yet, when he is later confronted by Jesus who asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, his honesty and sincerity, and his openness and willingness, to receive God’s grace (in a new and forgiven life) shines through when he replies, “Who is he, sir. Tell me so that I may believe.”

This man of faith furnishes a stark contrast to a number of others in the story, people who though different can in some ways be lumped together. For one thing, the man born blind is refreshingly un-dogmatic when compared to the disciples who are more interested in such matters as “who sinned, this man or his parents…” than in the gracious possibility of healing his blindness.

Nothing infuriates me more than the fact that there are Christians, ordained ministers, teachers of the faith, who see the afflictions of human beings as being visitations from God.

That AIDS is a punishment from God dealt out to homosexuals, or that a family member is stricken with a debilitating or terminal illness as a way of getting the attention of that person or another family member who “isn’t living right.” It saddens me to think that there are God-fearing, God-loving people who have that image of God, and that view of God’s presence in our lives. So, by comparison with the blind man, the disciples don’t come off so well in this story.

The man born blind also strikes us as being more attractive than his parents, who plainly are more concerned with their synagogue seats than with the wonderful thing that had happened to their son. So much for protective parental instincts. In contrast to his parents, the man is not afraid of ostracism.

But the deepest contrast in the story is the one we are intended to see most clearly: the contrast between the man and the religious officials of his day. These latter are so bound up in their dogma that they actually expel one whose joy they could have – and should have – shared. Thus, they reject one who embodies the very fulfillment of their prophetic tradition. The truth is they are the ones afflicted with blindness, while the blind man is the one who really sees.

So, what accounts for the difference between the healed man and all these others? They live in the same culture. They hold the same basic religious beliefs. But the difference is that the religion of the crowd (including the disciples) makes them often bigoted, fearful, and ultimately cruel regarding the less fortunate. While the religion of the man born blind (because of his condition, and, perhaps, because he has been a target of that cruelty) has made him courageous and open to wonder and to the hope of receiving charity and mercy and grace.

You see, when our religion closes us off from others, when it crams the other into some demeaning category, when it holds its own doctrines as more valuable than the lives of those around us, we have reason to suspect something is wrong – and it is. We are in the wrong religion. A religion born totally out of fear. The kind of fear we feel when we realize that we don’t measure up to perfection, that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.

The kind fear we feel when we see people robbed of health; inexplicably afflicted with disease, starvation, poverty, destruction or loss of life on a massive scale; when we see people denied human and civil rights – excluded, ostracized, abused.

And so we have to come up with a reason for it all, something that makes sense. Something that will explain the inequities of the world, and at the same time relieve our responsibility for doing anything about it. Something that will make us look good, more deserving in the eyes of God, and calm our biggest fear of all: There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Religion is tailor-made for people in the grip of such fears. It promises divine favor in exchange for obedience. It says as long as one behaves, one can expect good things from God. But at the other end of that statement is the implication (and a certain peacefulness) that those who have been befallen by tragedy have somehow gotten what they deserve.

It’s the only way we can work it out and maintain our innocence and our righteousness. And if we get good enough at being “religious,” our turn on the merry-go-round of life will last longer, the harm we do to others in the process is entirely justified, and those who stray from the religious path we have chosen can be dismissed from the community of faith (as either heathens or heretics) without a single thought or question or care.

And so, in this case: driven by the anxiety to get it right, the disciples of Jesus play with vindictive doctrines at the expense of a brother; –Driven by the terror of being expelled from their comfortable pew, the man’s parents throw him to the wolves; Driven by the fear of missing the favor of a somewhat capricious God, the religious leaders of the blind man’s community reject the very evidence of God’s favor.

Fear makes these people prefer being right to being righteous. That is, they prefer their own apparent blamelessness to being in relationship with a rather interesting couple of fellows – the man born blind and the man who heals him.

That is one religion. The other religion is the one that shows up in the formerly blind man. He and the others share the same language, same culture, same backgrounds, same kinships, same religious community. But they have entirely different religions.

For the man born blind knows his place with God. He knows he deserves nothing from God. He knows he is totally dependent on God. He knows humility before God. Therefore, he is open to and accepting of God’s grace and keenly aware of God’s goodness. He may have been blind all his life, but he knows God’s work when he sees it. And he’s not afraid to give praise for it, even if it upsets the carefully deduced scheme of the way things are supposed to be.

One can see the same two religions in today’s churches, perhaps even under the same congregational roof. But is the defense of any theological principle worth condemning another person? When we go at each other tooth and nail over questions of which classes of people are ordainable, over how the Bible is to be regarded, over whether Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth, over which version of the Lord’s Prayer we should use, over how the church’s money is to be spent . . . how is it possible to believe that we are friends of Jesus?

The very disciples in the story—Jesus’ “official” friends—had a more precise notion of Jesus’ true identity than did the man born blind. The man born blind didn’t know the ins and outs of Jesus’ identity, couldn’t even recognize him until Jesus sought him out and told him who he was. All the man knew was that he loved him. “I was blind, but now I see.”

We transfer from the religion of fear to the religion of love when we let our deep fears catch up with us, when we quit ducking them, pretending they’re not there, pretending we’re not afraid.

When we’re ready to admit our own afflictions, our own blindness, our own imperfection and sinfulness, and when we’re ready to call out for mercy, we’ll discover Jesus.

What does it matter how precisely we understand his operations? The important thing is that we open ourselves up to his grace.

His occurrence will change daily, so there’s no sense in clutching our present understandings too tightly. And there’s no sense in opposing others, because there’s mercy enough for us all.

The marks of authentic believers have little to do with what buildings they worship in. Faith has little indeed to do with doctrinal partisanship. And it has surprisingly little to do with being “right.” What distinguishes Jesus’ own people to those still captive by fear is the openness to which we can acknowledge and accept our own sinfulness and God’s mercy and grace.

The one criterion that Jesus laid down for discipleship was not theological correctness. It was the capacity to lay down one’s life for the sake of the gospel.

In other words, on our final day, we won’t be asked how good and untainted we were in this life. We will more likely be asked to show the scars we took on and carried for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ (and our brothers and sisters). To give examples of how we witnessed our love for and commitment to God.

And we won’t be asked if we have found all the difficult answers of our faith, but, rather, we will probably be asked a very simple question: Do you believe in the Son of Man? God help us all to be able to respond as did the blind man healed: “Lord, I believe.”

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.